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Five Realities of Being a Light-Skinned Token

• Feb 17, 2017

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.

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

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Great post! Well said.

Youngin girl

I’ll share.


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

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 »

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 »
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 »
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.

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 »
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 »

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