The quickest way to get on my last good nerve is to cast colorism—a systemic problem—as simply an interpersonal matter. So you can imagine how irritable I’ve been since I discovered the #teamlightskin, #teamdarkskinned and #teambrownskin memes on Twitter. For the uninitiated, since about January a couple thousand tweeps have been using these hashtags to express their complexion-based pride, alliances, sexual desires and anxieties in 140 words or less. A sampling from the last couple of days:
“Being a light skin tone has its many advantages #TeamLightSkin.”
“#nothingsmoreirritating than the blackest girl on twitter tweetin #teamlightskin confidently!”
“So would I be considered #TeamDarkskin or #TeamBrownSkin ? I’ve never really knew. LOl”
“If u darkskin I can’t wife u only light skin girls #Teamlightskin date #Teamlightskin not no light and dark”
“#TeamLightSkin but sun gone have us dark at the end of the summer lol :/”
“Do yall really take a look at how dark kenyans are? They make me not want to even rep #TeamDarkskin”
“#honestyhour I think all women r beautiful but im more attracted to #teamdarkskin but dey evil women thou lol.”
In a vacuum, online randoms reveling in their internalized oppression would have about as much impact as those “Dark Skin vs. Light Skin” club nights that pop up every so often. They’d simply confirm what most of us already know from our everyday lives: There’s a color caste system in place that serves to divide, conquer and make asses out of people of color, especially those who consciously and proudly perpetuate it.
But colorism-as-personal-preference isn’t limited to Twitter or da club. The explosive, widely circulated trailer for film director Bill Duke’s “Dark Girls” documentary was also framed this way. Over nine-plus minutes accompanied by somber music, the preview delivers dark-skinned woman after dark-skinned woman reciting the pain and humiliation she’s suffered at the hands of schoolyard bullies and colorstruck mothers, romantic partners and friends. The trailer also includes a black man straight out of Colorist Central Casting who announces that he only wants a light-skinned woman on his scrawny arm, and the inevitable “revelation” that white people tend to compliment smooth brown skin while “our own people” hate it. The analysis is limited to an unidentified light-skinned woman citing the antebellum chestnut of “house slave vs. field slave” and a quick, devastating replication of Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll test.
Of course I’m not suggesting that colorism doesn’t hurt, bone deep. I still look at brown paper bags sideways, and all they do is carry my groceries. I also think it can be healthy for us to express and confront it publicly. But in summer 2011, I’m craving something more than, “Hey, this exists! And it’s really, really bad! And we bring it on ourselves.”
Recently a powerful tool for analysis—really a breakthrough, in my opinion—came in the form of a sociological study, “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders.” I suspect that because it’s academic—you have to buy it to read the whole thing—and because it’s wonky as hell, this Villanova University study didn’t receive a quarter of the attention idiotic party promoters, tweeps and rappers like Yung “Dark Butts” Berg do when they floss their color bias.
But the key finding in this study of more than 12,000 black women imprisoned in North Carolina between 1995 and 2009 is that those who were classified as light skinned by one or more corrections officers during intake served 12 percent less time than dark skinned prisoners. Along with height, weight, build, hair and eye color, there’s literally a color code—0 for non-light skin and 1 for light skin. (And lest you think light-skinned women prisoners in the study committed less serious crimes than their dark-skinned sistren, the study controlled for crucial factors including type of arrest, previous record, recidivism and prison behavioral record.)
I hope more academics do studies like this one. Until we can really see the systemic impact, we’re going to keep trotting out our personal pain to deaf ears. And, black women, we’re going to keep upholding the pecking order of a romantic marketplace that amplifies the voices of heterosexual black men who callously, publicly undervalue women of all complexions for sport. Like somebody really asked them.
But I digress. The color complex is bigger than slurs and slights. There’s fresh data to back that up. Let’s talk about that.