Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Let's Talk About Colorism (Beyond What Men Think & My Self Esteem)


Occasionally, the topic takes center stage in Black discourse. Usually spurred by a documentary or TV show. Recently, we've had the Dark Girls documentary and Oprah's Lifeclass. I've watched both of these shows. Both seem to be centered on how horrible it is to be dark and ugly and unwanted by men (these three things always go together!) and how dark Black girls just need to get over it and find her self esteem in spite of this.

Love yourself, girl! Then maybe others will love you and if they don't? Who cares!

As an actual real life, breathing in the flesh dark girl I have been very dissatisfied by the conversations I see around colorism. Colorism is about more than beauty politics. It is about more than women and it's silly and heteronormative to constantly speak on the topic from the vantage point of what random men claim to find attractive.

Colorism, like racism, is systematic and institutionalized. It privileges light skinned people of color over dark skinned people of color. Although the logic of colorism differs depending on the ethnic and racial community, for Black Americans it derives from slavery. During slavery and ever since, light skinned Black people have been privileged because aesthetically they are closer to whiteness. The idea is that this is due to miscegenation (i.e. the pervasive sexual abuse of Black women).

Today discussions of colorism are almost exclusively centered on the low self esteem and self-hate of dark skinned women. This discourse is so normalized that not many people question how ridiculous the framing of this issue is. It's like talking about racism or white supremacy and only focusing on how Black people sometimes feel bad about being Black.

Speaking about racism in those terms would be considered dis-empowering and fallacious in that it would not tell the full story: which would necessitate discussions about privilege and institutionalized oppression. But it's totally okay to speak about colorism in those terms.

Except it's not.

Low self esteem is definitely a real issue caused by colorism. But if we ever hope to honestly address colorism the conversation must extend beyond that.

Let's talk about how dark skinned people receive longer prison sentences than light skinned people. Or how I am more likely to be followed around a store than a lighter skinned Black person. Or how I am less likely to get hired. Or how it's harder for me to find women who look like me represented in the media. How crime and violence are more readily associated with dark skinned people than light skinned people.

All of these things might very well impact my self-esteem. But if my assumed self esteem is all we talk about then what's the point? It's like talking about the famous Doll Test and leaving the discussion at "Wow, it's terrible those Black kids prefer the white doll. They should get over that!"

Most conversations about colorism are disappointingly basic. It is always the "I feel fine about being dark!" Black girls versus the "I hate my dark skin color" Black girls. Those are our options when it comes to addressing colorism and of course both sides are problematic.

It is dismissive when dark women claim to not care about their skin color and mock other dark women for not feeling the same way. And it is stigmatizing and insulting to insist that all dark girls must need to get over their hatred for their skin color. Because that is taking a societal standard of "light is right" and claiming that it is pervasive in all of our individual lives.

Light skin privilege is rarely a point of discussion even though talking about that would lead us to the real crux of the issue. My feelings about my dark skin are less important than the structural violence I am vulnerable to because of it.

But instead of focusing on this when we're not talking about whether we as dark women hate our own skin complexion we're bringing in random men to say whether or not they would date a dark woman. As if this is at all relevant.

This has got to stop. Patriarchy teaches us that all women care about pleasing all men as a collective. Patriarchy teaches that women are supposed to please the quintessential man: the men who embody hegemonic masculinity. But this is sexism. Let's not capitulate to sexism to discuss another -ism. That's very counterproductive.

And outside of the sexism, this way of framing colorism ignores the plight of dark skinned men. Colorism plays out for dark men in terms of economics, the legal system, and many other factors. It is a myth that it only impacts women.

I hope that our conversations about colorism can extend beyond how ugly and undesired I apparently am on account of my skin color and how I need to get over it and move into seriously considering light skin privilege and institutional oppression. It is not as media friendly as pondering on how many men want to date me, but it would be a more worthwhile conversation.


  1. Hi Danielle. Again thank you for this insightful article. As a dark-skinned African woman, I "live" colourism pratically every single day of my life. You mentioned issues around being "dark" in the USA, and I would like to add that the same applies where I currently live, South Africa. Being dark goes beyond the problem of self-esteem though it is an issue that cannot be ignored, but what about all the "unspoken" social injustices around being dark-skinned? No one talks about it much and people prefer talking about the more "superficial" problems that colourism brings. I would love to interview you more on this topic. Can you please send me an email on

    I have shared the link to this article on my blog for my readers:

  2. Hello Danielle,
    like Stella Mpisi, I'd really appreciate talking to you about this topic. I'm a high school student and am currently writing a paper concerning colorism, and I'd really appreciate having the opportunity to ask you some questions. Would you like to help me? Please contact me at if you're willing.

  3. I am searching how to improve self-esteem. It is important for all people. I have read your article. I think there are some important information about this. Thanks for great sharing.