In this episode, Brendane and Alyssa tackle a fraught subject in the Black community: colorism. We discuss the paper bag test, dating “loophole” women for ascendance vs. unambiguously Black women to legitimize one’s blackness. In our What We’re Reading segment, we bring things full circle with Alice Walker’s essay where she coins the term colorism, addresses why talking about colorism in relationships (platonic and romantic) is political, and the way she gathers all y’all faves! In our What in the World?! segment, we discuss interracial relationships IRL and on TV, Blackish Love on OWN, Jessica Krug and the fetishization of light-skinned women and Latinx identity in academia, “racial ambiguity,” skin bleaching, and the image “That Little Girl Was Me” that depicted Kamala Harris walking with the shadow of Ruby Bridges. Hold on to your seats, friends, because things get HOT!
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Episode Nine
Co-Hosts: Brendane Tynes and Alyssa A.L. James
Title: Color Struck!
Total Length: 01:24.32
Transcript by Alissa Rae Funderburk, Oral Historian
[00:00:00.00] Alyssa: I think now in the time of COVID, we’re having all these conferences and it’s just become soooo much clearer who people are willing and able to hear from – especially on radical or activist politics. And so, all of these conferences are online, they have all of these panels and it’s like, “Do we need to bring paper bags?” [Laughter]
[00:00:20.61] Brendane: I think I tweeted that. I was like, “And next time I come to a panel, I’mma bring my paper bag with me,” and, you know, people who got it, got it.
[00:00:47.32] Alyssa: Hi everyone! It’s Alyssa here, your friendly neighbourhood light-skinned Black woman of Jamaican descent, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and the reason I’m mentioning my skin complexion will become apparent soon.
[00:00:57.58] Brendane: Real soon. So, I’m Brendane, your unfriendly dark brown-skinned Black hottie of Bahamian and Louisianian—I just made that word up—Creole descent. I also use she/her/hers pronouns. Welcome to the Zora’s Daughters podcast, where we define real world issues and empower our listeners to join in academic and anthropological conversations with a Black feminist lens.
[00:01:23.34] Alyssa: Today we’ll be talking about what is actually a very sensitive subject that can bring up a lot of pain and trauma, especially among Black women, colorism. And unfortunately, our guest was unable to be with us today, but we do hope to have her on for a future episode. And we still have plenty in store for you all, so get comfortable, you’re in for one today! [Laughter]
[00:01:44.14] Brendane: But before we get started, we want to give a huge thank you to Bethany for donating to the podcast. We are so grateful for your support! And if anyone out there listening can spare some coin this month, you can donate by visiting our website zorasdaughters.com
[00:02:00.00] Alyssa: Of course, that’s not the only way to support Zora’s Daughters, every like, share, and comment helps. And thanks to all of you listening, we have some very exciting events coming up —that’s right, events—so, stay tuned to our episodes and social media. That’s zorasdaughters on Instagram and zoras_daughters on Twitter.
[00:02:20.78] Brendane: And girl, since we have so much to talk about today, how about we just get right into it? Alyssa, what’s the word?
[00:02:28.51] Alyssa: So, the word today, obviously, is colorism.
[00:02:33.00] Brendane: [Imitates drum] Boom, boom, boom.
[00:02:36.00] Alyssa: Imitates drum] Boom, boom, boom. [Laughter] Colorism was coined by Alice Walker in her book of essays In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, and it was published in 1983. Of course, that’s what we’re going to be reading today. In that essay, she defined colorism as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their skin color.”
[00:02:54.15] Brendane: And people have also expanded colorism to highlight more features than just skin color. So now, people talk about colorism, they’re usually thinking about different body types, different hair textures (which might be also called “texturism”), facial features (which is also called “featurism”) where proximity to Eurocentric features are preferred or typically Black features such as wide noses and big lips are looked down upon, especially when they are on dark-skinned bodies.
[00:03:23.00] Alyssa: Right, and so colorism can show up in a variety of ways. It can be comments like “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” or “You’d be more attractive with straight hair,” or “His nose is too big,” or “I don’t date nappy haired girls,” for example. But colorism can also be really insidious. In schools, there’s tons of evidence that dark-skinned students are hyper-surveilled and that [teachers] don’t compliment dark-skinned students as often as light-skinned ones—and obviously, that has a lasting effect on your self-esteem as you’re growing up. Brendane, you were a student here in the U.S., you were also a teacher, did you experience and/or witness things like that?
[00:04:09.75] Brendane: Yes, I also grew up in the South in South Carolina. So, as a student I really experienced or witnessed a lot of colorism. And it bothered me so much that I actually did my senior research project on it. Wrote a whole thirty-five-page paper at the age of seventeen—
[00:04:26.72] Alyssa: You were forever, forever an academic. [Laughter] You’re a day one academic [laughter].
[00:04:32.72] Brendane: Day fucking one. And so, the title of the paper was “Colorism Within and Outside of the African American Community.” As a teacher, I actually noticed that lighter-skinned and non-Black Latinx students received fewer and less harsh punishments. Whereas darker-skinned students were more likely to be bullied or see criminalized representation of themselves in textbooks (when they did see dark-skinned people in textbooks). And also, darker-skinned students were more likely to be suspended at school. This kind of punishment, y’all may know, actually extends into the prison system. Thank you to Black Sapphic on Twitter for bringing this to our attention. They tweeted out a series of just facts that honestly, for me, were just shocking to see just the numbers. Did y’all know that dark-skinned women receive 12% longer sentences while light-skinned women receive 11% shorter sentences?
[00:05:32.51] Alyssa: Mmm. I didn’t know that.
[00:05:34.53] Brendane: I didn’t know that either. And I mean, honestly, it’s horrible that it makes sense, right? Dark-skinned women are actually 30% more likely to be arrested than lighter-skinned women. And so, they attribute all of these figures to a Harvard sociologist, Elis Monk, who conducted a study in 2014 that demonstrated that Black people were 36% more likely to be arrested, but being a dark-skinned Black person actually increased your chances by up to 30%. That’s fucking wild. That’s wild.
[00:06:07.93] Alyssa: Yeah, you tend to see these criminalized representations of dark-skinned people in textbooks. These are the messages that you’re getting about dark-skinned black people from essentially childhood. And so, when we talk about things like implicit bias and things like that, we really just think that people are biased against Black people and then we don’t think about the next level to that which are the biases that people have against dark-skinned Black people or the biases that they have in preference for light-skinned Black people. I think that that is something that you can clearly see play out in these statistics.
Colorism isn’t just limited to the Black community or even the African diaspora. Colorism, it’s a global phenomenon that you can see in fairy tales, where princesses were “fair,” which is another word for beautiful. Fair skin in East Asia has traditionally been connected with class because only those of means were able to avoid working in the sun. And I was watching Indian Matchmaker—this is one of these [laughter], one of these awkward quarantine shows—
[00:07:17.46] Brendane: Yo, Netflix has too many shows.
[00:07:21.08] Alyssa: They do but it was great. D and I were watching it all the time, you know, we kind of binged it. And it was just really interesting. I was like, this needs some kind of anthropological sociological analysis because a lot of the men and women going to the matchmaker and requesting people who are “fair”. So, there’s this very clear preference for light skin that it sort of associated with caste, right? In Europe, there was also a preference for fair skin, white skin, so much so that these Victorian-era women, they would poison themselves basically. They would paint their arms and faces white with stuff that had like lead and arsenic in it [laughter]. Yeah, so people would rather die than not be lily white. It wasn’t until Coco Chanel, who was the absolute trendsetter, was photographed on vacation and she had a tan. And so, tanning became fashionable for the white upper class. So, while colorism in the Black community is tied to slavery, colorism is tied to classism and casteism around the world but, of course, that also served white supremacy and anti-blackness.
[00:08:37.77] Brendane: Yeah. I mean, which is like really where this stems back to and thinking about complicated ways that colorism allows Black people to continue the work of white supremacy among ourselves. And one of the ways that this happened historically, was through the paper bag test actually. And this paper bag test was used—it’s not a myth for those of you who are like, “girl, what you talkin’ about? But the paper bag test was basically, in order to be entered into elite Black social spaces, they would hold up a brown paper bag at the door and test it against people’s skin. It was used to police who was light enough to enter into these social spaces, these dinner parties, these college sororities and fraternities, and also into other social spaces. There was a saying often associated with it, which was “If you’re light, you’re right. If you’re brown, you can get down, and if you’re Black, get back!” [Laughter] Yes! And it’s like, they would—I don’t know if they would say this per se but in the research that I’ve done this was a saying that they say was commonly associated with the brown paper bag. Essentially, as long as you were the tone of the bag or lighter, you could enter and parlay with the middle or upper-class Black folx and this type of social relation, right, the brown paper bag test, dictated everything from who had access to higher education, who had access to certain jobs, and of course, dating and marriage.
[00:10:17.00] Alyssa: Yeah, that’s something that we definitely see to this day. There are people who say curly hair or light skin or racially ambiguous women are a preference and I’m like, maybe it’s a preference, maybe it’s anti-blackness. If I could do the Maybelline song to that, I would [laughter]. It’s important that you say that these tools were ways of Black people continuing this white supremacy because there’s this really great post by @qtpocmentalhealth on Instagram and it said “Decolonized beauty is dark skin, fat bodies, and features that threaten whiteness” and I think that’s really important.
I’ve actually had this conversation with like a lot of friends, also with bae, and we were talking about those moments where you’ll hear Black men say, “I am pro-Black, I only date Black and Latina women.” And one of my friends was like, that’s a loophole. If you’re dating someone who is Afro-Latinx, then the person is Black. So, I think that people who are like, “I only date Black and Latinas,” you know, focusing on the Latinas, I think that the Latina women is essentially a way to date white or white-adjacent women without catching that same flack for it. Still being able to say, I’m pro-Black and of course that’s founded on colorism. You value that proximity to whiteness that certain Latina women give you
[00:10:00.] Brendane: Right, and I remember the first time you were talking about the loophole and I was like, “You know what, makes sense.” I know actually a couple of Black men who more or less date exclusively Latina women and don’t see themselves as anti-Black—and these are non-Black Latina women, to be specific. And so, it’s just like, oh, oh, okay. And part of that is rooted in this archetype of the Spicy Latina whose “mixed” features—right, so she’s the best of both worlds, she’s got the lighter skin but she’s got the nice hips, the nice booty, she’s got the best of both worlds as far as colonization can offer. [Laughter] I mean to be blunt, that’s how people talk about it.
It’s like her and then, the spiciness, her anger is much more tolerable than an unambiguously Black woman’s. So, she can nitpick, she can nag and it’s seen as endearing or cute because maybe it’s done in Spanish or you know, something like that makes it a little more palatable. I think that Black men usually code their colorism as “preferences” because it allows them to escape a type of accountability. For research for that high school project I told you about, I read The Color Complex, which might be a little dated now because it was published in 2005 but it theorized that the overwhelming “preference” for lighter-skinned women is a desire to ascend certain markers of blackness, particularly seen through reproduction. Reproduction and desirability is such a vital part in understanding colorism. But also, these light-skinned women served as a marker of success for dark-skinned Black men. So, Alyssa—
[00:13:46.35] Alyssa: Oh, dear [laughter].
[00:13:48.35] Brendane: I feel like as a lighter-skinned woman you might be able to speak to more of that desirability factor or marker of success. What has your experience been with colorism? Have you found that more darker-skinned men approach you versus lighter-skinned men? What has that been like?
[00:14:06.61] Alyssa: Well that’s a good question. I did just want to say that I think it’s really good that that has actually been documented. I feel like people are like, “No, that’s not true, it’s not true that light-skin women are a prize,” and we’re going to that conversation about the prize when we talk about what we’re reading this week. But for me, my experience—let’s see. Dating in New York.
[00:14:33.22] Brendane: Ew. [Laughter] Let me turn my mic off. Dating in New York, ugh. [Laughter]
[00:14:38.12] Alyssa: Umm. [Pause] I don’t think that I would say that I’ve seen a particular pattern.
[00:14:46.53] Brendane: Okay.
[00:14:47.63] Alyssa: From thinking about the people who approach me. I probably just wasn’t doing it long enough and ended up in a relationship here as it happens. But I think in terms of my personal experience with colorism, you know, it’s kind of been two-sided. My mom is dark-skinned and my dad is from Treasure Beach—and the reason I say that, people from Jamaica will understand why that basically says everything, people from Treasure Beach they are very light-skinned, many have blue or green eyes, and so I think in the U.S. it would kind of be, high yellow would be the equivalent—
[00:15:25.22] Brendane: Yeah.
[00:15:27.10] Alyssa: I don’t know if I’ve ever showed you a picture of my dad but—
[00:15:29.64] Brendane: Uh, I mean, I think I’ve seen a picture of him on your website and—
[00:15:36.26] Alyssa: My website? [Laughter] [Crosstalk] On the gram?
[00:15:39.63] Brendane: No, your blog.
[00:15:42.09] Alyssa: I’m sure I don’t have a picture of my dad on there. [Pause] Oh, maybe I do, okay, anyways—
[00:15:47.52] Brendane: Yes. [Laughter]
[00:15:47.80] Alyssa: Stop exposing me. People start going on my old blog.
[00:15:52.41] Brendane: [Laughter] Uh, my bad, ha. But yeah, I saw a picture of him and I was like, “Oh!”
[00:16:00.00] Alyssa: Yeah, yes, so—
[00:16:01.59] Brendane: So, now I know that that’s like a region in Jamaica where people look like this. Okay.
[00:16:05.44] Alyssa: Yeah, people look like that, yes.
[00:16:06.00] Brendane: I understand.
[00:16:07. 83] I mean they’re all over but Treasure Beach is very infamous for that particular look. And so, I guess, here you would say high yellow, in Jamaica, they say red, so my dad is red. But, I think people always found my mom beautiful and they always told her so, so I never really received these kinds of messages that dark skin was ‘bad’ but I also received messages that my skin complexion was good. So, we would go to Jamaica when I was younger and My mom always tell this story about maybe the first or second time that she took me and my brother. And so, we were there, and she said some woman was just like, “She brown an pretty eeh?” And my mom would repeat this, she told the story so many times, I could see that it really made her glow. She was really happy about it, that people said that. So, I think that also kind of gave me this message that light skin is good.
So brown in Jamaica means light, so people just say she’s brown. And black just means you have dark skin, so people will say things like, “He’s too black, I want a brown, or high brown man.” So, my brother was with me at that time and he tans more than I do, and a lot more easily than I do, and so he didn’t get those same comments. And of course, I think, you know, now that I’m thinking about it, it was also probably that I was light in contrast to my mom. And so, it was almost like they weren’t just praising me, they were praising her for choosing the right husband and the right spouse to give me a better opportunity to succeed in life. That said, my friends who were dark-skinned always had nice, smooth skin and [laughter] so I actually wanted to be darker. I mean my mom was dark and I thought she was beautiful and a lot of people did, so I really wanted to be like my mom. She always reminds me how I used to like sit in the mirror and practice smiling like her.
[00:18:09.70] Brendane: Aww [laughter]
[00:18:11.52] Alyssa: I didn’t always feel “Black enough” which I think is a common among light-skinned women. And it’s kind of, there are two charges almost that are like flung from one side of the coin to the other and its well dark-skinned people say “you’re not Black enough,” and light-skinned people will say, “Oh, you’re too Black.” I think those are like the two ways that we all try to harm each other and hurt each other in relation to skin complexion. And so then, I also went to predominantly white schools, so when I did hear colorist stereotypes and things like that, it was on TV and in movies. So, I would hear certain epithets around dark-skinned people and I didn’t really understand them because they were usually very American and I don’t want to repeat them but it was basically like anything on BET, especially Comic View. I don’t know if you know what that is Brendane [laughter] [crosstalk], before your time?
[00:19:06.46] Brendane: I know what Comic View is, it’s not before my time. I used to turn to BET at 3:00 AM like the rest of us here.
[00:19:14.47] Alyssa: [Laughter] Okay, thank goodness [laughter]. Well I have been on this one for a while but I suppose that the way I would sum it up is just that I was more a beneficiary of colorism, it was like, “what are you mixed with” and “you have good hair”. I didn’t really realize how differently I was treated from dark-skinned classmates until I was older and really looking back on it. I have light-skin privilege, and with that comes a pretty privilege but yeah, how about you? What impact would you say colorism has had on your life?
[00:19:43.35] Brendane: I would say that I used to think of myself as a dark-skinned woman, but recently my dark-skinned friends who are just amazingly beautiful people have really been pushing me on that and ways that I, a dark brown skinned woman, can take up space. So, for those of you who don’t know me, haven’t seen my face, I am dark brown, sometimes in the winter I can get a little bit more mid-tone brown. But my shade, if you use Fenty, my shade is 430, and my friend were like, “Well, you’re not really darker-skinned unless you’re like 450 or higher.” And, I guess a lot like your mother, I never really heard that I was ugly growing up because of my skin tone.
Actually, when I was a teenager, when I was 16, I heard this dark-skinned boy tell me in gym class that I was brown enough for the both of us to have some “beautiful brown babies together.” It was actually that comment that’s like the anthropological arrival moment for me. It actually started me on my journey as an anthropologist, but I think I’ll leave that for a bonus episode or for one of our events. As an adult though, I’ve dated Black people with a range of skin tones, and I find now that lighter-skinned or “mixed” Black people are actually the people who approach me more and seem to be more attracted to me. I think it’s because I am unambiguously Black, like my hair now is in locs but before I had like tight coily hair when it was loose, my facial features, and my body type make me unmistakeably Black. And so, for some who might be sitting with those questions of am I Black enough, I think being with someone who looks like me might provide some assurances. But that’s my psychoanalysis on it to be honest with you.
Moving into like middle school where there were like lighter-skinned Black girls in class with us, I don’t remember them being treated differently. I do remember people thinking of them as beautiful and them being approached more by boys. And I guess that would be my, more or less, my childhood experience. It’s like when I would be out with lighter-skinned friends, they would be the one that would be approached by boys, or talked to by boys. Back then, I guess I was like, oh maybe I’m not that cute but looking back I’m like oh, it was because they were lighter, it’s not like I was not as cute as them, you know. But yeah, I think as far as like within the gifted classroom, I was more or less at my particular school, just one of the brown skin girls that was there. We didn’t have too many light-skinned girls in school with us, at least in my gifted classes. If I weren’t in gifted classes I would really be sitting in the range of Black skin tones that exist in South Carolina public high schools. And I did notice that lighter skin girls tended to stick together and be friends with each other and sometimes they would be like these mean girl pods. But I never really noticed too much of a difference or I didn’t really pick up on it. I think for me, what made me feel like I was accepted was my smartness. Because no one outright told me or gave me messages about me being ugly, I never felt like my skin tone made me ugly.
[00:23:21.70] Alyssa: Right. I think there was this really interesting tweet that really resonated with me, that went around, and it was something along the lines of, “How old were you when you realized that you weren’t ugly growing up, you were just around a lot of white people?” [Laughter] And I was like, oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You know, when I was growing up, boys weren’t really that interested in me. Even in university, if I was out with my friends they always wanted to talk to my white friends.
[00:23:51.49] Brendane: Oh. Hmmm. [Laughter] [Sigh]
[00:23:54.62] Alyssa: So, I just kind of made it into my mid-twenties probably just being like, oh I don’t know, I guess I’m just not that cute or, you know, I just had a whole bunch of ideas about things. And then I was just like, wait. Wait a minute. [Laughter] No, it’s not me, it’s you. [Laughter] It’s literally just the, what’s it called, environments that I’ve grown up in. Should we move onto our next segment? Now that we’ve kind of positioned ourselves, people know where we’re at and our background and how we’re approaching this conversation, maybe we should move on to what we’re reading? So, Brendane, what are we reading today?
[00:24:34.10] Brendane: We are reading on of Alice Walker’s masterpieces, “If the Present Looks like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?” In In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.
[00:24:45.86] Alyssa: Can I just say, that I’m really excited to be coming back around to Alice Walker towards the end of this semester? I mean, we started with her in our first episode, and so now we’re reading some more of work. It just feels right!
[00:24:58.91] Brendane: It really does and I’m just glad that we’re able to have this full circle moment. And this essay has really, like when I say snatched the follicles from my hair line. I was like, yes. But if you have been living somewhere where you don’t know who Alice Walker is, let me tell you. Alice Walker is an author, poet, and activist who has penned a large number of works. Her most notable work is probably The Color Purple, which was turned into a movie and a tv series, and has scared Black girls like me [laughter] for decades. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, which we read some of today, The Temple of My Familiar, Meridian, and much more. She is also an Aquarius.
[00:25:46.35] Alyssa: Woah!
[00:25:47.59] Brendane [Laughter] I think we have an overrepresentation of Aquarians this semester. Um, and she attended Spelman College. Her literary works, for me, I think, really elucidate how Black women and girls navigate this racist, anti-black, sexist, violent world. In addition to coining “colorism,” Alice Walker is also credited with coining and developing womanism, a Black feminist social theory that examines Black femininity and culture and emphasizes love and community among Black people.
[00:26:21.23] Alyssa: Mm hmm. I think the phrase that people always reference in terms of what womanism is, “Womanism is to feminism as purple is to lavender.” Is that right? Is that the right order? I did that from memory y’all and y’all know I have a bad memory [laughter]. But I think it would be really interesting for us to kind of just unpack that in a little short bonus episode and really think about what that means. But I was just thinking about intensities and intensities of color, and what purple represents and all these kinds of things. Just to try to understand that sentence for myself without going and googling it, like I could [laughter].
So, this essay starts out as a letter to a friend with lighter skin, and so she, Alice Walker, is addressing a previous conversation they had about this divide within the Black community, the divide of color. I love how she just gets right into it. She’s like, let me just remind you what you said in the conversation, you made this really dismissive comment, where you said, “I refuse to apologize for being light, I was born this way, it’s not my fault.” And so, Walker, who situates herself as “a definite brown,” so neither “black black” as she says nor light. She points out that it’s not about blame or apologies, and she writes, “What ‘black’ black women would be interested in, I think, is a consciously heightened awareness on the part of light black women that they are capable, often quite unconsciously, of inflicting pain upon them; and that unless the question of Colorism…is addressed in our communities and definitely in our black ‘sisterhoods’ we cannot, as a people, progress. For colorism, like colonialism, sexism, and racism, impedes us.” So really, it’s about being sensitive to one another, while also recognizing that it is not dark-skinned women’s job to fix colorism.
[00:28:14.29] Brendane: Yeah. It’s like y’all keep making it their jobs, our jobs [laughter], it’s not and they do not need to be the only ones tasked with the responsibility of addressing colorism but often dark-skinned women are. Walker states that the idea of alignment with black Black women on the basis of color for light-skinned women can be seen as “ridiculous” and “colorist” in and of itself. And she says this because she’s saying light-skinned women’s experiences of blackness compared to a dark-skinned woman’s could be as different as a white woman’s experience as a woman compared to a light-skinned Black woman’s.
So, she’s drawing these kinds of parallels in noticing these differences in experiences of Blackness. And she roots this in understandings of light-skinnedness as being an escape from the violence of blackness. Which could have been the truth, right, during slavery and it could be a truth during the 19th and 20th centuries after slavery was abolished. And she says that darker-skinned women remind us of our roots to Africa, our roots to chattel slavery. And so, when we reject dark-skinned women, we reject ourselves. And why I really loved Walker, that sentence that she said, where she was like, “no one can hate their source and survive.” And it’s like, well damn, yeah, whew. We’re, I think, gonna get to this a little later but just like, yeah, no one can hate their source and survive. Colorism is rooted in this belief that being lighter is a means to escape to freedom through approaching whiteness, but is whiteness freedom? I think we have to really think about that. What does it mean to aspire to look like something that is based on the oppression of other people?
[00:30:03.93] Alyssa: Mm hmm, so Walker points to this very significant aspect of colorism, which has these deep roots in slavery of lightening one’s burden by lightening one’s skin. Folks may know that it was common that the light-skinned enslaved people would be more likely to be in the house, in the “master’s house,” doing that kind of work while the darker-skinned people were out in the fields. In this OWN documentary—OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, it’s called Dark Girls Too—there’s a woman there who about how she’s really only come to acknowledge in herself recently, she’s sixties, seventies maybe, she’s only recently come to acknowledge or be able to articulate that she feels she did her daughter a disservice by not marrying someone lighter. She thinks that she kind of gave her child an obstacle that wasn’t necessary.
And I think in the same kind of way, that’s almost like what that woman in Jamaica was complimenting my mom on. And so, it really kind of highlights how deep the trauma of partus sequitur ventrem is. Partus sequitur ventrem, it means, it’s Latin and it means “that which is brought forth follows the womb.” Essentially it was the law or the convention that meant Black children inherit the status of their mother. And now, that was a reversal of the European convention where people would typically inherit the status of the father. Obviously, they were like, nah, we can’t have these little mixed-race children running around who are free.
[00:31:34.72] Brendane: Right and they didn’t want their children to lay claims to their property, so.
[00:31:38.78] Alyssa: Exactly.
[00:31:39.62] Brendane: This ties back to capitalism but, you know, I digress. [Laughter]
[00:31:44.06] Alyssa: Always, always. But I think that Black women have this intergenerational trauma of feeling responsible for the position of their children and then also that possibility of escape. Band so, Alice Walker asks this question, what have we been escaping to? So, as you kind of alluded to before, it used to be freedom, but now, she writes “for some of our parents it is as if freedom and whiteness were the same destination, and that presents a problem for any person of color who does not wish to disappear.”
[00:32:17.16] Brendane: Which is like, boom, like just hearing you say it like that. But, anyway, [laughter] I think we were struck by the same passage. She mentions later in thinking about “alleviating” your children’s burden a mother who says, “a Black boy would get along but a Black girl would never know anything but sorrow and disappointment.” Alright and so this idea of doing a disservice to your children and recognizing that colorism is the issue but instead of pointing to the larger structures and systems that actually make colorism the problem, it’s kind of this internalized responsibility that becomes manifest in the way that we choose to partner and reproduce. Which again is another violence of white supremacy and I don’t think that whiteness is necessarily freedom. I think it’s depicted as freedom, but that’s only because it’s a relation of power that’s built upon violent oppression.
In order for white people who benefit from whiteness and white supremacy to be free, they have to oppress other people. It’s kind of like a negative freedom, I think some people would define it. And we all know, or we should know, there is no freedom in oppressing other people because you always have to have somebody to oppress, in order for you to be “free.” And then I think what Walker does for us is kind of turn this question and ask like how do we liberate ourselves, as Black people, outside of understanding freedom as whiteness? And one of the ways that she points to as “a necessary act of liberation” is actually acknowledging the beauty of dark-skinned Black women. So, inverting this word “Beautiful” that is, I think, usually reserved for white women and light-skinned Black women, and using that as a word to describe women who are historically and socially written out of white beauty standards, inverts this power relation and turns the idea of beauty really on itself.
[00:34:26.80] Alyssa: So, Alice Walker’s essay, it only starts as a letter. At the end of the letter, she explains that the essay that follows is for her friend, the one who she kind of opened the essay with, and she thinks of her as a younger sister. And so, one of the parts that I really liked about this essay was that it’s not just about colorism. I think that she’s really demonstrating these womanist principles, and encouraging us to listen to young Black women. I think that we often get caught up having the same arguments, fighting the same fights that we grew up fighting, and we don’t really pay attention to what the up and coming generation is really facing and what they’re struggling with, cause we’re kind of like, we paved the way for you to have an easier life so why are you complaining, kind of thing. But they still have challenges and if we are continuing to try to make the world better who are we making it better for? It’s for them, so actually we should be using our experiences and our knowledge to help them.
[00:35:30.78] Brendane: Yeah. I think in thinking about this generational difference, I have been really struggling to see—and maybe it’s just because I’m naturally just kind of cynical about things—but I’ve been struggling to see moves be less colorist. What Tiktok does and these Reels—I’m gonna sound like a much older person now—but like all of this technology, this new stuff kind of reaffirms these beauty standards while also providing more opportunities for representation for others and visibility for others, like visibility of darker-skinned women. I’m struggling to see the counternarrative come to the forefront though, because we still see lighter-skinned women. Especially on Instagram, these kind of like Instagram models that have a stereotypical skin tone, body shape, all of these things and so I wonder what it does to younger folx. I think about my students, who—my former students, I love y’all—some of them who were darker-skinned and who really just felt some kind of way about their hair, felt some kind of way about their skin tones still and then to have those messages reaffirmed in other teachers’ classrooms. And like the work that I had to do as a teacher to kind of be a little extra encouraging, I guess is the word I wanna use, or a little more, I would just be a lot more loving publicly on my darker-skinned girls. And I knew some of my lighter-skinned girl students were resentful of that because they were kind of used to receiving that kind of attention and care. But for me it was just like, it’s not like I treated them badly or even really worse but I wasn’t as effusive in my like “Oh my gosh, you can be at the front of the class, you can be me for a day.” I was not as effusive because I was trying to balance the scales I guess.
[00:37:32.04] Alyssa: Right. Yeah. I think it would be interesting to hear what they have to say, what’s Gen Z saying these days because we’re millennials [laughter] we’re out of the loop. Everybody’s judging us [unclear] so that’d be interesting to hear, to listen to what they have to say and what they feel we as millennials have made progress on but where we’re still lacking. But in any case, speaking of generations, Walker, she turns to analyzing the representations of Black women in literature written by Black folx in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 19th century, she finds that the characters were all fair, upper class, and beauty and Black beauty is represented as adjacent or essentially white. Even though the authors who are writing, they’re the complete opposite and they’re—it’s not like they’re spending time in these spaces. They really are spending time around the poor Black, “black black” working class. Walker says that these depictions, they created a misunderstanding of what Black beauty is, and it isn’t until Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, that this changed with the character of Janie. Walker explains that the relationship—particularly this one scene surrounding Tea Cake beating Janie and the conversations that he has after that—it really helped her articulate the way that Black men see white and light-skinned women as prizes.
[00:39:05.23] Brendane: Yeah. I mean that really struck me on multiple levels. I remember being really uncomfortable with Their Eyes Were Watching God, reading it in high school and really being able to articulate what made it so uncomfortable for me. But then, I think years later, ten years later, coming back to reading this essay and thinking about it, I’m like, “Oh yeah, there were definitely elements of this that seventeen-year-old me was able to pick up on but not really able to articulate. And one of them being, recently, I learned that my paternal grandmother was “mulatto,” which in Louisiana, just meant that she was like Creole. And my great-grandmother was also mulatto, and it’s believed that she was raped by a white man, and that’s how my grandmother came to be. And so, I would see pictures of my grandmother at my father’s house and I would be like, “who is this white woman?” honestly. But my grandmother could pass for white, and her husband—which was not my father’s father—was like a very jealous man. He would beat her often because other men found her light skin and her very straight hair attractive. So, my father believes that her husband killed her because of his jealousy, like he poisoned her essentially, because she died at the age of thirty-five. And all of this to say like this ability that Walker talks about, like when she discusses the beating of Janie, and how that allowed TeaCake to kind of affirm his power as a Black man, by beating and marking this near-white woman, I felt that deeply. My grandmother was beaten and was marked and that was a way to kind of mark this Black man’s place in the world and in some ways, as Walker says, she sees it as this way of Black men trying to upend the violence of slavery in a way by saying I can mark this white woman and then thus I am doing something to my oppressor kind of thing. Which is troubling, to say the least, but I think what’s even more troubling was the way that my father’s side of the family celebrates the “mixing” in our bloodline. So, I’m like, on my father’s side, I’m like one of the darker people. I went to a family reunion and I was like, “Who are these white people?” [laugher] but they’re my family. And I’m like among the lighter people on my mother’s side of the family. And so, it was weird to sit there and hear one of my cousins go through the ancestry [unclear] and say, “Oh we have French in our bloodline, and we have this in our bloodline, and we have Choctaw Indian this in our bloodline, and we are not just regular Black people.” In reading this essay it made me think about how Walker kind of ruminates on this other quote that says “What then can be the destiny of people that pampers and cherishes the blood of the white slaveholder who maimed and degraded their female ancestor?” And it made me think about that. Like on my father’s side of the family they really prize this mixed-ness, and they really prize this legacy of violence, right. And it’s not seen as such, it’s seen as something that propels them towards freedom, or towards a type of middle-class-ness. It’s, I was just, my mind was like blown, like, I was like, “Oh my gosh!”
[00:42:34.45] Alyssa: [Sigh] This whole essay just, it was illuminating—
[00:42:40.70] Brendane: Edges gone [laughter].
[00:42:40.73] Alyssa: —that’s gonna be my [laughter], that’s gonna be my academic way of saying it.
[00:42:44.40] Brendane: Edges gone [laughter].
[00:42:44.78] Alyssa: Because of the way that she does talk about that color hierarchy and particularly who makes use of it, right. And she comes for—like she [crosstalk] gathers the Black leaders. She’s like even pro-ass-Black-pan-African Marcus Garvey’s white—Marcus Garvey’s wife—
[00:43:06.93] Brendane: [Laughter] Uh, uh, Freudian slip [laughter].
[00:43:10.73] Alyssa: [Laughter] Freudian slip. Um, Marcus Garvey’s wife was light. Frederick Douglass’ Black wife—so his first wife. When he was enslaved—she literally helped him escape slavery.
[00:43:20.86] Brendane: Yo this pisses me off every time [laughter]
[00:43:24.60] Alyssa: [Laughter] Sold the outfit that he wore to escape and then, in freedom, married a white woman. It really reiterates this pattern of freedom as whiteness, or at least the idea of that really being ingrained in the mentalities of Black people. And so, while these men were affirming blackness in the abstract—and that’s Walker’s quote—light remained right, you know. One thing that she does do, she shouts out Malcom X for his “radical and revolutionary” act of marrying and loving openly a black black woman. It just says a lot about how ingrained colorism is that loving a dark-skinned woman is revolutionary. In doing that, in kind of shouting out and talking about Malcolm X and saying that that is, she’s also emphasizing that colorism is political. It has a political nature and it is something that needs to be discussed and talked about.
And I think that what happens when dark-skinned women do start bringing up colorism the response is that they’re being divisive. I think that’s especially common among cis-Black-men, they’ll say, “that’s divisive, any women’s issue are divisive, and we need to be united.” Of course, [laughter] these are the same men who are, one, marrying light-skin women and, two, will turn around and call those same Black women traitors to the race for marrying white men, or marrying men outside their race, even though they weren’t checking for those Black women anyways
[00:45:11.54] Brendane: Oh man it’s like the possession, the patriarchy, the colorism all wrapped up.
[00:45:19.91] Alyssa: All in one. And so, Walker, she does talk about that, that Black women often aren’t seeking out relationships with non-Black men, definitely not in the same ways Black men do. Because Alice Walker herself was married to a white man.
[00:45:32.82] Brendane: Yeah, that ended pretty quickly though.
[00:45:35.12] Alyssa: [Laughter] She says it in the essay. It was like, “I’m engaged to a white New York lawyer,” or something.
[00:45:43.46] Brendane: Yeah, I think that we’ll get to that a little bit later when we talk about academics and color politics for sure. I also wanted to like mark when we’re thinking about Black men marrying, Black cis-men and—well I don’t know if I want to get into the gay shit today—but like [laughter] it happens across sexualities and gender identities, I’ll put it there. But this part where she talks about Black men seeking out fat white women because there’s more whiteness to love. I don’t know if you caught that.
[00:46:19.28] Alyssa: I did, I did [laughter].
[00:46:22.00] Brendane: I was like, I really don’t think she’s being cheeky here. Like I really think that she’s pointing too something and you know I’ll leave it there because there are other things I could say, so I’m just gonna put a period in that remark. I don’t think she’s being cheeky.
[00:46:36:51] Alyssa: I really like the way she closes out. She says that W.E.B. Du Bois’ vision of liberation was very much a man’s vision.
[00:46:47.49] Brendane: Absolutely.
[00:46:48.40] Alyssa: Yeah, so he says that the issue of the twentieth century is the relationship between the lighter and darker races of various continents and islands of the sea. So, Walker points out that DuBois “sees clearer across seas than across the table or the street.” In particular, he doesn’t attend to what is happening within the family, within the community, within ‘the race’. And it just speaks to the way that intellectual thinking and conversation has always ignored the home, or any domain of the “woman” as not being a serious object of study. But yeah, we can really see the way that in the home, in the family, in the community, these have always been sites where society and social ills are reproduced. And this is particularly the case in the Black family.
[00:47:31.32] Brendane: Oh boy, you know. DuBois, I have just so many bones to pick. But his inability to see Black women—and when I use the word see I’m drawing on Hortense Spiller’s idea about Black women being misnamed and kind of, you know, if you want to learn more about what we think about Hortense Spiller feel free to listen to that episode—but his inability to really see Black women, especially dark-skinned Black women, as women to revere. He celebrates the rape of his female ancestors in several of his essays by always pointing to his Dutch great-grandfather. Like he’ll just throw it in and you don’t even need to know that he has one. Um, and he mentions that and the flipside of that is, how did this Dutch man become a part of your ancestry? He raped your great-grandmother. He laments, or at least I read his essays as lamenting that he cannot be seen as an equal in white society despite his light skin, his hair, his education.
And his early vision of liberation was definitely centered around being able to move freely as a white person and to be able to marry white women. And I think in his later works—because you see kind of like this disjuncture between his earlier work and his later work—I think by the time he gets to his fifties and sixties he’s disillusioned and he’s like, no matter how many accolades I possess, no matter how many Black women I disparage in my sociological studies of the city, I will always be seen as a Black man, I will always have the stain of blackness. Many scholars see that as his radical phase, where he is able to move away from integrationist politics but I see that as him accepting his place in the world as a Black educated man. And when he writes about dark-skinned Black women, he writes about them as being part of the reason why the Black race won’t be uplifted. In his sociological studies, he demonizes poor Black women and relegates them to the realm of deviance. These poor Black women with their loose morals and their inability to adhere to white standards of life and family are the reason why Black people cannot ascend.
[00:50:01.59] Alyssa: Hmm. I’m starting to understand your gripe with sociology [laughter].
[00:50:07.26] Brendane: [Laughter] It has to do with Du Bois, part of it [laughter].
[00:50:12.00] Alyssa: Yeah, I mean I loved this essay. I think it really has helped me articulate why in my adulthood I’ve become uncomfortable about people complimenting my hair and even my looks. In recent years, I’ve come to recognize that it is praise that’s given with more ease because of my complexion. I’ve also felt, in particular coming from Black men, that there is a particular value that comes with being with someone of my complexion. And so, a friend, you know, we were having this conversation about Black men who make it, who become successful and she pointed out to me that, even though I am unambiguously Black, if a “successful” Black man is going to be with a Black woman, it’s more likely to be someone like me. I know that these compliments are based on a subtle and simultaneous diminishing of dark-skinned Black women, and so this inflated self-worth that I may have had when I was younger because I kind of knew that within the Black community people valued my skin complexion more. I think it has taken on this different valence or connotation now. I feel kind of ambivalent about it because I question whether they’re actually deserved. Like does this person actually think I’m cute, or is it just because I’m light-skinned? [Laughter] Like I’ve heard a lot of people talk about certain celebrities who are overrated. They’re like, if—the thing is, if she had dark skin would people still be fawning over her that way? Or is it just because she has curly hair or light skin or hazel eyes, or whatever? And I definitely think that there’s some. I’m not gonna name anyone but—
[00:51:56.36] Brendane: I think there are so many overrated people, just in general [laughter]. But I would say that, in response to what you just said like, I don’t really know if it’s useful in sitting in that kind of uncomfortablity with your hair and looks because of other people’s internalized anti-blackness. You are cute because you are. And at the end of the day there is a privilege with that that can be used to disrupt dynamics. I think a lot of dark-skinned women especially, and dark girls, were kind of talking about how light-skin women would lament being—like there was one light-skinned woman saying people don’t see me as smart, they only see me as pretty. And it’s like, so then I had access to all these things but I want people to value that I’m smart too and so I’m just so oppressed. And it’s like, not saying that’s what you’re saying at all, but that can be what’s said. And it’s like, but girl, at the end of the day you still have access to these things so like, what’s really good? Does it matter? Does it matter?
