It’s 2017, and col­orism is clear­ly alive and well. We know this, although some refuse to acknowl­edge or admit it. Some don’t think it’s impor­tant because at the end of the day, to most, being black will trump the col­or of your skin. Some don’t admit it out of guilt, lack of empa­thy or will­ful igno­rance. Regard­less, it isn’t going to go any­where if we can­not have open, hon­est, and respect­ful con­ver­sa­tions about it with­out resort­ing to insults.

As a light-skinned black woman, col­orism isn’t a top­ic I like to broach because I’m damned if I do talk about it and damned if I don’t. I’ve been told that I only believe col­orism and light-skinned priv­i­lege exist because it makes me feel supe­ri­or. On the flip side, I’ve also been accused of ignor­ing light-skinned priv­i­lege and the plight of dark­er-toned black women. Ulti­mate­ly, I’ve learned that some­times — a lot of times — I just need to lis­ten. But I do think my expe­ri­ence as a light-skinned woman in the black com­mu­ni­ty has a place in the con­ver­sa­tion.

Light-skinned women occu­py an awk­ward space. We are often seen as the “ide­al” black woman, but also insult­ed for being “not real­ly” black, “dilut­ed” black, or just “not black enough.” As a much-need­ed dark-skinned pride move­ment bub­bles up on social media, some have gone so far as to asso­ciate true black­ness with dark skin only, patent­ly reject­ing the black­ness of all else. This leaves women like me in an awk­ward space because we are not accept­ed, nor do we belong, out­side of black cul­ture.

There’s no ques­tion that lighter-toned women are often used as a ‘safer, more accept­able’ rep­re­sen­ta­tion of black women in main­stream media (and this has been going on for decades now, peep this shock­ing­ly col­orist vin­tage Ebony mag­a­zine cov­er) the assump­tion is that I find this flat­ter­ing or accept­able. I can only speak on my per­son­al expe­ri­ence and those around me when I say I real­ly don’t — at all. And I don’t know any light-skinned women who cheer when we’re obvi­ous­ly (and often awk­ward­ly) placed in a sea of white women to show “diver­si­ty.” Allow me to break down some real­i­ties of being a light-skinned token.

1. It increas­es resent­ment with­in the black com­mu­ni­ty, espe­cial­ly among women.
You think that peo­ple care that I don’t like light-skinned women being parad­ed around as ambigu­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tions of black beau­ty? Of course not, we like­ly won’t even get to that point of the con­ver­sa­tion. There’s a mis­di­rect­ed resent­ment towards light-skinned women due to col­orism when we lit­er­al­ly have no con­trol over the col­or of our skin. I actu­al­ly believe there are spe­cif­ic rea­sons to pro­mote this divi­sion that has roots in slav­ery, but I’m try­ing to keep this arti­cle semi-short, and the con­cept is noth­ing new.

2. Peo­ple tend to find it more accept­able to say racist things around you.
Sophia Richie expressed this some time ago (and peo­ple even threw her a side eye because she appar­ent­ly doesn’t look black enough), but peo­ple don’t have to think you’re white, they just need to think you’re docile or have a rea­son to be less mil­i­tant (ie, priv­i­leged). “Oh, you aren’t a real black per­son, I wasn’t talk­ing about you.” Last time I checked, being black wasn’t a processed burg­er from a fast food joint com­piled of arti­fi­cial mate­ri­als. My black­ness is real, it mat­ters, and I don’t play that shit.

3. Col­orism exhib­it­ed by the main­stream is anti-black and strips away our iden­ti­ty as black women.
I fail to under­stand why I would be hap­py to see some­one who looks like me be a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the black race when I know that the rea­son explic­it­ly is root­ed in not look­ing “that” black or being “accept­able” black. What kind of vic­to­ry is that? This is more of a con­ve­nience to the media but a com­plete dis­ser­vice to every­one in the black com­mu­ni­ty, not just those exclud­ed in rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

4. You some­times ques­tion whether an oppor­tu­ni­ty is the result of your skin col­or rather than your skill or tal­ent.
I remem­ber years ago ask­ing oth­ers if they were okay with accept­ing an oppor­tu­ni­ty that they could con­firm was the result of priv­i­lege, and while I’d like to think not, every­one isn’t that bla­tant about it. Whether the oppor­tu­ni­ty is minor or major, it’s a nag­ging thought.

5. Some believe that your light skin is a ‘get out of racism free!’ card. It isn’t.
Months ago, I saw a com­bat­ive and divi­sive meme cir­cu­lat­ing the web chal­leng­ing light-skinned women to relay their sto­ries about being called a mon­key. The assump­tion, of course, was that they couldn’t so they should stop whin­ing about being bul­lied for hav­ing lighter skin. But to a racist non-black per­son, a “mon­key” is a beast regard­less of skin tone. Not to men­tion, skin col­or doesn’t exclude one from hav­ing black fea­tures that are often ridiculed in soci­ety, such as “soup cool­er” lips, “nig­ger noses,” and the like.

