This Is Us

White Supremacy in Me

Light-skinned and part of the problem

Mixed-race woman looking out a window.
Mixed-race woman looking out a window.
Photo: Pasha Gray/Nappy

When I was in my senior year of high school I argued against affirmative action. My AP history class had taken a field trip to Selma and we’d spent the day wandering around, drinking in the history of the small city. I was one of two Black students in a class of 30. Ashley and I were bound at the hip until we went our separate ways in college. I wonder how she felt at that moment. As she watched her light-skinned friend stand up on our school bus and give the worst possible answer to the impossible question our white teacher had just posed.

The question was impossible for several reasons. While we had discussed race in class it was always historical, and because Obama was president everyone was keen to claim that our country was post-racial. That particular sentiment had never felt true to me, but at the time I didn’t have the information — or support — to challenge it.

Growing up, I spent a lot of time swallowing my words when it came to race. My childhood was spent navigating mostly white suburbs, learning in mostly white “gifted” classes, and going home to my white-passing mother who espoused racial blindness and bristled if I referred to myself as Black. NO. I was mixed. I was both. So, in effect, I was neither.

Being neither, I rarely felt entitled to an opinion. But on that bus back to Charlotte, North Carolina, when our teacher asked for the class’s thoughts on affirmative action, the eyes of every white student were fixed on Ashley and me.

I don’t know for certain why I chose to answer. I think it was a combination of my pathological aversion to uncomfortable silences and what I could see in the corner of my eye, which was the tense set of Ashley’s shoulders as she gazed, unblinking, at her reflection in the window. She was looking hard into the glass like she wanted to will her body to the other side, away from this conversation.

So I stood, jerking onto my feet, and declared that I thought people should get into college based purely on their merits as students, and that race shouldn’t factor in at all. Then I sat down, feeling mildly queasy, and decided I’d give Ashley’s disappearing act a go for the next couple hours.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then regretting that moment.

Resenting it too.

I resent the fact that my white male teacher put the onus on two 17-year-old girls to speak against their classmates on a cramped bus without supplying us with any of the information we would have needed to make an argument. We’d had quite a few discussions about race in that class, none of which drew a line between race and intergenerational poverty, or the prison-industrial complex. Or health inequities. No one had uttered anything about institutionalized racism, internalized biases, or intersectionality. These terms, once I encountered them in college, completely transformed my awareness, not only of myself but everyone around me.

For the first time, I looked at the world and saw it as it was. Composed not of good people and bad people, but of systems within which we were all complicit.

Systems which, once I became aware of them, I could work to change.

With this cognizance came a sense of personal agency and duty. It also came with an overwhelming amount of guilt, which stemmed from the realization that I had done a lot of harm.

How often, at a new school, had I gravitated toward white students in class instead of approaching Black students, by whom I felt intimidated without cause? How often did I let the racist remarks of popular white boys roll off my back because I felt so grateful they were paying attention to me at all? And my hair. Ugh. My hair and its loose curls were always an uncomfortable subject of conversation. I loved the attention it gave me when praised. However, when a middle school friend ran his hands through the hair of every girl at our lunch table and declared mine the roughest I was devastated. Of course, I had laughed it off in the moment, but for a full year following that encounter I straightened my hair every single morning before school. Secretly wishing that he might hold another competition.

I hate remembering these things. I hate knowing that there was a version of me that craved white validation so much that I allowed myself to be so disrespected, and to be so disrespectful. After all, what more could I have wanted at that lunch table than for a dark-skinned girl with afro-textured hair to be sitting right next to me?

I could not in good faith write a piece to other light-skinned girls and women asking them to do better, without acknowledging that I too have been capable of this sort of violence.

I can imagine that upon witnessing her judgment I might have been brave enough to speak out against the ridiculousness of the entire contest. I might have even summoned the courage to ask what right that dumb boy had to rank us at all. I would have argued that point while sitting high on the fact that I had been judged above that other little girl. I could defend her and myself because it had been established that, regardless, I was worth more.

Again, I don’t like thinking about these things. But it’s important I talk about them. Not because they make me feel guilty or ashamed — my guilt and shame don’t do anything to address racism, neither does yours.

No. It’s important that I am transparent about these unflattering parts of my story because I could not in good faith write a piece to other light-skinned girls and women asking them to do better, without acknowledging that I too have been capable of this sort of violence.

Before I explain my history with anti-Blackness, let me be clear that an explanation is not an excuse. Our hurt does not justify the hurt we cause. That said my experience of internalized racism might look very similar to yours.

I grew up pretty isolated from most of my family. Usually, it was just my mom, my sisters, and I.

Although I had loved being with my father’s family when I was little, as I grew older I started to notice more space between us and them. I would feel uncomfortable at large family events, where uncles and aunts I barely knew would take in my lighter skin as I ran around picnic tables and nickname me “the little Indian girl.” Or the time my grandmother said, with a laugh, that my sisters and I would have been “house slaves” back in the day. Had we been closer, or older, we might have found her half-joke funny in an outrageous sort of way. As we were, it just widened the gap between us.

My connection to my Trinidadian family was even more abstract. Until I was an adult I knew next to nothing of them, an Aunt Mary or Uncle Joseph was often referenced but rarely visible. I remember meeting a new aunt when I was 16 who, upon taking a quick glance at me, told my uncle I looked just like a fat version of my mother. Not the best first impression.

