Identity is a funny thing. We write books about it. Movies are made about it. How we see ourselves in the world is all about it. We often wax nostalgic about it — personal identity, place identity, community identity, social identity.
Being a Louisiana, U.S.A. native of African and multiple other racial, cultural and ethnic descents, I suspect that I was aware of this thing called identity in its many manifestations since before I could walk or talk. Even though I lacked language to give voice to these experiences, I knew incredibly early on that I was being othered.
‘What is she?’
One of my earliest childhood memories involved my mother being questioned about my racial identity in the late 50s and 60s: “What is she?” “Where are you from?” “Is her father white?” “Where did she get her large blue eyes from?”
When she wasn’t being queried about my white-appearing skin color and identity, she was being questioned about my blue eyes or light-colored, very curly hair that was prone to frizz in humid conditions.
Hiding behind my mother
Like most children who were feeling uncomfortable, my reaction was to place myself behind my mother with my face nestled in her skirts to protect myself from these intrusions into our personhood. My mother would invariably respond with some sharp-tongued wit that I’m sure she had begun to rehearse in preparation for moments like this. Whenever she responded, especially to judging comments, I always felt safe and supported by her motherly words.
As I entered adolescence and young adulthood the questions were coming to me directly, with an added layer of discomfort of being exoticized, sexualized or marginalized for appearing different or not neatly fitting into any one category of identity. Like my mother, I began to take on a coat of armor designed to self-protect me from these incursions.
While they often worked to ward off these comments, internally I would be left to deal with the emotional turmoil that lasted well into my adulthood. Unbeknownst to me at the time was that I wasn’t only encountering racist ideologies, but I was also grappling with what would be later termed “colorism” in some instances.
Privileges of skin color
At the same time, though well aware of biases related to skin color, I hadn’t yet recognized or acknowledged the skin color privileges that came with my appearance. My internal sense of self and how I had been raised was to look in the mirror and see a fair-skinned black person. Being of African descent was my primary identifier, though I understood that I came from a markedly diverse racial and ethnic background.
It wasn’t until years later that I had a quite painful encounter with close African American co-workers who shared that it was their belief that I was given preferential treatment in assignments by leadership because they found my skin color proximity to whiteness more palatable.
I was shocked and confused at the allegations about preferential treatment because I knew how hard I worked to be successful in all of my endeavors. It also marked the beginnings of my becoming increased aware of the role and dynamics of skin color and its impact on individuals, communities and societies.
When I first began my internationally mobile lifestyle as an adult following joining the U.S. Air Force, I relished in the joy and opportunities to live and work in diverse cultures and having new and wonderful, sometimes challenging experiences.
As I encountered these other cultures — Asian, Latin and North African countries and cultures — to my surprise, I noticed similar attitudes and skin color biases. Perhaps my upbringing made me a little more sensitized to this, as many would often say to me that it didn’t exist or they hadn’t noticed. I noticed.
Having grown up in my home culture of New Orleans with its many-hued people and under the influence of white supremacy’s legally and socially constructed influences on notions of racism, skin color hierarchy and class, I was well aware of skin color biases that favored lighter-skinned people in everyday life socially and professionally.
Deep down, I hoped that in 2022 that identity based upon outer appearance and skin-tone stratification would be long past. However, recent conversations and interactions with Gen Xers, Millennials, Gen Zers and even Gen Alphas have illuminated for me that issues of race and colorism continue to be pervasive and are very much present in many societies. All one has to do is to observe the burgeoning multibillion-dollar skin lightening business around the globe, especially in places like Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Purchases of skin lightening products is expected to grow.
Issues of race and colorism continue to be pervasive and are very much present in many societies.
Believed to have been first coined in 1982 by author, feminist and Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker, “colorism,” a global practice, was defined by her as “the prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”
According to David Knight, skin color preferences emerged throughout European colonial and imperial history and are prevalent in countries as distant as Brazil and India. He adds that its legacy is evident in forums as public as the television and movie industries, which prefer to cast light-skinned people of color, and existing in private as internalized thoughts by people of color in many cultures. Rooted in racism, light skin and closeness to European aesthetics is often associated intelligence, employability, beauty, desirability, wealth and status.
Eddie Fergus, an assistant professor of education at New York University, conducted a study on Latino high school males, Knight wrote:
Fergus found that Mexican and Puerto Rican males with white-looking skin are perceived as white and sometimes treated more favorably, while boys of the same ethnicity who had darker complexions are perceived as black and often experience discrimination. Not only did the boys in the study navigate the world as Mexican and Puerto Rican, but each navigated different racial expectations based on external reactions to their appearances. Despite being close or even related, people of the same ethnicity face different expectations, different realities and — potentially — different educational and economic outcomes, solely based on their skin color.
Talking about colorism
With the growth of people of color in Hollywood and other entertainment spaces, BIPOC people, colorism and its impacts is finally being discussed on a much larger scale than when I was growing up in the U.S. It’s a much-needed conversation, and I’m glad that these dialogue spaces are growing and expanding.
Although my journey of navigating racial identity and colorism began early in my life and have never actually gone away or fully able to settle, it has remained a part of me and who I am and filters through my understanding of the world, as I see it.
As I shared earlier, I had hoped that as a global society and most especially in the U.S., that we would be further along in our interactions and perceptions on this topic. Sometimes I fear it has only grown and deepened its roots into our ways of thinking and being. It’s from this space that I write this article.
I want to use my firsthand experiences with colorism and the stories of others to function as a springboard to stake my part in highlighting and elevating the conversation about its complexities and engage in meaningful discourse with a hope that identity based on colorism will be eradicated or at least minimized in my lifetime.
Look for more conversations about this topic and others on my podcast “Bella’s Front Porch with Dr Paulette Bethel.”