I’ve always been considered to be ‘light skinned.’ I’m careful to say ‘been considered to be,’ as opposed to ‘considered myself,’ because this description is one that others have imposed on me before I was old enough to define myself.
My mother was the first woman I could recall looking at and thinking, ‘This is what beauty looks like.’ She has jet black hair that she has always rolled, creating a luscious bounce as she moved. She has sharp curves with a cushioned build, high defined cheekbones, voluptuous lips, and a smile that lights up her face. My mother is also very light-skinned – so light that growing up, my young self who had seen only black and white people had assumed that she must have been white.
The first time I could recall someone commenting on my own skin was probably when I was about six or seven years old. An old friend of my parents’ from their time in the West Indies had stopped by to visit. She greeted me with a hug and a look over – the kind in which the individual steps back at arm’s length, then tosses and turns the other person as they ‘casually’ inspect them. She turned to my parents and exclaimed in a prominent Trinidadian accent, “Ohhh look-ey here, she is red, boy! Red!” ‘Red’, a term meaning light-skinned, commonly referred to as ‘high yellow’ in the African-American community.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what that meant, but from her reaction I had assumed it was a good thing. In primary school, you learn the colors of the rainbow, but I was certain that my light brown skin was not the same red I was taught. With childhood curiosity and confusion I had asked my parents what she meant by ‘red.’ My father answered, “It means you’re very light, like Mommy over here.” Like Mommy – like my beautiful mother. At that moment, it had solidified in my head that being ‘very red’ was a good thing.
For a few years, my red mother was what I imagined beautiful non-European women to look like. When I was eight, new neighbors moved in next door. The eldest daughter was tall, thin and had skin like creamy dark chocolate. I decided she was beautiful. My father is a handsome dark-skinned man, but she was female and that was something much more comparable to myself. The creamy chocolate versus red were both beautiful to me. This became the point where my ideas of beauty standards became less concrete. Little did I know that I was beginning to question a historically ingrained concept of what it meant to be beautiful in the black community.
The comparison of lighter and darker skinned black persons dates back hundreds of years to slavery. A slave’s skin color was often a signifier of not only who was a field hand or a house slave, but who was of mixed lineage. Raping of enslaved women by their slave masters was a common occurrence, often resulting in the bearing of mixed offspring. According to The American Journal of Human Genetics, “the African-American genome is 24% percent European.” With European beauty standards being prevalent, soft hair, straight, narrow facial features, and fairer skin were considered to be ideal. Plain and simple: whiter was better.
Growing up in the black community, one always tends to hear the negative connotations that go along with being ‘dark-skinned,’ or ‘black-black.’ As I have gotten older and learned more about the sociological constructs and implications on beauty standards, I have begun to reject such beauty standards.
Today, at 22 years-old, I consider myself to be a very socially aware person. By that I mean one who recognizes what ideologies have been created or placed upon society to negate the bountifulness of marginalized group, all with the agenda to comfort the white oppressive one.
Currently, I’m working with a community service organization in Oklahoma, where I’m constantly outdoors, doing tasks such as working on top of roofs with black tar paper and asphalt shingles. Needless to say in Oklahoma summers, surrounded by heat, I’m tanning at rapid speeds. After my first week of working on a roof, I noticed I had a significant farmers tan. Many of the others on my team who are either Caucasian or White-Latino were complaining about how their farmers tan looked or about getting sunburned or the need to even out their tan before bikini season. Here I am and all I’m can think is, “Jeez, I’m getting dark and it will only get worse from here.” I could hear the comments from my family and friends already, “Oh wow, you got really tan….oh jeez you’re dark now.” My nonblack co-workers have the privilege of worrying about uneven tan lines, or even getting excited about becoming a shade darker. Whereas I know that with every shade darker my already brown skin becomes, more and more people from my black community will shame me and will deem me less appealing to the eye.
When I look in the mirror and see myself a few shades darker than I was when I left for work that morning, all I feel is insecurity. Black is beautiful, dark skin is flawless. So why am I, a socially conscious young woman who finds beauty in all shades, resenting the dark skin that is becoming mine?
These thoughts make me quite mad and disappointed with myself.
Despite how self-aware I believe myself to be and how much I rejoice at the beauty of darker skin, I haven’t yet overcome the ingrained stigma when it comes to my own outer self. I take this as an opportunity to be mindful that with each day my skin browns, to think about how beautiful I know I look, regardless of the unrewarding comments I will hear. I too am attaining the creamy chocolate complexion I’ve often found to be so beautiful on my neighbor. Hopefully, when my service project is over, I will be able to look at my skin and think that my glowing chocolaty melanin is a badge of honor.
By : Lindsay S. Wilson