Two men in a burning house must not stop to argue – African Proverb
For the purposes of this article I will be talking about light skin privilege in relation to mixed race people with light skin who have both black and white heritage. I’ve read a lot of articles now on light-skinned privilege. It’s fairly common to come across them in good feminist communities whether they are predominantly black or white, or any other racial group.
So, just what is light-skinned privilege? It’s probably easier to explain it by talking about shadism (or colourism as it’s called in the U.S), which is understood as a form of oppression darker-skinned women face. Shadism affects all communities of colour throughout the world to some degree and is the prejudice and discrimination amongst people of colour based on skin tone. There are many preconceived ideas about people with darker skin which are largely negative (such as being dangerous, less intelligent and less beautiful than people with lighter skin). Conversely people of colour with lighter skin, because of their proximity to a white skin tone, are more likely to be viewed in a positive light (innocent, desirable, capable and so on). I find it hard to imagine anyone saying light-skinned privilege isn’t real and that it’s not a serious problem in and affecting communities of colour. I know that I, as a mixed race women with a light skin tone, do have some privileges because of my skin colour. This article in no way contests light-skinned privilege. I accept it as a fact.
So why do I think that a topic which seems so straightforward, is complicated? It all seems pretty simple right? Well the first issue is how do we assess who benefits from light-skinned privilege? Where is the point of distinction between what is considered light skin and dark skin? While I’m pretty sure where I fall most of the time, it may well be less clear for some other people of colour. I went to a conference last year on the topic of shadism in Birmingham, UK and one of the things all the people of colour in the room were asked to do, was to arrange ourselves in a line from darkest to lightest skin tone. This caused anxieties for people on both ends of the spectrum. It reminded some people of being made to feel that they were ‘too dark’ and also reminded some people of being made to feel they were ‘not black enough’. One of the things that stayed with me was that one participant reflecting on the experience said,
‘Actually I’ve done this activity before in my life. Today I’m in the middle of the line and was viewed as having quite light skin, but last time I did this task I was more towards the darker-skinned end of the line.’
This made me realise two things. One is that your skin complexion, in terms of lightness or darkness, is relative to who you are being compared against. The second thing is that whether you are considered to have light or dark skin is judged for you externally. You don’t get to decide this for yourself. It depends on who is looking at you and how they wish to define you in that moment. One person could look at a man and think he has light skin, another person could look at him and say he has dark skin. What I’m trying to highlight here is that light-skin privilege for some people, isn’t stable. Which leads on to my next point…
Light-skinned privilege is often spoken about as though it is the same as white privilege. In fact some people even say that people of colour with lighter skin have white privilege. There are a lot reasons why I feel it’s definitely not ok to compare light-skinned privilege to white privilege. I personally experience this as incredibly offensive.
For one thing, as I highlighted above, light-skinned privilege is not fixed and straightforward for many people. It is also extremely complicated to discuss the racial privileges of a group when that group also faces racial oppression. Unlike mixed race people, white people don’t face any racial disadvantages. Light-skinned privilege, even for people like myself who know exactly where they fall on the skin tone spectrum, is not constant. People with lighter skin can and do still face racism. The mistake that many people make when they talk about light-skinned privilege, is to think that it is a continuous buffer against racism and racial stereotypes, and that it is a constant source of advantage for light-skinned people. It isn’t. Whereas white privilege will pretty much always racially benefit a white person, light-skinned privilege will not always shield mixed race people from discrimination. Light-skinned privilege also often comes with the expense of denying your connection to blackness and therefore the compromising of the self in psychologically harmful ways. It does not support a mixed race person in having a sense of a whole identity and this is important for mental health and well-being.
Another thing that complicates the matter of light-skinned privilege is that race is not communicated through skin tone alone. People pick up on race through hair, facial features, voice, mannerisms and people’s personal choices. For people who have light skin, a broad nose and an afro they may well be more likely to encounter racism and a lack of privilege than someone with light-skin, a straight nose and loosely curly hair. This obviously doesn’t change the fact that light-skinned privilege is real, but again it highlights that it’s complicated in a way that white privilege isn’t.
It’s also important to acknowledge that light-skinned privilege is only part of the picture for mixed race people. It’s not the whole picture but we are constantly treated like it is. As a mixed race person with light-skinned privilege I am reminded of it all the time, particularly in communities of colour. Mixed race perspectives are often only used in black communities when they directly highlight something about what is commonly understood as the ‘black’ experience. Issues that are more unique to mixed race people on the other hand are often ignored. Therefore what you end up with is half of a conversation and what starts to feel like an oppressive experience for mixed race people, because their voices are being marginalized. This marginalization often occurs because mixed race people are only seen in terms of light-skinned privilege. Therefore reminding mixed race people constantly of their light-skinned privilege during discussions on race becomes an effective silencing technique. This is why I and some others start to balk at the light-skinned privilege talk. Not because it isn’t real but because it’s frequently the only conversation that is taking place in connection to mixed race identity and it’s a very exclusive and one-way conversation. It effectively erases mixed race perspectives on, and experiences of oppression.
