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So I was at an academic dinner last night and ended up in a long conversation about Beyonce's three performances of her "Run the World (Girls)" single: the video, the Billboard Awards, and the Oprah show. Since a computer is always nearby, we pulled up all three (along with Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" video–more on that later). The conversation reflected a serious generation gap (lots of "Why can't she cover up" type of talk) but was engaging all around….
Until a colleague of mine, peering over my shoulder at the "Run the World (Girls)" video, tilted her head and asked me, "So is Beyonce saying sexy, light-skinned, long-haired women run the world?"
Well, well. Remember this image?
This crowd of light-skinned, ambiguously ethnic women in garter belts (love) and multi-colored dresses facing down a crowd of dark-skinned, ambiguously African men with guns?
Yes, I mentioned it in my post on Beyonce. But I was so busy being mad about war and empire that I didn't think to expand on it. Or connect it with power and running the world
Even when the Octopus hit me up on my Facebook wall with this trailer/short preview of Bradinn French's new documentary Dark Skin…
…I didn't make the jump. And I blame my own color privilege for that.
- In most situations where I am with other people of color, white people will try to communicate with me first.
- I am more likely to appear in the media, especially if my skin affords me the designation "omniracial." (Hello, Beyonce.)
- People will think I am pretty. full stop.
- I am more likely to get a promotion than my darker skinned counter parts.
- I can write blog pieces about my skin color and not reflect on the privileges that are associated with it. (Wallace Thurman notwithstanding, literature, films, blogs are littered with primary and secondary textual analysis of the meanings of light skinnededness.)
(I clearly failed at the last. And the first is just…well…#pow)
And Alicia Gill, a visibly black but not "dark" boricua blogger wrote this about being teased by dark-skinned classmates and having to put it in a larger perspective:
our stories are so filled with pains. my pain of wanting to be accepted, by the people i desperately needed as cohorts in a racist classroom, school, and world, and i imagine, their pain, of never being seen as "as pretty as" or "as smart as" me- even though I was being tokenized, and experiencing painful racism myself. They were feeling all of these things, whether i wanted them to experience them or not. but that's the nature of privilege. i sure wish it wasn't their experience, but it was, and i own that. i knew that their putting gum in my hair was not about their personal hatred for me. it was about their hearts being fed up and filled with hurt, at a system that constantly reinforces my type of beauty over theirs. even at a such a young age. we've all seen the doll tests, and color chart tests, where little black girls choose white dolls to have all of the positive attributes [smart, pretty, kind] and the black dolls have all of the negative ones [dumb, mean, ugly]. i think we should be acknowledging and holding that pain and desperation. these are ten year old girls, who have already gotten the message that lighter skinned girls are a threat, because they are perceived as better than you. these are ten year old girls who have already gotten these messages from somewhere.
But to consider it in context with Bey's video, and my own brush off of the same ,just brought it full circle for me.
Because color is privilege in the United States and, I'd argue, around the world. We don't like to think about it that way because for so long, U.S. institutions based their discrimination solely on race and one-drop rules. Anyone of African descent, regardless of skin color, was stuck drinking from the "colored" water fountain. And now that laws have moved oppression into less visible spheres, we like to talk about class discrimination. Or gender.
Sometimes we do have conversations about paper bag tests and "house slaves" (a myth I plan to debunk in a future post), and black sorority rivalries, but these are conversations that happen within the community. It really isn't in our national memory or imagination to have a conversation about mainstream, institutionalized color privilege.
For example, once upon a time, the slaves most likely to be freed were the female consorts (consensual or not) of slaveowners and their mixed-race children. Rule of thumb across the Atlantic world. And freedom meant that you owned your labor. And owning your labor meant that you got to keep what you made, build wealth, buy land, enter into contracts, own slaves if you wanted, and pass on anything you built to your (also free) children. And your (free) children could also build on what you created by buying more land, owning more slaves, expanding business, etc. etc. etc.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of black people across the United States were…well, slaves. Who didn't own their own bodies, much less their own labor. And who built things, and created and ran businesses even–but whose work was integrated into the inheritance of their master and his or her children. You could create it and know that you owned it but it would never be recognized as yours and you would never be the author and whenever you or your children got free you would always, always, always have to start damn near from scratch (at least in comparison to what your labor created).
"Weeding Rice Field, U.S. South, 19th cent.," Charles C. Coffin, Building the Nation (New York, 1883), p. 76 as shown on www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.
It should come as no surprise that the oldest and deepest pockets of black wealth across the country have historically been centers of free black life during the period of slavery–the DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia), New Orleans and its Mexican and Californian diaspora, South Carolina's Atlantic coast, New York City, the Boston-Martha's Vineyard circuit…..
It should also come as no surprise that these have also been home to some of the lighter complected of our race.
I love my color. But if color is capital, my nut brown self is privileged and middle-class. In fact, I can actually claim real estate in the Exotica subdivision of color privilege because I'm a proud boricuan Nuñez Daughter. Yay for me.
Because it is draining to have to fight through assumptions of them and of myself, and as a woman to learn to balance my own wholeness against the same. It is draining to navigate a family where color and ethnicity range widely–as all families these days do. And because we didn't talk about, because no one ever really talks about it, like most women, I grew up with it and saw firsthand the damage it did to other women, to men, and was damaged by it myself. The lighter girls were "pretty" and got stuff but they were also hyper-sexualized at younger ages. The darker girls were "ugly" and usually end up in trouble and almost never had public boyfriends. And I'm not saying this applies to everyone-everywhere. There are individual differences. But the overlapping layers of power are there.
And because it is so personal, we end up in individual stories of the impact of colorism instead of expanding beyond and considering how assumptions about light and dark are fundamentally impacting access to education, employment, profession development opportunities and more. If we don't own that privilege then we can't begin to fight to unravel it.
This documentary looks like a really important way to continue the conversation. What do you think?
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