With my extended family, I always felt that I was on display; like everybody had an opinion about my body that they were just dying to share. With my white friends and their families, my body was rarely discussed, and certainly never in a way that was overtly racial. They envied my hair curly or straight, and they never noticed my skin. With them I was just Leigh, I wasn’t Black or white. Again neither. Again nothing.

That was where I felt safe. Nothing feels almost like white until it doesn’t.

It doesn’t when your best friend’s dad is a Civil War buff and you spend hours of your childhood marveling at statues of Confederate soldiers. It doesn’t when you go to their Methodist church on the weekends and you are literally the only Brown person in the pews. It doesn’t when you’re a young girl in a Black body surrounded by the bodies of white girls whose bodies look nothing like yours for reasons that you don’t understand. There’s shame there too.

And you can’t talk about any of it with them — those white girls or your white teachers — because in doing so you draw attention to the parts of yourself that you both would much rather pretend didn’t exist.

I was an adult by the time I realized that white silence on the part of my body didn’t equal acceptance. It equaled disregard, or even contempt, for the variations in my experience as a Black person.

Although I didn’t, and still don’t, appreciate the conversations about my body that occur in my Black family, it means something that I am seen by them. It means something because colorism is a massive problem in the Black community, and in an overwhelming amount of ways I benefit from it.

There’s power in knowing where you sit within an unjust system. That’s the first step to revolution.

I’m sure my family made those jokes in part as a way to tell me and my sisters that despite our skin tone and our mother’s color blindness, we were still Black children in the United States. I’m sure that some of those uncomfortable jokes were actually lessons.

For little Black children below the Mason-Dixon, forgetting how the world sees your body can be a death sentence. It didn’t matter that we spoke like white children and befriended white children. We were not them. When my grandmother saw me she probably felt it was important to remind me of that fact.

Light-skinned girls, no matter how hurt you have been as a consequence of your skin tone, you must recognize that overwhelmingly you benefit from it. You are given more career opportunities, more “second chances,” more attention by your teachers in school. You are treated with less hostility, are less aggressively sexualized, and have more social mobility than the dark-skinned women around you. And you know it.

In our society proximity to whiteness has always been a currency. Own that fact. There’s power in knowing where you sit within an unjust system. That’s the first step to revolution.

My grandmother was trying to tell me something important when she joked that I would have been a house slave. She was telling me that a house slave is still a slave.

That instead of chasing after my “masters” for validation and glorying in the false security of my position while feigning difference between myself and my family, I could free us all. I could choose my family. I could use my position to burn that vicious house to the ground.

After all, why would I desire to be slightly more free when I could instead confront the toxic ideology which oppresses us all?

What light-skinned girls need to learn is that there’s no way to play the middle when it comes to inequality. The truth of the matter is that the tension light-skinned women feel between themselves and other Black people is due to their ambiguity. The question your Black friends and family have been asking is whether or not you’re on their side.

Whether you’re going to side with them against injustice or betray them in favor of some unrequited love affair with whiteness.

There is an uncertainty in the way light-skinned people carry themselves among other Black people, especially ones like me who were raised in very white places. I’ve been that person at the Black student union worrying over who to talk to and what to say. Hoping that someone would start a conversation with me despite the fact that my anxiety was giving off major narc vibes.

It’s uncomfortable to put yourself out there. It requires vulnerability and the possibility of rejection. But the reward is that you will finally have friends who don’t require you to pretend that you’re something else or nothing at all.

Then there is another question you have to answer: How do you grow into and become part of a community that celebrates Blackness and challenges anti-Blackness in its myriad forms?

For me, it’s been kind of a two-step program.

Your job as a revolutionary member of a hierarchical society is to weaponize your position within it, to keep reaching down and pulling everyone you can up with you.

The first step is to engage in an unflinching examination of the many ways in which you’ve internalized and been complicit in perpetuating anti-Black ideology. A process you’ll be engaged in for the rest of your life.

The next step is showing up and speaking out. Commit yourself to the work of holding your friends accountable for their words and actions, holding the powers-that-be accountable for their systemic violation of Black bodies, and holding yourself accountable too.

Commit yourself to the work of elevating Black voices: specifically radical dark-skinned voices. Dark-skinned radical queer voices, fat voices, and disabled voices. All of them.

Your job as a revolutionary member of a hierarchical society is to weaponize your position within it, to keep reaching down and pulling everyone you can up with you. Then raising hell until everyone’s needs are met.

When others see that you are dedicated to dismantling unjust systems, even the ones which serve you, the question of your legitimacy will fall to the wayside. The people in your life will know who you are. More importantly, you will know. After all, your Blackness was never something you had to prove. It was a truth you had to accept and a community you had to embrace.

Below, I’ve included a list of Black individuals of diverse experience who are doing amazing anti-racism work. They are dark-skinned, radical, and femme. They are fat, and queer, and brilliant. If you don’t know where to start in your great unlearning, I’d suggest you do what I do. Listen to them. Invest in them. Then fight with them.

We’ve got so much work to do. | Freelance Editor | Essayist | Culture Analyst | Pronouns: she/they

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