Mixed race people with lighter skin face racial oppression by the very nature of being mixed race which is something that gets very little acknowledgement from both black and white people. Both black and white people are guilty of projecting their own idealistic fantasies of mixed race people’s lives on to us without paying much attention to our own lived experiences, which are in reality frequently very complex. Mixed race people experience monoracism and anti-multiculturalism which you can read more about here in my article on monoracial privilege.
If encouraging unity means talking about the issues which divide people in communities of colour such as shadism, then this must also include discussing monoracial privilege. We also need to start acknowledging how shadism hurts people with light skin. I’m not saying this is as bad as how shadism affects people with darker skin, but that doesn’t mean we get to dismiss it either. Light skinned people face stereotypes and hostility within the black community based on skin colour. While we should definitely talk regularly about shadism, without also facilitating discussions of the oppressions mixed race people face, we are painting a picture that mixed race people get an easy ride which is damaging to mixed race people. I think it only encourages hostility and infighting to ignore the experiences of light-skinned people in communities of colour. It doesn’t create dialogue. It creates a monologue. No relationship on the planet can thrive if the expectation is that empathy, learning and understanding only function in one direction.
At the conference that I went to on shadism a real sense of unity was created between all people of colour because all perspectives were heard and valued. I really believe this is the only way to create unity between people of colour.
Just as I was writing this article I googled some lists of examples of light-skinned privilege. What I want to highlight here is that some of the ‘privileges’ that are thrown at light-skinned mixed race people are really not fair and in some cases downright offensive. They are often described from a point of view where people with light-skinned privilege are automatically assumed to be blissfully unaware of shadism, inherently anti-black and completely self-loathing. They commonly also express a lack of awareness about mixed race issues. Talk to me about things like light-skinned people being more likely to get jobs or get shorter prison sentences, but please get rid of conversations on (or at least acknowledge the complexity of) some privileges such as the following;
You are a symbol of post-racism
This is not a privilege! When mixed race people are constantly pegged as the face of post-racism or here to end colourism and racism this is actually a real burden. Expecting one race to unpick white supremacy for everyone is oppressive and completely unrealistic. It also erases the fact that it’s actually very common for mixed race people with lighter skin to still experience racism.
You are assumed to be neutral on the topic of race
I am in no way neutral on the topic of race and I don’t want people to assume I am either. The assumption that I have no opinion on the topic of race actually just means that I am exposed to a lot of racism and constantly have to deliberate whether it’s safe and worth it for me to speak up. It feels like a form of erasure. Having your identity denied is in no way a privilege.
You are the standard of beauty in communities of colour
This also leads to me being stereotyped as ‘stuck up’ and ‘superior’, rejected at times in female black communities and racially fetishized by men of different races. I don’t personally want someone to think I’m beautiful just because of my skin tone and my proximity to whiteness. It’s insulting to my black identity.
While I’d still agree I get beauty privilege and this can lead to greater visibility and potentially economic power there is no denying that this privilege comes with an ugly and negative side, especially when you consider mixed race people lack mixed race communities and struggle in connection with issues of genuine acceptance and belonging. This leaves us particularly vulnerable to issues like racial fetishisation and hostility in the black community.
You get to be called black based on the one drop rule
Actually a lot of mixed race people, myself included feel pressurised to identify as black. I’d personally prefer it if people didn’t insist I should identify as and be black, and just accepted that I am mixed race. There are a lot of other mixed race people who feel the same.
You get people telling you your light skin is better than dark skin
Erm loads of people in my family are black. If someone says this to me they have just insulted literally half of my family and me too by implying the black part of my identity is inferior.
Your skin colour is valued by black people who hate their own skin colour and want light-skinned children with you
This is a privilege?!? Who are you kidding? I don’t want this guy. He hates himself and he hates some of my heritage too. How on earth am I supposed to be happy with this person?
We also need to start asking more questions about how the benefits of light-skinned privilege are measured. I haven’t come across any evidence in the UK that light-skinned mixed race people are more privileged economically or socially than black people. It’s often said that in the US light-skinned mixed race people hold more social and economic power than black people. This may well be true but how do we know this? I would imagine in terms of statistics in the US it must be quite hard to track how well mixed race people do socially and economically compared to black people because the statistics must be a real mess due to the fact that many mixed race people actually identify as black. I’d argue looking at comparisons is necessary, not to work out who faces the most oppression, but so that it starts to be more widely acknowledged that mixed race people DO in fact face oppression.
It’s time to start acknowledging that both black and mixed race people are victims of white supremacy and the only way to beat it is to share our knowledge, join forces and thereby become more powerful, not squabble over who has the better deal. In my opinion we are ALL getting screwed over and we will continue to do so until we start empathising and caring for each other in better ways.
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