Colorlines Q&A: Yaba Blay on Colorism, Racial Identity and Her Book ‘One Drop’

By Ayana Byrd Feb 12, 2021

Anyone with an Instagram account has likely scrolled past the work of scholar-activist Yaba Blay. She’s the person behind Pretty, Period (a visual testament to the beauty of brown-skinned women) and Professional Black Girl (self-described as “a multi-platform digital community that celebrates the everyday, round-the-way culture of Black women and girls”). Blay’s most recent digital project was an all-day virtual celebration—complete with a DJ set, essays and an ode to her boot collection—for Mary J. Blige’s 50th birthday.

But on February 16, the expert of colorism and beauty politics is taking over a different medium with the re-release of her book "One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race" (Beacon Press). Originally self-published in 2013, the coffee table book showcases 58 people and how they racially identify, and takes a look into if those who have “one drop of Black blood” see themselves as Black. Grounded in other’s stories, the book asks all of us to question our own assumptions about what makes someone Black—and why these definitions are so rigidly important to us.

Here, on the eve of her soon-to-launch virtual book tour, Blay opens up on the book’s origin, the power of social media and why the history of whiteness is fundamental to understanding race.

Before One Drop, your academic research was on colorism. What led to this new focus?

Yes, my work and research does focus on colorism and skin-color politics. And much of my interest and commitment to that work has come from my own lived experience, growing up dark skin, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrant parents in New Orleans, which is a place whose history is wrought with colorism. I knew very early on that I was dark skin and it very much shaped my life, it shaped my own perception of myself and it was something that I was both personally and professionally interested in digging into.

For the most part, when we talk about colorism, we talk about the hierarchical perceptions of value based upon skin tone and the prejudicial treatment that comes with it. And so it’s pretty one-directional, right? We talk about the disadvantages that come with having dark skin. We talk about the advantages that come with having light skin in this racialized society.

Ten years ago when I first came up with this idea, its subtitle was ‘The Other Side of Blackness’. "One Drop" was about me literally trying to dig into the other side of Blackness.

Why was that an area you wanted to explore?

There were a number of things that happened. One was being on a panel with [political commentator and activist] Rosa Clemente, talking about Black identity across the diaspora. I was in my early thirties and as much as I thought I knew about colorism and Black cultural experiences, it was the first time I had ever heard someone identify like Rosa did. She said, without hesitation, without blinking an eye, "My name is Rosa Clemente and I’m a Black Puerto Rican woman from the South Bronx." I knew that folks who are of Latinx heritage have African ancestry, but this was the first time that I myself heard anyone claim it. It got me thinking, to the point where I was distracted on the panel. And I was like, "I have to do something with this."

Why a book?

At the time, I was envisioning One Drop to be a digital project. I knew it was visual, so my original thoughts focused on setting up a website, and perhaps even a forum where folks could have conversations.

It was through sharing on Facebook—which is how I found many of the contributors—that I got connected with producers for CNN. They invited me down to Atlanta where I did a video series for CNN’s website and they had me write a couple of op-eds. Then there was a live interview with Don Lemon on CNN Newsroom. Soledad O’Brien saw it and thought it would be great as the content for their final installation of Black In America. I was asked to be a co-producer on the docuseries.         

While all this is happening, I had established a One Drop Facebook page. I got approached by a literary agent who thought that this would be great as a book. So I did a book proposal, and she felt very confidently that we’d be able to get a deal.  When she went to market, no one picked it up. I mean, there was a lot of interest expressed, but a lot of the hesitation had to do with money. There were questions like, can we do it without pictures? Or can we do it with black-and-white pictures? I’m like, "No, this is a conversation not just about race, but about skin color. You have to be able to see people’s skin tones in order to have those conversations.”

After what felt like forever and not getting any positive response, I chose to self-publish. It was absolutely a blow to the ego at the time, but I felt very confident that it needed to be out in a particular way for those folks who aren’t on social. Also, I love coffee table books.

Each contributor’s photo is accompanied by a personal essay. Why did you decide to use their own words on how they racially identify, instead of taking their interviews and quoting it in text you’d written? 

I’m a qualitative researcher. My work is very much informed by what I would call anthropological methodologies. And I am a fan of phenomenology, the [philosophy] that perspective is the only reality. With qualitative research, we get people’s stories—and if we understand their perspective as the only reality, then we’re able to ultimately construct and understand their reality.

I’ve also always been very much aware that perspective creates our reality. So although I had particular experiences growing up in New Orleans dark-skinned, I also have to recognize that that is but one experience. There is a multitude of experiences even within the phenomenon of colorism.

Had I filtered everyone’s words through my lens, I could have very easily read their stories, heard their stories, and then written their stories through the lens of someone who was always, or at least felt like, I was largely rejected by folks who looked a particular way.

One Drop’s introduction was written by you and chronologically charts the history of the “one-drop rule.” Why was this the necessary context to give before the photographs?  

It was important to me that the introduction ground people in a particular history of race. And really the history of race is a history of whiteness, of understanding how white people constructed their identities in a way that justifies [their] power and right to have power over everyone else. A history of whiteness explains the ways that it is defined, put on a throne, defined using the language of “pure”—and how it’s used to define other races in relationship to whiteness.

If you really want to understand the lived experiences, the conditions of “people of color” then you have to understand the grounds upon which whiteness was founded.

Much of the work that you’ve done since One Drop has been on social media. Why did you decide to lean into that as a platform, as opposed to another book, a documentary, or some other medium?

The academy wasn’t a particularly affirming space for my work. We were allowed to, of course, select whatever our focus is. But the filter of the academy is that you’ve got to publish on certain presses. You’ve got to publish in these certain journals. You’ve got to go to certain conferences. No shade to the academy, we need it, but my work is for and about Black people. My work is for and about Black women. I know who is at the conferences I’ve attended, and I can only assume the people who read the journals I would be publishing in aren’t who I actually do this work for. So unless the journal I’m publishing in is Essence magazine, how are Black women going to see this work and be impacted by it?

Social media provides the evidence that the work is actually reaching the folks. Not to say they have to love it. But just to say you see it. You’re open to the conversation.