The other day my co-editor Mike and I went over to check out “Color without Complex” a talk given by Dr. Yaba Blay and Michaela Angela Davis over at the NYU building here in DC. The room was full of beautiful sisters and brothers and we had a really engaging conversation about colorism and skin color politics.
The discussion got me thinking; is it easier for light-skin black folks to be “black and proud”? Or, to put it another way, does light skin and/or white skin make anti-racist messages more palatable to mainstream America? Before I get into that let me back up a little.
Dr. Blay taught at Lafayette College (my alma mater) while I was there. I never had the privilege to take one of her classes, but a lot of my friends did. I’d seen her around campus, this beautiful dark-skinned woman who could own any room she walked into without even saying a word. And when she did speak, us young kids were in awe at how she could give language to what we felt and experienced.
My black friends were connecting with this amazing woman, but I wasn’t. I felt left out. Now, let’s not get it twisted. I am a proud, afrocentric black woman. But I am also so light-skinned that if I got a perm and kept my mouth shut I could probably pass. This comes with a set of privileges. However, for young Cara, it also came with a lot of self-doubt. When I saw my beautiful brown brothers and sisters talking on race with Dr. Blay I kept quiet. Why? Because I didn’t feel like I would be perceived as being black enough to have anything to add. In my mind, Dr. Blay looked at me and saw a stuck-up light-skin girl. And, because I was young, I was too intimidated to challenge that.
Dr. Blay actually addressed this very issue during the “Color Without Complex” talk. She said that when she was younger, she did have that attitude toward some light-skin black women. She then told a story about how she started to open up to us more. In fact, she has an amazing book out right now that talks about and celebrates the variations of blackness that can be seen us sisters. It’s called The One Drop Rule, cop that!
The other speaker, Michaela Angela Davis, is a light-skin sister like me. She rocks a gorgeous fro and you can hear the black DC culture in the way she speaks. She is also an outspoken black feminist. I think what impressed me the most was that she didn’t shy away from speaking on black issues because of her color. In fact, she spoke about using her color privilege as leverage to help our darker skinned sisters enter conversations that are typically closed to them.
Lighter skin is more accepted in society. Our “proximity to whiteness”, as Davis calls it, lends us credibility in a world where black women are viewed as angry, dangerous and self-pitying. Light skin folks can operate in white spaces more safely, and sometimes, even invisibly. Think of it this way; Macklemore is a straight white man who made a hit single and called “Same Love” — something that queer artists have been singing about for a long time.
Why aren’t the queer artists getting recognized? Because the message is more palatable when it comes from a straight white mouth. So does light skin and/or white skin make anti-racist messages more palatable to mainstream America? I suspect that it does.
So, should the light-skin ladies shut up and let the dark skin ladies talk? Well, yes and no. Dr. Blay also has a project called Pretty. Period. which celebrates brown skin beauty. She mentioned in the talk that some light skin women were upset about being excluded and made comments like, “what if I made a page about light-skin beauty?” Well honey, that’s every other beauty image out there in the media. Calm down. This is really not about you. I say that to say us light skin ladies need to understand and respect the fact that dark-skin ladies have a different experience and need spaces where they can practice self-love and celebrate who they are. We need to support those spaces as their sisters. This is a “shut up and let the dark skin ladies talk” moment.
But don’t get me twisted. I’m not saying that light-skinned sisters don’t have a place in the anti-racist dialogue. If I thought that I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this. We all need to speak up and act out in order to put a stop to the injustices that people of color face. The best way to do that is to act in loving solidarity with each other.