Let me be 100% clear, this is not an arti­cle that is meant to com­pare light-skinned and dark-skinned plight. It’s not to dis­miss my soci­etal priv­i­lege (which is well doc­u­ment­ed), or my abil­i­ty to exist more com­fort­ably in cer­tain spaces. It is to show that col­orism in its total­i­ty is a debil­i­tat­ing thing.


Elle is the edi­tor and cre­ative direc­tor of the YouTube chan­nel and blog, Quest for the Per­fect Curl at Her chan­nel focus­es on nat­ur­al hair, beau­ty, and fit­ness. She loves prod­ucts that smell like dessert, yoga, and glit­ter. Fol­low her @qftpc.

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11 Comments on "Five Realities of Being a Light-Skinned Token"

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I real­ly loved read­ing this arti­cle although I’m a bit late! This arti­cle summed up how I’ve felt for a while, when I first start­ed uni­ver­si­ty my black male friends would laugh at my hair care regime and say “aww look she thinks she’s a black girl” and would feel that I can’t par­take in con­ver­sa­tions about black issues but on the oth­er hand I’m not white and so I would not be ful­ly accept­ed by them either, the black females in my uni­ver­si­ty would make com­ments on my light skinned com­plex­ion telling me my skin colour is ugly and… Read more »
As a mulat­to of a melanisian moth­er and his­pan­ic father liv­ing in asia I have to say that col­orise real­ly depends on where you are. I have light skin priv­i­lege over my fam­i­ly in the pacif­ic but in asia where the dark­est make­up foun­da­tion is tan beige, I can imag­ine what I know what it’s like in both posi­tions. With my moth­ers fam­i­ly I con­stant­ly feel as if any­thing I do is seen as bet­ter and I can always feel that I’m cod­dled but as a per­son of dark­er col­or liv­ing in seoul, I’m con­stant­ly being told I need to… Read more »
Em Jay

Hel­lo all,

A great post and wealth of great con­tent amongst the com­ments! I loved the can­dor with­out the cat­ti­ness while read­ing. As a moth­er with daugh­ters and a son that run the col­or Spec­trum of beau­ti­ful black, we will car­ry the momen­tum of this con­ver­sa­tion home and hope it con­tin­ues to grow.

I appre­ci­ate that more com­pre­hen­sive and diverse dis­cus­sions on col­orism take place. I feel like sin­cere dis­course is one of the only ways to com­bat igno­rance. Myself being a very dark woman and my hus­band being dark­er than me, we just so hap­pen to have a light bright daugh­ter with hazel eyes and light brown hair and a daugh­ter who could be my clone. They are both 100% our bio­log­i­cal chil­dren, but my hus­band and I have to face igno­rant col­orism from strangers out in pub­lic as well as with­in our own fam­i­ly. His broth­ers have even gone so far… Read more »

I want to feel empa­thy, but it’s dif­fi­cult. Imag­ine being a dark brown skinned female who is dat­ing a very light skinned man, who takes you home to meet mama and his sis­ters with the caveat: “Don’t get too upset when mama and my fam­i­ly throw shade at you for being dark.”

I get what you are say­ing and it is tru­ly dis­gust­ing. I hate that mind­set. Now, imag­ine being a ran­dom lighter skinned black woman and hav­ing to deal with a dark brown skinned black woman who resents her for NO rea­son oth­er that what some man’s mama and sis­ters said about her. A man who she does not know, sis­ters and mama who she does not know, but now has to deal with the neg­a­tiv­i­ty direct­ed towards HER because of it. It is humil­i­at­ing to have to deal with col­orism as a dark skinned black woman, absolutely…however please know that… Read more »
Hel­lo, I think you for­got to put in one real­i­ty that may be why those oth­er real­i­ties are the way they are. This is a great post and I love the fact that you’re address­ing it. This is no attack but only for dis­cus­sion. Being in this whole black cul­ture expe­ri­ence, I am on the oth­er side of the spec­trum and from my expe­ri­ence. It starts in grade school when the jokes are being passed around and some­one calls the light or brown skinned young lady ‘black’ and she makes the com­ment I’m not black or that black.So it’s like… Read more »
I see where you’re com­ing from, I just don’t agree with it. If they’re in grade school they are a child, and in my opin­ion chil­dren only repeat what they’ve been taught. I’m sure that lit­tle 4th grad­er was made aware that they aren’t con­sid­ered “black” or “that black” in what was prob­a­bly made to seem like a com­pli­ment. I didn’t even know that some peo­ple con­sid­er me light skinned until I was in col­lege. No one ever com­ment­ed on my com­plex­ion, which is that mid­dle brown priv­i­lege. Which nev­er made me feel supe­ri­or or infe­ri­or, I just new I… Read more »

It’s sad we are address this issue IN 2017. I think light or dark, most black women go through a degree a trau­ma about their skin col­or. Soci­ety does this TO US and we do this to each oth­er too. How to stop it? Acknowl­edge it, move on from it, CHANGE OUR MINDSETS, and nev­er allow any­one to belit­tle you because of it…we are all beau­ti­ful shades of brown to blue black to pass­ing white..WE ARE BEAUTIFUL! PERIOD

Youngin girl

I’ll share.


Great post! Well said.