Sometimes Being Black Just Isn't Black Enough

The Girl and The Bieb
The first week of third grade was an interesting one for The Girl because she was at a new school in a new city. Up until then, she’d been the golden child of a teeny, tiny Christian elementary school in Baltimore.
The neighborhood was rough — they shot episodes of The Wire on the same block, if that gives you any idea — but inside the school, the students were safe and loved. It was a nurturing environment, and far as I ever knew, none of the kids even teased one another. So she spent K-2 feeling comfortable in her her-ness.

D.C., alas, was different. By the time she wrapped up those first five days, she had already been razzed about, of all things, being light-skinned.

“Mommy, am I half?” she asked me in the car.

“Half what?” I asked, genuinely confused.

“I don’t know. The kids at school just keep asking me if I’m half.”


Oh boy, I sighed after I caught on. Here we go. Color struck folks are still alive and kickin’, and even worse, they’re having kids and passing their hang-ups on to the poor babies.

First of all, there’s nothing about her (or me, the parent who handed her her complexion) that even hints at being biracial, multiracial, or anything but black. Her features, from her hair to her shape, are inherently and genetically African. It just so happens that her mom and my mom and her mom before have all been a lighter shade of brown. Secondly, she wasn’t even the lightest child in her all-black class, so I couldn’t wrap my mind around the confusion, even from the perspective of a bunch of little kids.
But D.C., like a lot of areas below the Mason-Dixon line, is big on color. My first time ever being called “high yellow” was walking down a block in the northwest part of the city. That was followed by a string of comments over the years about being redbone and light-bright, which are, in case you’ve never heard of them, terms used to apply to lighter-skinned black folks.

I’ve always hated it. Always. Hated. It. I can’t stand the divisiveness or the way my community continues to perpetuate and levy our complexions against one another when, to the rest of the world, we just black. Plain ol’ regular, everyday black, whether you’re cinnamon-colored or deep, rich chocolate. The complex stems from the enslavement period when lighter folks were sometimes given preferential treatment and cushier responsibilities. But this is 2011. And even though the residuals of those centuries run deep, I need this color fascination to be first on the list of things we finally get over. Quick, fast, and in a hurry. 

I raised my child to love her skin color, not because of the shade it is but because of the heritage behind it. No one in my family has ever subscribed to a superiority mindset. Heck, it’s not even something we actively think about. But looks like, despite my fiery pride, too many years of living around all this cheerleading and complimenting off the strength of her complexion has gone to The Girl’s head.

Her godmother and I walked past her dry erase board a few weeks ago, paused, and backed up for a double-take. “Team Lightskinned” was inked in big block letters (along with Team Libra, her sign, and Team Barbie in honor of her fanaticism for Nicki Minaj, even though she’s restricted from most of her stuff). We were both livid. Of all the things you could be enthusiastic about, even braggy if you want to, why in the world would it be about your skin tone? Yeah, she set herself up for a nice, long lecture that day.

I feel bad for kids who have to contend with the hullabaloo about their complexion or the texture of their hair or anything else related to what they’re supposed to be or do according to race standards. When I was young, I used to get the business for “talking proper,” meaning, according to those observant peers who were calling me out on the carpet, I sounded like a white girl. (Shout out to Shada and Tammy! You guys, like, totally stick out in my memory.) So whether it’s about how you look or how you sound, we sure do have a rote list of stipulations about what makes somebody black enough.

Other cultures deal with it too — Latinos, Filipinos, Persians, and Indians come immediately to mind — but I guess it’s pie-in-the-sky thinking to hope that somewhere down the line, we’ll just appreciate the skin we’re in. Period.

Has colorism affected your or your child’s life? 

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