It’s Time to Talk About Our Light-Skinned Leadership

Ashley Simpo
Oct 22, 2018 · 6 min read
All images captured by Kwesi Abbensetts

I remember the first time anyone ever called me “light skinned.” It wasn’t until my first day at Frick Middle School when a boy named Milton leaned over in first period and said:

“Aye. What you mixed with?”

My lineage was Chapter 8 in our social studies book: slavery.

We, us black children, are sorted into rows and sections based on the distance between us and our nearest white ancestor.

If you’re dark:

you should say less

expect less

and show some talent to express your worth.

If you’re fair:

you’re given more passes

you’re forgiven quicker

you’re versatile and exotic.

I barter with my consciousness on occasion, hoping it’s just a coincidence that some of our most prolific and recognizable black faces would pass the paper bag test with flying colors. We all know with certainty that Barack Obama got a pass because his mother was white. If not by the powers who got him into the White House, then by the millions of moments in his life when he was given a ‘yes’ when a darker complected man would have received a ‘no.’

Because everyone wants to believe in a great beige hope.

All images captured by Kwesi Abbensetts


In the last six years, the most important strides taken by the black community have been in political activism and self-empowerment. The Black Girl Magic movement happened alongside the Black Lives Matter movement which happened alongside the new Natural Hair movement — providing a keen education for those of us who may have forgotten how pivotal black community presence can be. Yay. However, I can’t help but notice how quickly these black moments got whitewashed.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee during that pre-season game last year, the country lost its collective mind. While white people burned their Kaepernick jerseys, black people wore theirs with brand new meaning — it was a statement of black uprising. But he wasn’t the only NFL player to take this notable bow against police brutality. Michael Bennet, Marquise Goodwin, Adrian Colbert, Jeremy Lane were just a few of the other players who took a knee in the wake of high profile police shootings. Why haven’t they gotten much press?

If this movement hadn’t been started by a biracial black man with white parents, would it have become a movement at all?

This isn’t some recent development in black history. Many of our most radical social justice representatives have sported lighter skin and straighter hair — W.E.B. Du Bois, Huey P. Newton, Gwen Fontaine, Angela Davis, Kathleen Cleaver, Françoise Vergès, Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Harry Belafonte, Cornel West — their aggression muted and made palatable somehow. More recently, aside from Colin Kaepernick: Jessie Williams, Ava Duvernay, Angela Rye, Michaela Angela Davis, Common, Cory Booker, Shaun King, Elaine Welterorth. Yes, they’re all delivering strong, positive black messages, but they’re also examples of how fair skin — biracial or otherwise — helps that messaging cross over.

If you have darker skin, you can’t just be relevant or cool, you have to be fascinating. You have to be true-black like Duckie Thot, or androgynous-black like Grace Jones, or dressed-up-in-approachable-negro gear like Deray McKesson or married to the president like Michelle Obama. You can’t be too aggressive or take up more space than anyone wants to give you and you cannot make too many mistakes. You can come from the hood, but you must shed 80% of your hood tendencies (if you’re not gonna rap). You can be black but you must speak proper white English. You can be woke but not angry, and if you are angry, please be light-skinned and pleasant-faced. These are the rules every black person learns when they enter the real world, and these are the rules that bind even our social leaders.

Blackness takes up too much space — this we know, and can’t afford to pretend not to know.

All images captured by Kwesi Abbensetts

The most recent natural hair movement is no exception.

This natural hair movement was originally intended for girls like me — women who for such a long time were told that their natural hair was nothing more than an inconvenience. It was quickly hijacked, however. Suddenly it was just another measurement of beauty that “regular” black girls couldn’t reach. The braid-outs, the twist-outs, the curl manipulators, the extreme methods of loosening one’s hair grade so that it can hang instead of stick up was brought about by this new standard of natural hair — curly, not nappy. And with that shift, we once again traded one hair-taming method for another, to satisfy a white audience, or worse, ourselves. The black hair movement eventually became championed by mixed women including afro-latinas with big, voluminous curls that hung around their fair-skinned faces and none of us even knew how to begin taking issue with it.

Some of us even opted for “natural” wigs because we couldn’t do the natural thing, naturally.

All images captured by Kwesi Abbensetts

Black activists are heroes, no matter their DNA makeup. No matter their hair grade or skin tone or freckle ratio. These brothers and sisters and non-cis leaders are deserving of the highest regard and praise for the work they do and the example they set. These are history-makers. But for every light-skinned history maker, there are a dozen whose pain, story and fight has gone relatively overlooked, who isn’t as cool on Instagram: Tarana Burke, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Erica Garner.

The question that burns in my mind is out of pure curiosity:

Do we need fair-skinned activists to get ahead as a people?

Black activism — whether for social justice or physical self-acceptance — has to be sold just like any other form of entertainment. There must be a hashtag, a t-shirt, a red carpet event, a public-facing plea to the powers that be and there must be an easily digestible black face pinned to that message. This package is then fodder for water cooler conversations, where the acceptably-black news bite from the previous weekend gets thrown around in an effort to sound woke, but also perfectly non-radical.

It’s a careful balance.

All images captured by Kwesi Abbensetts

We all walk around carrying the weight of the light-skinned slave complex, but we don’t say much about it because, after all, why sully the name of any of the voices of our generation just because they’ve gained acceptance? The conversation doesn’t have to and shouldn’t result in a dethroning, but the message should be made clear:

We need voices of all colors, shades and backgrounds to make an impact, no matter how comfortable we are with promoting those voices.

We must remind ourselves, and each other, that white supremacy should not rule the way we think about our activism. Regardless of how it’s received, our drive to uplift each other should have less to do with the masses and more to do with ourselves — all of us. It is, by far, more effective to teach a young black child her worth than it is to teach black worth to white people.

Your melanin may at times determine how you’re received.

Your melanin may at times determine the impact of your opinions.

Your melanin (or lack thereof) should never be a measure of your worth.

Are you one of THOSE PEOPLE? Write with us.


A black magazine for people too hip for black magazines. Get at us:

Thanks to Felicia Megan Gordon

Ashley Simpo

Written by

Freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.


A black magazine for people too hip for black magazines. Get at us:

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade