Living in Color

Growing up, I was fully aware of what set me apart from my classmates as far as my skin color. From an early age, my parents educated my sisters and I on what we may deal with being some of the only black kids at our school, and what it may mean having differences in our appearance. But although I was aware of my race, I don’t feel as if I became fully aware of my actual skin color until college, when I experienced for the first time in my life, some privilege.

Now if you have any experience with teaching, you know, that regardless of your personal beliefs, even if someone has you all up in your feelings, you have to remain calm, cool and collected.

Below are the words uttered by a four-year-old boy, who is white and comes from a middle class family. He was one of my favorite students. Bright smile, wonderful energy and always open to playing with different kids in the class. His best friend — the only black boy in the class.

“You guys can’t sit at this table. This table is for the peach people!” one of my students said.

When I first heard him say this, my heart dropped. Never in my life had I seen such innocence come from such a bold statement. But there was another part of me that knew if I had ever said those words, my parents would have had no mercy on me. It was my job to make sure he understood the message behind that statement.

I got myself together on the side and then proceeded to explain that trying to segregate the class based on the color of our skin, means making the classroom divided and less welcoming for students.

It both confuses and angers me that people who function in a world where when they pick out an outfit, decide what their favorite color is, choose a game piece for a board game — don’t see color. I think we should consider what makes us not see color, versus pretending race isn’t a physical attribute that some have to recognize more often than others.

We place such a negative connotation on race and colorism, that in my opinion, should have nothing but a positive one. To pretend that someone doesn’t look different than you is the refusal to acknowledge differences. 

But the realization that light, brown and dark skin did in fact, have subliminal implications to what we all consider the standard of beauty, came when I began getting more into print media, specifically fashion magazines. For some reason, it never donned on me how these fashion publications were lacking in diversity, when there is (and always has been) a sea of black women looking to pursue modeling careers.

Not only that, but darker skin women, who are continuously rejected or told they don’t have the look simply because that’s not what people are used to seeing. To tell someone they don’t have the look is a disservice to all the women who wish they had someone who looked like them or someone they love. And although I love my Naomi Campbell, Chanel Iman, Joan Smalls, and Iman Hammam, I’m tired of seeing the same black women in magazines, that don’t always represent what some women look like. It should never be difficult for someone to break into an industry where women are typically praised for what makes them different, and maybe at some point in their life, insecure. 

I interviewed six girls on campus who stand out as poised, confident black women. I spoke with each of them about their experiences being black women in America, where they may have felt either an advantage or disadvantage to having their particular skin color. Every single one of them said that it has had an effect on them, both positive and negative.

Here’s what they had to say:

All Photos by Nick Oatley

What is colorism?

Diarra Ndiaye

“My definition of colorism is these predefined notions that if you’re dark skin you’re not cute, and if you’re light skin you’re cute. But I feel like that’s not right. All black girls should feel beautiful and all black girls have the right to shine.”

Rasheedah Beatty

“Colorism to me is just a spectrum, it can be how you identify but primarily to me, it’s just color. I don’t really see the “ism” behind it or everyone thinking it needs to be a theology, it needs to be a theory … it’s literally the color of your skin. And then if you then choose to delve into that deeper, which you should, then we start talking about race and ethnicity.”

As a black woman, do you feel as if your skin complexion has given you certain advantages or impacted your life in a different way?

 Jasmine Lambert

“As a black woman I feel there are disadvantages and advantages to my skin tone every day. I think it makes you realize that you have to work harder and sometimes you might walk down the street and get a few more stares than a white girl. But it’s all about perspective and if you’re ashamed of your color it will always be a hindrance, but I choose to embrace my skin tone and love it.”

Danielle Baston

“Growing up I grew up in a suburb where it was really diverse, but there are a lot of white people too, so I always felt like I would always fade away. Like I wasn’t truly black. A lot of my family is light so sometimes I wouldn’t think I was as black as my other friends.”

Is there a stigma with being a certain shade?

Jasmyn Pearl

“People expect me to be stuck up and rude, and I’m not. I think there are prejudices with every skin color, but when you’re light skin, some black people think you’re better than others, and some white people think you’re more like them than dark skin people. It’s the perpetuation of things that happened after Africans were brought over to America.”