Maggie Lily

Editorial Writing

Colorism: The Parasite We Invite

Enemies Among US

Not too long ago I saw the documentary film The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, directed by Stanley Nelson Jr., in Philly at the Ritz Theater. The film truly exposed the unrelenting evil of Hoover and the FBI as they worked to dissolve, or rather destroy, the Black Panthers and by extension, the black community.

This is how we view enemies of the black community — overfed, pompous, old white men who profit off our struggle and our pain. But war is never this black and white. Our enemies are never so easy to define.

Our Enemy is Colorism

What is colorism, and why does this conversation matter?

Colorism is “prejudiced attitudes and/or discriminatory acts against people based on the color of their skin” (Colorism Healing). This should not be confused with racism which is “prejudiced attitudes and/or discriminatory acts against people based on their actual or perceived racial status” (CH). The website and organization Colorism Healing was one of the profound gems I discovered in my research. If you need to learn or understand more about the difference between racism and colorism I would suggest taking a look at their website.

According to the research of the Association of Black Psychologists, Colorism can impact self-esteem, perceptions of beauty, economic opportunity, education, and risky behaviors, just to name a few.

It’s not just a “dark girl issue.” The Association of Black Psychologists found that in “A study that examined skin color in the lives of 123 African American adolescents (aged 11–19 years) found complexion to be related to self-esteem, but the study also brought additional complexity to the issue. Students who self-reported as ‘lighter’ or ‘darker’ had lower levels of satisfaction with their skin color than did students whose skin color was classified as ‘somewhere in between.” Colorism degrades all women (and men of course). It drives us apart, eats at us internally, just like Hoover’s corruption.

Low self-esteem is not just a personal issue. The repercussions of low self-esteem manifest in ugly ways. According to the ABP, “African American girls, who judged their physical appearance negatively, felt they had less personal control over condom use and choice of sexual partners. African American girls who adopt standards consistent with ‘colorism’ may judge their physical appearance too harshly and may adopt risky behaviors to be seen as sexually attractive/desirable.” Here it is, self-hatred manifesting itself generation, after generation, after generation.

But colorism goes beyond self worth. It’s economic worth. The impact is obvious. Those perceived by society as more attractive and more intelligent will get the better jobs and the high status spouses (ABP). This extends into education dramatically as Hughes and Hertel (1990) found that the education gap between Whites and Blacks was nearly identical to the education gap between light-skinned Blacks and dark-skinned Blacks. Consequently, they suggested that colorism plays as significant a role in the lives of African Americans as race does” (ABP).

The Strategies

This article isn’t here to teach you that colorism is bad. Unless this is your first time hearing or learning about it, then you should know: colorism is bad. I want to focus on our current conversations about colorism because fortunately people of all ethnic backgrounds are talking it about more and more.

The colorism I understand the most is that within the black community because I am black. I am a black woman. I am a light skinned black woman. I am a light skinned, mixed race black woman and that is the only experience I truly know. But I can study, and I can read, and as I see the conversation about colorism usually goes like this:

  • They will trace it back to slavery.
  • Comment on the roles of the Field Negro versus the House Negro. They’ll claim it’s the first division.
  • They will explain that lighter, more European looking people got treated better.
  • Maybe talk about whether or not colorism is a product of colonialism or something larger.
  • Some more globally minded sources will expose colorism as a epidemic of humanity as a whole and reference South American countries and Asian countries like India and Japan as cultures majorly under the control of colorism.
  • They will expose the different relevant forms in which colorism exists. Like “Well she’s cute for a dark girl” or #lightskinboysbelike.

This is all well and good. Teaching what colorism is and how it got here is good, very good.


In all of my readings, in all of my research, most either talk about its history or result, but not its process. How does colorism still exist? Colorism is a product of a racist system obviously, and it could be argued that colorism still exists because racism is still thriving as a political, economic, and judicial system. Perhaps the force behind colorism is smaller than that. Something closer to home.

The walls were a yellowed grey. Dishwater brown. The carpet, itchy, yet always damp with that lingering smell of ammonia. I sat on the carpet cross-legged in jeans meant for “boys.” My fleece zipped up to my chin. Ten-years-old and uncomfortable. My sister was a rigid 8-year-old potato beside me. Small, round, stubborn. Our necks sore from hours of our heads titled upward looking into my father’s eyes. This would always happen. Hours and hours of lectures would fill the time of our Saturday visits with him. I didn’t know what it was like to hold a conversation with him anymore, and I wouldn’t know for a long time. Most of them I don’t remember. General repeats of why we were bad, corrupted, why our birth mother was going to hell, and how our stepmother was going to save us. I remember a burning wetness, suppressed tears. I remember my brown-skinned step siblings were sent upstairs. They could escape. I remember this day. I remember my father leaning in and telling us that no matter what: black people would hate us. Especially black women, they will try to destroy us. They will want to pull out our loose curly hair, peel away our high yellow skin, use our ashes to lighten their own darkness. That is how he made it sound, this thick medium-skinned black man, who perhaps hates black people more than they could ever hate us. But there it is, they versus us. Was there ever even a chance for unity?

This is What We are Taught

This is how we are taught. By our parents, guardians, and our community. Now your experiences may not be as direct as mine, but maybe they are. Because this kind of warlike aggressive speech towards this side or the other happens. All. The. Time. It’s taught to us in brief sentences, harmless compliments, passive aggressive mumbles, and blatant insults. “Ooo she’s got that good hair.” “How are my light skins doing?” “Tar baby.” “I’m not even going to date him, I don’t want my babies to turn out that dark.” “Yeah I only date light skins.” “House ni**er.” “She’s thinks because she’s light she’s better than me.” “We need to fix your hair. We don’t want any naps showing.” This is just a very, very short list.

I was taught: colorism is the absolute truth, an inevitable condition of all black people, a mental disorder we can’t help. Instead we need to be taught: this is colorism. This is our history. This will tear us from the inside out. This will keep us distracted from looking at a system that is against us. This is how we will fight.

The solution isn’t to tear down light skinned people and those who are attracted to light skinned people. The solution is to lift up dark skinned people. To demand true representation in our media. The tearing down of either side only leads to more pain, to more suffering, and more time wasted instead of tackling real issues. And in my father’s case, the solution isn’t to protect your light skin daughters from the “aggression” of dark-skinned people. Frankly, that’s an anger I can understand. The anger towards light-skinned people like myself. The anger toward privilege. Still it’s an anger that needs to be honed and redirected. Jasmyne Cannick, a dark-skinned News & Notes contributor for NPR put it like this, “…it’s funny I never heard of lighter prison sentences for lighter blacks. Black is black no matter how light or how dark your skin is.”

I was taught, and we are taught that deep brown skin is unwanted, ugly. That light brown skin is a cheap imitation of the best thing. The white thing. Is that what we want to believe? To teach our children? When the majority of white society looks at all our beautiful shades, they’ll try to separate us into easy, digestible categories. Categories that they can control and reward or destroy. But we won’t do that. We will uplift each other. Celebrate all shades. Educate all shades. If we don’t, who will?

(Originally Published as a Blog for Philadelphia’s Art Sanctuary:

Selected for the 2017 More Stately Mansions exhibition with CherPOP's Gallery