What does it do to ruminate if you’re not disrupting these dynamics where—I mean, even at Columbia I’ve seen people discriminate against darker-skinned Black people. And myself being positioned as a darker-skinned woman, as aggressive, and seeing that—you were never in the room when this would happen—but there were other people who could have spoken up, or like who could have positioned themselves and said something and pushed back, and chose not to. And so, I see a lot of lighter-skinned people playing into dynamics of discriminating against darker-skinned people instead of using their palatability to disrupt. And I feel like there are just some things that people would rather hear from you than me. And I know it’s because I’m not really that nice but also, you know, as a darker-skinned woman, I tend to have to monitor—
[00:53:54.94] Alyssa: You don’t have to be nice. You don’t have to be nice to your oppressors.
[00:53:57.13] Brendane: I don’t. I don’t have to be nice and I choose not to be nice but because I am darker-skinned there is already the assumption that I am going to be mean right. I have to monitor my tone, I have to dress a certain way, I have to wear my makeup in a certain way to be perceived as beautiful or even sometimes to feel beautiful. I think, in conversations around colorism, people want to move away from desirability. They want to say, well colorism has affected me so much more than how I’m dating, but desirability, in my opinion. is not just about who fucks who, or who marries who, it’s really about how feminized people, especially Black women and girls, move through the world. Even, you know, the shit that’s like unrelated to dating and relationships. We talked about prison, we talked about schooling, right, is still framed through a certain politics of desirability.
[00:54:54.86] Alyssa: No, absolutely, I think that’s fair and I appreciate you calling me on that. Thinking with Audre Lorde, she writes that our feelings are paths to knowledge and that discomfort I feel has been trying to tell me something and also pushed me into action. And so, that knowledge and that feeling can also be transformed into disruptive action that makes some trouble. And so, I appreciate you pushing me on that as well. Also, what you said about people being more open to hearing—who people are more open to hearing things from, I think one of the women right at the beginning of the Dark Girls 2 documentary says that.
And it’s something that’s become very clear now in academia because of all our Zoom conferences and panels. And I think a lot of people have talked about it as well, it’s just the aesthetics of panels that call for “letting anthropology burn” or for abolition in education, they send a very particular message about who academics know, so who is in their networks, and who can even be heard saying radical things. I think that’s interesting but we are going to get into that because Walker makes this super prescient statement that in the 21st century, the problem will still be relations between the darker and lighter people of the same races—call back to Du Bois—and of women. So, let’s move forward to the part where we do the Black feminist thing of discussing what’s happening across the table and the street. Who liked that call back?
[00:56:30.79] Brendane: Ayy [laughter] I was like, I hear what you’re doing, um. [Laughter] Now is the time for our segment What in the World?!
[00:56:44.69] Alyssa: What in the world? [Sigh] So—
[00:56:48.11] Brendane: We both are like, sigh.
[00:56:49.44] Alyssa: Like where do we even start? Okay, I think this is something. I want to go back to the loophole thing [laughter].
[00:56:56.67] Brendane: Let’s go back to the loopholes
[00:56:59.21] Alyssa: And kind of the flipside of that. This is completely not scientific, this is purely anecdotal from my own experience, which we value here in Black feminist land. Personally, I have tended, this is not a rule, I have tended to see when white men are in relationships with black women, they’re with, as Alice Walker would say, “black black” women. And I’ve kind of always noted that and I find it really interesting and so I think that the essay we just read kind of helps me think about my hypothesis about that. It’s these cis-het white men have already won the social hierarchy jackpot, so they don’t need the boost of being accompanied by a white or light-skinned woman, whereas for Black men, a white or racially ambiguous woman is a status symbol, it means he’s made it, as we talked about earlier. Of course, I’m not going to reduce it to just that, there’s more to it, like socialized standards of beauty and all these other things, but that’s been my very non-scientific take on it.
[00:58:04.26] Brendane: I mean yeah, I think about even in the commercials that we watch, right. Like I know we’ve all—or maybe I don’t know, people may not be watching tv like me, but I have picked up on what Target and Walmart and etcetera have been putting down with these couple arrangements and the lack of darker-skinned people being paired together in these couple relationships that they show on these tv shows. And I think that even within academia, it’s difficult to find a couple where both people are dark-skinned. Usually, I’m thinking about people that I see in passing at conferences and things like that, and I usually see Black men with light-skinned or white women. There’s only one light-skinned Black male academic who I know personally who has a dark-skinned wife. So, I wonder if people did the test that, you know, Maya Angelique did where she was talking about the rappers and their light-skinned wives. I wonder if people did that for academia, what would be revealed.
[00:59:15.64] Alyssa: A lot, a lot, a lot, a lot. I think we also saw the ad for the series Black Love on the Oprah Network. It was like, people were really critiquing the ad that came out and the network came back and said that we do have dark-skinned people on the show, nevertheless the ad only featured women lighter than a paper bag on it.
[00:59:38.60] Brendane: Right, who do you see as marketable.
[00:59:41.20] Alyssa: And then, what message does that send about who’s worthy of love, and Black love at that?
[00:59:49.04] Brendane: Right. What really was disturbing for me was that all of the wives that they showed on the ad could pass the paper bag test. Like some of them you had to be like, “Black Love?” raised eyebrow [laughter] and we know—
[01:00:05.44] Alyssa: Black-ish?
[01:00:06.40] Brendane: Black-ish Love, and but you know, Kenya Barris has a whole fantasy—
[01:0012.95] Alyssa: A whole series, two series.
[01:00:14.80] Brendane: Whole two series about the ideal Black wife who is a biracial woman. And so, what these messages tell us, of course, is that, one thing, first things first, they do not believe in queer couples as being an example of Black love. And I think that’s actually a commonly held belief.
[01:00:34.35] Alyssa: There was one though, I remember. There was one in the ad.
[01:00:37.90] Brendane: In like the second ad? Or?
[01:00:41.06] Alyssa: I can’t remember, but I remember there was [laughter] a tweet and someone put a paper bag over the other couples and I do remember them doing that with the queer couple as well.
[01:00:52.93] Brendane: [Laughter] The paper bag. So, there was one queer couple, and I think both of them—
[01:00:58.00] Alyssa: But one is not representation. Like one is not equivalent to inclusion and diversity, if you want to use that language
[01:01:05.36] Brendane: For sure. But like both of them could pass the paper bag test, I think, with that couple. So, it was just like, when queer folk are included, what do they have to look like? And I’m gonna leave it at that. But it also says and sends the message that women who look like me or are darker then me are undeserving of a certain type of Black love. Dark-skinned women are not seen as the prize. Alice Walker tells us, she is a marker of slavery, of poverty, of an African-ness that has been demonized in a white supremacist culture. One cannot ascend and be wealthy and be black Black. Walker, in her essay even, talks about this, how the Black middle class throughout the 19th and 20th century hated dark-skinned Black women, specifically, those who were in the working class, and discriminated against them because they represented—they were a little too close to that slavery past. And even if we look at the Civil Rights Movement! Honey. Martin Luther King Jr. I said this already before, so I’m not going to repeat myself but I do believe, in my unscientific opinion, that one of the major pushes behind integration was so that Black men could be with white women without the fear of direct violence, like lynching.
[01:02:30.20] Alyssa: Mm hmm, interesting. I mean, we talked about this in another episode but we also saw this with Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks was chosen to be the face of desegregation because she was a light-skin woman, she was more palatable. So, people would be more empathetic towards seeing her get beaten up and arrested probably because she’s markable as much as she is marketable. I think that, as I was kind of saying in the previous segment, I think we’re really starting to see how colorism extends into academia. And now we’re touching on very touchy territory right, because people don’t like to talk about this. And I think now in the time of COVID, we’re having all these conferences and it’s just become so much clearer who people are willing and able to hear from, especially on radical or activist politics. And so, all of these conferences are online, they have all of these panels and it’s like, “Do we need to bring paper bags?” [Laughter]
[01:03:33.61] Brendane: I think I tweeted that. I was like, “And next time I come to a panel, I’mma bring my paper bag with me,” and, you know, people who got it, got it.
[01:03:42.20] Alyssa: We’ve been hypothesizing about it as well. Is it like, just an effect of people asking who they know, who they know will help them out. And you know, as you talked about earlier, light-skin they tend to have mostly light-skin friends and vice versa. But could it also be just the fact that the Ivory Tower itself is more welcoming to light-skinned people. I think that’s something that talked about is that despite both being Black at the same institution, our experiences around anti-blackness are quite different. For me, among many things, but I think it’s because of my complexion, but also because I’m an international student, and because my research is easily legible as anthropological in the traditional sense, and so, for me, I receive more along the lines of microaggressions than anything blatant.
[01:04:29.82] Brendane: Yeah, I mean, in my experience the most striking thing that has ever been said to me was that I shouldn’t expect to produce any type of scholarship that would actually be good or ground-breaking. And I didn’t internalize it as colorism because this was coming from a white person but I think it is interesting in talking to you and talking to another light-skin Black woman that’s in our program—hey, girl. And also talking to another darker-skinned woman in our program and she and I tend to have similar experiences along the lines of being called hostile or treated as hostile even when we are not being hostile. And so, I do think that that is—I think I might have to, maybe we could do a little thing among ourselves at our institution, like what’s really happening. Because I think at an institutional level, they’re like all of y’all are Black but then there are variations in our experience for sure.
[01:05:37.10] Alyssa: Absolutely, I think yeah, it would be really interesting to do a little round table around that.
[01:05:42.02] Brendane: Which, I think, brings us to our next example here.
[01:05:46.29] Alyssa: Oh Lordy [laughter]
[01:05:47.55] Brendane: [Sigh] We have to talk. We mentioned Jessica Krug in previous episodes but we wanted to bring it back to her here and to use her as like a flash point to think about the fetishization of light-skinned and Latinx identity in academia. So much to say, so much to say.
[01:06:08.67] Alyssa: I thought it was Jessica Krug, [crosstalk] not that I always pronounce [laughter] I like Krug, I’m gonna go with that [laughter] and just let folx know that we’re talking about the same person [laughter]. So, for those of you who don’t know, Jessica Krug is one of the many—not just her, but many—recent academic Rachel Dolezals. Why do y’all always have these difficult to pronounce last names, by the way? Like confusing last names to pronounce.
[01:06:36.54] Brendane: I don’t know, I don’t know, it adds to their spiciness [laughter].
[01:06:41.62] Alyssa: She is a white woman, and she has been claiming Afro-Latina identity. And so, she’s been going by the name Jess La Bombalera in activist circles. I believe that she’s from Kansas, yes, Kansas. In her confession/apology that she wrote on Medium, which she published before people could out her, she said that she first claimed North African ancestry, and then she was claiming a generic Latina ancestry, and then she settled on being Afro-Latina from El Barrio. And I’m just like, she was just out there being like, “I’m every Negrooooo” [singsong to the tune of “I’m Every Woman”] [laughter]. I’m like, what was she doing?
[01:07:32.29] Brendane: Yes, definitely. I mean it just highlights so much about colorism within Black communities. I think that she definitely used her “racial ambiguity” to claim every type of Black there is and could possibly be. And if you saw pictures of her as a child, because when she was revealed to be a white woman, it was like a very blonde-brown hair, she just had a large nose and so what she did to help assume her identity was dye her hair black. And on top of that, she developed this kind of traumatic backstory where she said, “Oh, I don’t know who my father is but my mother is a darker-skinned Black woman who was raped by a white man. And it’s, but that’s like formula for a white woman to pass as Black, apparently you have to have a fake traumatic backstory, and then you add into the recipe some dark curly hair, get you a little slight tan, and, you know, bam boom, Black woman. And [laughter] I think people really accepted her, and all these other white women who are now being revealed, as Black because of their own internalized anti-blackness. And they were able to give them this power and status because these women represented what was written, as Alice Walker talks about, written in these literally traditions. Where we see the tragic mulatta which shows us that the ideal Black woman is actually not black at all.
[01:09:10.72] Alyssa: Oohhhh.
[01:09:12.17] Brendane: Like she’s actually not Black at all. The ideal Black woman is as far away from Black as possible.
[01:09:18.34] Alyssa: Wheewww. That is [pause] ahhh, Brendane, I don’t believe you brought that up.
[01:09:24.42] Brendane: So, they’re able to kind of encapsulate that and pick up on this fantasy of transcending and escaping Blackness. And so, Black people are like, “Oh, here’s power, here’s status, you can have it.” And my friend, Naomi Simmons-Thorne, she was remarking about this on twitter as well. She was like, “Call me what you will, but I don’t find these stories unrelated to the fact that light/biracial/multiracial/ambiguous women are the standard representation for Black women in the media.” So, these Black women in academia, or these white women pretending to be Black women in academia, are capitalizing on this fetishization of [light-skinned] Black women, right. This idea that the ideal Black woman is actually not Black at all to ascend to power within our communities, it’s sick and tragic.
[01:10:18.30] Alyssa: Absolutely. It’s awful. And I remember reading the tweets after all of this was revealed and people were saying, you know, I knew her in this fellowship program or I was around her at this conference and she was always very loud about her identity and she always made others feel not Afro-Latinx enough and—
[01:10:45.45] Brendane: Did you see where she sent somebody a Venmo request for her time and energy as a Black woman explaining certain aspects of [laughter]—
[01:10:56.38] Alyssa: I did, I did see that. Wow. And then to capitalize on it as well? Okay.
[01:11:02.42] Brendane: Literally.
[01:11:03.00] Alyssa: So then to see people being like, you know, I just, I felt like there was something off, people would say, but that they didn’t—they just thought that, you know, they chalked it up to her trauma. And they were like well, who am I to say she’s not Black or she’s not Afro-Latinx or whatever. One, I think that that shows how much Black women have been gas-lit our entire lives.
[01:11:27.38] Brendane: Period. Period.
[01:11:28.00] Alyssa: To be like, I feel there’s something wrong here but lemme just look past it because, it’s like I said on the last episode, we’re just gonna let everybody on the Soul Train without checking their tickets! It’s like the reaction to this exclusion is a kind of hyper inclusion that makes us gaslight ourselves.
[01:11:47.41] Brendane: Literally. It’s like some of y’all Soul Train tickets were literally made in Photoshop and I’mma let y’all unpack what I mean by that. And I think something that was so disappointing to me was the number of Black women who talked about, as you were saying, talked about how they believed her when she would say she was Black because they had never been believed. I was like, what, wait a minute! One thing that people will always believe about those of us who are unambiguously Black is that we’re Black! They will not believe anything else about us because of the fact that we are actually Black. We will not be seen as victims, we will not be seen as, you know, insert the descriptor here, because of our blackness. So, to flip that around and be like, “Oh, this person who doesn’t actually look like me, doesn’t experience the same type of violent experience that I would experience as a Black woman, but I’m going to believe her, allow her to take up space and power, because of my own trauma around my undeniable, visible Blackness.” I was heartbroken.
[01:13:01.02] Alyssa: It’s like I’m gonna extend the grace that I’ve never received as someone who—
[01:13:05.20] Brendane: Who would get the grace, and doesn’t need it. And who would get it? Who would [sigh] it’s like, [sigh]. That’s the other thing about this, just like these white women who are outed, y’all could just be white and still have access to these things. And so, I think about all of the money and access and power that she took away from actual Black women just because folx were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. The number of Black men who came to her defense when Black women would call her out on her troublesome backstory! Like Black women activists who were like actually this don’t add up girl and the Black men would like come out in her defense and like actually harm these Black women and harm their reputations and they claimed that Jessica Krug was their best friend—Krüg, Krug, Krügalicious—um, was their best friend. I think even though these Black men, a lot of them were queer, right, there’s still a certain desirability politics that plays out within these relationships and it’s fascinating to me.
