How the Language We Use Perpetuates Oppressive Systems

The words we use have the power to uphold anti-blackness worldwide.

Renée Cherez
Oct 22, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo By: deagreez

Dolled in red lipstick, my short hairstyle styled to my satisfaction and dressed in all-black, I was set for dinner with my boyfriend at the time and his aunt.

Dinner was at one of our favorite Jamaican restaurants, and because my “aunt-in-law” was in town, it was the perfect place to take her, if only for the strong drinks.

Since my relationship spanned four years, this wasn’t the first time we all spent time together, and I enjoyed the company of his aunt as I found her fun and easy-going.

As we got settled into our seats at the cozy restaurant lit only by the candles on each table and decorative bulbs hanging from the ceiling, we browsed around, at each other, and our menus.

She, a light-skin woman, believed I was pretty for a dark-skin girl. I suppose I should have felt honored in some way.

Maybe even honored that I, a dark-skin girl, could date her handsome, light-skin nephew. I don’t recall my response, and quite honestly don’t believe I had one.

Neither did my ex. But I remember feeling bothered and anxious. As I recall that evening and any other experience related to my skin color, I become bothered and anxious, and a little angry.

In sixth grade, I started a new school in a new city, with mostly Black and Brown students, which was different, considering I grew up with primarily white students before moving.

Sixth grade was my introduction to colorism before I knew what colorism was, and I felt and heard from other students that my dark-skin was a problem.

From being called “blackie” in the hallways and classrooms, to hearing “I don’t like dark-skin girls,” and “You’re so Black,” my self-esteem was non-existent.

No adult was nurturing my younger self to let me know that the skin I was inhabiting and had no choice in choosing was beautiful and enough.

There was no television show or role model in the eurocentric mainstream media I could look to to see my reflection, not even a glimpse.

I have a memory of my younger brother and I watching the famous 90s television show Moesha starring Brandy Norwood and he said the singer and songwriter was ugly because of her skin tone.

Ironically, my brother and I share the same dark skin tone as Brandy.

As I progressed through middle school and high school, I became exposed to new music, music videos, and observed which Black girls were lauded.

Light-skin girls, with long straight hair, were popular and were the kind of girls the boys wanted, regardless of their own skin tone.

Light-skin girls were adorned with words like ‘redbone’ which can be heard throughout rap and R&B lyrics to describe them.

In Jamaican dancehall and reggae music, the patois term ‘brownin’ is often used to refer to light-skin women, and the word ‘fair skin’ is used globally to describe white and lighter complexions, regardless of race and nationality.

Just like white supremacy intended, my dark skin teenage self internalized colorist ideas.

I believed the light skin girls in high-school thought they were the end all be all of Black girls causing me to think about them in disparaging ways.

To be honest, some of them did think they were the shit, but only because they too internalized colorist ideas and believed what society conditioned them to believe.

Before full-time travel, I was unaware of how colorism was sewn into the Asian cultures I was visiting and what it actually meant for the people.

Unlike colorism in America — a byproduct of American slavery, colorism in countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia is linked to status, education, income, and class systems.

Generally, darker skin signifies inferiority and people who may work in agriculture, construction, or any work that exposes them to outdoor elements, like the sun.

Lighter skin tones represent superiority and individuals who work in offices and in what would be considered “good jobs” and come from “good families.”

“It becomes clear — for some — that the more closely one resembles the invader, the more comfortable one’s life may become.” — James Baldwin

Words like ‘fair skin’ seem innocuous but carry the weight of oppressive systems.

Every time it’s used, it tells the story of colonialism, white supremacy, and genocides.

It tells generations of people their value lies in their proximity to whiteness, and without that proximity, they are valueless and their skin color is wrong because it is not white.

Like most dark skin women who’ve heard the racial microaggression “You’re pretty for a dark skin girl,” the aggressor usually doesn’t intend to insult but instead offer what they believe to be a compliment.

I choose to believe my ex’s aunt didn’t intend to insult me and was operating from her light skin privilege and internalized oppression.

Anti-blackness and white supremacy are deeply engrained into the language we use.

It is incumbent that we resist using such words and unlearn colorist ideas like this that perpetuate the oppressive systems we aim to dismantle.

Renée Cherez is a moon-loving, mermaid believing empath seeking truth, justice, and freedom. Feel free to read more of her writing on Medium here. Follow her on Instagram to indulge in her *sometimes* overly long captions on travel, self-discovery, and social justice.

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Renée Cherez

Written by

Renée Cherez is a Black woman writer creating magic at the intersections of travel and Black liberation. Follow her on Instagram + Twitter (@reneecherez).

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

Renée Cherez

Written by

Renée Cherez is a Black woman writer creating magic at the intersections of travel and Black liberation. Follow her on Instagram + Twitter (@reneecherez).

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

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