‘Stop acting light-skinned’ and other stupid colorism comments

Why black folks need to knock it off with skin color jokes

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Jan 31 · 5 min read
Photo credit: Shots by Priiincesss

“Stop acting light-skinned.”

“She acts like that ’cause she’s light-skinned.”

“He has dark-skinned tendencies.”

“You better stay out the sun before you get too black.”

hese kinds of comments make me cringe. It’s not quite ignorance because we know the weight it carries; it’s more like obliviousness or a defense mechanism. For African-Americans specifically, it is next to impossible to avoid acknowledging how colorism affects us.

Lighter-complexioned people may be:

Even darker-skinned white people (i.e. lowest percentiles of skin reflectance) “have a probability of arrest more similar to the lightest-skinned black men than to the lightest-skinned white men … ambiguous range of skin color would afford the highest probability of white individuals being misclassified as [an] outgroup.”* In other words, that tan that non-black people are getting (or biracial folks) may be working against them, according to the criminal justice system. And police who racially profile are left confused about what to do with you.

Assata Shakur, Rosa Parks and Angela Davis pounded the pavement and spoke up for all black folks — not just their “team.” And Harriet Tubman was trying to save everybody she physically could.

Additionally, unless your school history books are full of delusional tales that downplay the significance of slavery during the Civil War, ignore Jim Crow laws and breeze past segregation, then you’re fully aware of the torture and separation that pitted “house slaves” (usually lighter, most likely to be the product of slave owners raping their slaves) against “field slaves” (usually darker).

So when I think about the kind of heavy history pitting dark-skinned black people and light-skinned black people against each other, the last thing I want to do is participate in putting us in boxes based solely on our melanin count. American history has done enough to divide us. We don’t need to do it, too.


Photo credit: The Jopwell Collection

My father’s side of the family is every shade of brown — Dove milk chocolate to Godiva dark chocolate. My mother’s side leans more toward pound cake and carrot cake. And I’ve heard plenty of stories regarding my lighter-skinned family members who were bullied simply for looking how they look and the same complaints from ones who look like me.

I was naive enough to believe that my family was not the type who would feed into skin color preferences — that is, until I had a conversation with a cousin that made me take the topic of colorism on. I knew I’d lose him completely if I just started attacking him with stats and telling him that his dating type was “wrong.” Instead, I chose to patiently explain the history of colorism — and then leave the topic alone. Once he had the information, it was up to him to decide what he wanted to do with it. In turn, he made a decision that I had no control over and I couldn’t help but be moved by it.

Photo credit: Caio Cardenas/Pexels

So when I hear people — specifically one online radio personality who loves to do it to his light-skinned co-hosting deejay— constantly try to keep this kind of self-hate going in 2020, it’s annoying as hell. Too many young, impressionable listeners will use it as ammunition to be this petty in their own lives. And the stereotypes continue.

If you’re a light-skinned male, you’re supposedly overly emotional, weaker and sensitive. If you’re dark-skinned, you must be about that life, made of steel and rarely nice. But the truth of the matter is Chris Brown is as light-skinned as Drake and Wayne Brady is as dark-skinned as Meek Mill. And I’m willing to bet that Drake and Wayne Brady are both better at mingling with the who’s who at parties and would nail customer service jobs if they weren’t famous.

Then here come the stereotypes about women. Light-skinned women are supposedly stuck-up, know they’re bad, think every man wants them and are generally off-putting. Meanwhile dark-skinned women are accused of being the least attractive of their friends, always ready to fight, and least likely to find a man of importance/good looks. However, Iman has been beautiful since her 1976 cover with Vogue (long before she paid much attention to David Bowie) while Lisa Bonet has never been a supermodel.

And while Bonet has always matched Jason Momoa’s fly and Nicole Ari Parker looks stunning with Boris Kodjoe, the same can be said for Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade, Angela Bassett and actor Courtney Vance, Savannah James and LeBron James, Pauletta Pearson Washington and Denzel Washington, Meagan Good and Devon Franklin, and former President Barack H. Obama and Michelle Obama.

Even when it comes to activism, Assata Shakur, Rosa Parks and Angela Davis pounded the pavement and spoke up for all black folks — not just their “team.” And Harriet Tubman was trying to save everybody she physically could.

I respect all of the people mentioned above. But these examples are a few of millions in which folks could not be placed into a certain category or personality based exclusively on the complexion of skin. And by perpetuating the stereotype that someone must be a certain way because of physical traits alone, we’re taking on the mindset of slave owners.

So the next time you refer to someone as “acting light-skinned/dark-skinned,” know who you got that brainwashing from. And use that energy to educate others and dismiss it from your own mentality. Try lifting each other up instead of helping those who hate us divide and conquer.

* Source: “Complicating Colorism: Race, Skin Color, and the Likelihood of Arrest,” 2017, Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, Volume 3: 1–17


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I Do See Color

“Seeing” color is no more a problem than “seeing” height. Disrespect and discrimination is the issue.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

15-year vegetarian journalist/editor; part-time dog walker and dog sitter; Toastmasters member and 5x officer; WERQ dance and yoga enthusiast; Shamontiel.com

I Do See Color

“Seeing” color is no more a problem than “seeing” height. Disrespect and discrimination is the issue.

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