[01:14:12.80] Alyssa: Yeah, I mean, with all of that said, we’re checking tickets y’all [laughter] if you’re trying to get on this Soul Train—
[01:14:19.37] Brendane: [Laughter] On the Zora’s Daughters Soul Train [laughter] We wanna know, and I think, I mean, we’re seeing now these like academics who people would call white-passing are actually putting pictures of their family, actually being like, “Okay, let me write this story of myself so that way I can have some type of back up when people try to come for me.’
[01:14:44.26] Alyssa: I mean there was that tweet and it was like, “If you have to post photos of your grandparents to prove that you’re Black, you can say that you have Black heritage without claiming the identity.” That’s fine.
[01:14:56.29] Brendane: Yeah, you can say, “I have African ancestry,” and it’s cool. Because what I have been really just like witnessing though is that people who are “white passing” will be or would be or operate as white in white spaces and will not say, “Oh, actually gotcha,’ [laughter] “Gotcha, y’all let me in and now I’m bout to invite a whole bunch of Black people and shake shit up in here.” It’s like, oh, actually, I’m going to rest in the fact that you see me as one of you and then claim that I am also representing Black people and that deeply troubles me.
[01:15:42.00] Alyssa: I think going back to what you were saying about desirability politics and how that plays out, I think we have to talk about skin bleaching and the harm of that. In Jamaica, skin bleaching is an epidemic. The singer Spice, Vybz Kartel, if you look at a picture today compared to ten, fifteen years ago, you’re like, “Okay, why do you look this way?” And so, it’s not just about being thought of as more attractive, although that’s included. As you’ve said, desirability politics isn’t just about sexual or erotic desirability, I think it’s pointing to an aesthetics. And aesthetics isn’t just about how something looks, it’s also about the coherence and the effect or power that coherence then has. So, in Jamaica you’re more likely to find brown people in higher paid, customer facing jobs because light skin is associated with professionalism, upper class luxury, and so on. So, they fit in or cohere with the image a company or brand really wants to portray. Nicole Dennis-Benn’s book Here Comes the Sun deals with colorism and skin bleaching in this really nuanced way. It follows these two sisters, Margot who works at a resort in Jamaica but she’s working there to send her younger sister to school, and the younger sister, Thandi, she suffers, like she does these crazy things, to bleach her skin lighter. And she goes so far as wrapping her skin in cling film with the bleaching cream on and then going in the sun. It’s awful.
[01:17:22.40] Brendane: Mm hmm. I read that first year in graduate school in a course and colorism was the huge part of what made Margot marketable as far as, because you learn that she was engaged in sex trafficking as a child and then does sex work as an adult. And so, you just learn the dynamics of how and why that’s possible and most of it is through skin color and yeah, it’s a really wonderful book. Highly recommend. And, I mean, I think about like we talked a lot about colorism’s dynamics in the U.S. but I feel like in Jamaica, a majority Black country, it makes sense but also, it’s kind of like, “Mm, why skin bleach in a place where you’re surrounded by Black people?”
[01:18:12.20] Alyssa: Yeah. I’m not going to say I’m an expert. I’m kind of just making an educated guess. Skin bleaching is very common there, it’s not common here, but it’s also common in certain parts of Africa, of course India and some parts of Southeast Asia where bleach is in every skin care product. But there is a definite hierarchy of color, and so it does have some roots in slavery but it’s also rooted in class. So light skin people in Jamaica are the upper class and the working class is dark-skinned. So, I think that’s why you could kind of see Bob Marley attain the success that he did. Because at that time, a weed smoking “radical” artist with dark-skin? It wouldn’t, it wouldn’t, would not, would not happen. But those same politics of desirability or aesthetics worked in his favor in that. We were like, okay, well he’s more acceptable, more palatable, so I can listen to his music and hear him. And if he’s doing it, somebody whose father is white, f he’s doing it then that makes it a little bit more acceptable because it’s almost being co-signed by the upper classes just by virtue of his skin complexion even though he wasn’t of the upper class.
[01:19:23.50] Brendane: That’s so interesting. Also highlights how little I know about Bob Marley and I’ve been ragged on that by our advisor.
[01:19:33.69] Alyssa: You see my little painting back there, I painted it.
[01:19:37.79] Brendane: Ohhh. Yo, Alyssa has so many talents.
[01:19:42.94] Alyssa: It was a paint by number, don’t get it twisted. It was paint by numbers.
[01:19:46.26] Brendane: Again, Alyssa has so many talents [laughter] cause I would not be painting by number. I think the last thing that we can mention—there’s so many examples of colorism we could talk about within and outside of the African American community, but this one in particular is within the African American community. And I want you to pull up a chair, y’all sit down. Why, on anybody’s earth, world, spirit realm, circle of hell, would y’all have Kamala Harris replacing Ruby Bridges in a picture? And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, there was this image circulating right after the results of the election were announced even though, supposedly, there’s still a question mark on that. And Kamala Harris is VP elect and they had her walking on the sidewalk—so there’s a common painting of Ruby Bridges who was one of the first Black people to integrate a segregationist school walking along the sidewalk and you can see her shadow behind her. These people replaced Ruby Bridges, a dark-skinned Black girl, with Kamala Harris in her pumps and her suit and said this is progress. And it’s like, why are we sitting in this colorist, liberal imagination, that progress is a light-skinned biracial woman utterly replacing a Black girl. Like the only thing that’s left of Ruby Bridges is shadow and even that is like, what? What? A shadow? Like, you know, dark-skin people, that is one of the like—are you serious? [Sigh] Are you serious? Are we doing this? Here? In the year 2020 we are, this is why we’re talking about it. [Laughter]
[01:21:47.00] Alyssa: [Laughter] Are we still doing this?
[01:21:48.01] Brendane: We’re still doing this and I think we will see those images of Kamala sitting on the bus with Rosa and you know, I don’t know if you’ve seen those paintings—
[01:22:59.00] Alyssa: That’s already happened? Or are you—
[01:22:01.03] Brendane: Yes. Or the like, she’s sitting at a table with Harriet and Fanny Lou Hamer and Ella Baker. Have you seen this Rosa?
[01:22:12:91] Alyssa: I think I heard—alright, someone’s going to be annoyed at me but, you know, someone said that Michelle Obama walked so Kamala Harris could run [laughter]. And it’s like uh, I don’t mean to—so this was on another podcast and one of the co-hosts was like, “Well, I would say that Shirley Chisholm did the walking,” but I’m like did she really walk? She was in the senate, you know, I don’t think that’s necessarily a good or a useful phrase, I suppose. Especially considering that Shirley Chisholm was a dark-skinned unambiguously Black woman and so to say that her work made space for Kamala Harris is a little conflicting.
[01:22:57.56] Brendane: I mean, yes, but why you gotta do it like that? But that’s how it works, right? Like darker-skinned women tend to pave the way, make the way for all of us. Like our ancestors who were forced to come here, made a way for all of us. So, that part I’m like, I can agree with, but the replacing the image, that is the part that trips me out. Or, or having her sit at the table with all of these darker-skinned women and being like what they’re doing is the same. It’s not. Like why y’all disrespect my girl Harriet like that? Like don’t do that to Harriet.
[01:23:41.79] Alyssa: Here we go running over the time again, as we are wont to do. But thank you all for listening. If you heard something today that made you laugh, helped you rethink something, or made you question yourself or the world around you then we just have one ask, share this episode with someone you think hasn’t heard an episode before!
[01:24:03.10] Brendane: Yes, we love hearing from you and we’ve really appreciated the conversations that we’ve been having in our DMs! Especially on insta, our DMs stay poppin. So, if you want to learn more, head to zorasdaughters.com and you’ll find transcripts for the episodes, our bios, contact info, and ways to support the podcast!
[01:24:26.70] Alyssa: Alright, thanks everyone, be kind to yourselves. Bye.
[01:24:29.62] Brendane: Bye.
[END OF RECORDING]