For centuries, Black women and girls have been burdened by the impacts of Eurocentric beauty standards. These beauty standards have infiltrated the Black community and have divided us, as it has created its own structure of colorism that now runs rampant throughout the community. As we carry this grievance, it has grown to forms of self-hatred bartered by colorism. As a young Black woman in high school, I have seen first hand how harmful these standards have been not only to myself but also to my community.
The Black community has separated Black women’s skin color into three different categories: dark skin, brown skin (also referred to as red bone), and light skin (also referred to as yellow bone). These separation tactics go as far as to divide women by their natural set undertones. A yellow bone is a Black person who is light-skinned and has yellowish undertones in their skin color. A red bone is a Black person who is in between light skin and dark skin and has reddish undertones. As Black women, we have been trained to fight to not be categorized as dark-skinned because we have internalized that to be dark is not to be beautiful.
This harmful and problematic categorization has also extended itself into social media. It has become a trend on youtube as well as on tiktok to do “public interviews”; these interviews feature people going around in public places asking intrusive questions. One of the most common questions I see being asked is, “Do you prefer light skins or dark skins?” Black men commonly give the same answer in these interviews; they say they prefer light-skinned women. This answer is then met with an immediate degradation of darker-skinned women, as these men’s faces shrivel up with disgust when asked why they don’t prefer dark-skinned women. Their common responses include the following:
“I have never been the type to mess with a dark-skinned female.”
“Dark skins be feisty and wallin’ sometimes.”
“I could never see myself with a dark skin.”
“Light skins look better.”
“Light skins only because they treat you better.”
“Them b*tches are ashy.”
Countless times, dark-skinned Black women are utterly disrespected on social media platforms, but this internalized racism is then concealed by the argument that these are just “preferences.” These men basically claim that they like light-skinned women while simultaneously humiliating dark-skinned Black women. In other words, the problematic comments they make somehow means that they just have a “preference,” when in fact, it reveals the depth of their internalized racism.
If Black men don’t value Black women’s beauty, how can we expect other groups to as well?
As a young Black girl who attends a predominantly white private school in New York City, I have struggled with recognizing that I am desirable. Colorism and racism have infiltrated my self-esteem and for a while, I understood that I would always be a person’s last choice romantically, regardless of their race. Growing up in a pool of whiteness never allowed me to see my own beauty for what it is, as I second guessed anything I would hear from friends about a guy liking me. My first thought has always been, “they’re joking”; my second thought is always, “that can’t be true.” I thought this way because so many times in my high school experience, I have been pushed back in order to make space for my more desirable white/lighter-skinned counterparts to date guys. I realize now that I am not undesirable, society has conditioned me to think this way.
In Ileana Jiménez’s intersectional feminism class that I have taken this senior year of high school, we have looked at Black feminist theory including the “Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement.” In this statement, the Combahee River Collective discusses their beliefs and conceptual understandings of Black women in America. Their collective states that, “The reaction of Black men to feminism has been notoriously negative.
They are, of course, even more threatened than Black women by the possibility that Black feminists might organize around our own needs…they might also be forced to change their habitually sexist ways of interacting with and oppressing Black women.”
I believe that colorism has inadvertently resulted in propelling Black men ahead of Black women. Colorism will drive Black women further apart and as they do this, Black men will continue to leave us Black women behind. They use the chaos of colorism as a stepping stone to stand further away from us. If Black women cannot stand together and understand that these structures have been pushed upon us to divide us, we will forever be kept apart.
The reaction of Black men to feminism has always been negative because they recognize it as a threat to their stance above us. They will continue to have a negative attitude if Black feminism means that it will allow us to unify and gain access to the power of understanding our identity. If Black women start to understand our own needs, then Black men will be forced to deal with taking accountability for their part in aiding tools of oppression such as colorism.
There is immense power in the solidarity of Black women understanding the intersectionality of our identity. This Black feminist awakening is a threat to every group in a position of power, specifically Black men because they would have to resign their position ahead of us and merely become our equals. If Black women understand that every system of oppression affects us because of our identity, then we understand that we only have ourselves, as no one will free us from our struggle. Our freedom and liberation will not come unless we as Black women stand united.
We understand that no one will liberate us but ourselves because as the Combahee River Collective states, “we realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.” This collective has recognized that Black women in solidarity with each other is the key to our freedom.
Conceptualizing our identity and understanding how it determines how we are made to interact and be treated in this society is crucial to Black women-power. I have gained this knowledge and from this I have been able to see how my identity dictates the common interactions I have at a PWI (predominantly white institution). I am able to analyze behaviors, understand different identities and how their beliefs have been given to them based on their position in the power hierarchy. Now that I have taken this intersectional feminism class in high school, I understand my own identity as a young Black woman more deeply and can take this understanding and apply it in aiding my own liberation.