Back in high school, when I was volunteering at my mom’s hospital, I worked with another black teen at the nursing home for a day.
We were introducing ourselves, and she asked where my name was from. When I told her that it was from Nigeria, she held her arm up to mine.
“And I’m darker than you?” she said shaking her head.
As I remember, we laughed about it, but my laugh was more an “I’ve heard this shit too many times to bother right now” than an acknowledgment of something funny.
And I really had heard that shit too many times.
Thankfully, adulthood has been merciful, but it used to infuriate me when kids who looked like me clicked their tongues when I told them my name.
“Do they live in huts in Africa?” “Are you mixed with something? You’re so pretty.” “You’re cute for a dark girl.” “Black Americans don’t respect their elders.”
All things that have been said by black people to black people about black people.
And it’s painful to hear.
It’s like watching two people fight each other for the love of an abusive prick when they could be supporting each other in being independent.
When people in some of the black spaces I occupy go through so much effort to distance themselves from each other, it seems like they’re trying to gain the upper hand in a white dominated society that devalues us all.
But as someone who’s struggled with my own internalized racism, I can’t pretend to be a detached observer of intra-racial issues like these.
I understand the tearing down of self-esteem that can lead people of color to, in turn, tear ourselves and each other down.
When we don’t work to combat the messages we’ve been hearing since childhood from teachers, peers, the media, and even our parents about needing to make white people comfortable with our existence, people of color can fall into the trap of feeding each other these messages that bury the roots of self-hatred and learned helplessness in youth.
When we do work not only to combat harmful, racist messages, but also encourage one another’s pride, self-love, and empowerment, we come into our own power instead of competing to be granted power by a racially unjust system.
So here are some things to remember as we work against the forces that can sometimes pit us against each other.
People of Color Don’t Get White Privilege
As far as having access to white privilege is concerned, I’m as black as the next black person.
White privilege could care less that to African-Americans, I’m African; to Nigerians, I’m an onyibo or akata; that the exact shade of brown of my skin and the tightness of the kink of my hair are often less favored than lighter skin and looser waves by other brown people.
Does white privilege truly care about “good hair” or the bleaching soap they sell at the tropical food stores? Nope.
In our society, white privilege only cares if you’re white (or white passing). “Respectable,” fair people of color need not apply.
Why does this matter?
Because even if we assimilate white culture in our speech or clothes or have light skin or straight hair, people of color don’t have access to white privilege.
Light skin or straight hair may get more white attention or white admiration or even afford privileges of their own, but as people of color, we are all in the same boat in that we don’t benefit from and are hurt by white privilege.
And if we’re in the same boat, it’s pretty counterintuitive to poke holes in our own sails.
The Oppressed Can Be Oppressive
The history of colonialism, slavery, racism, and discrimination in America and throughout the world absolutely contributes to intra-racial issues like colorism, or the favoring of lighter skin. There is no arguing that.
However, we can choose to perpetuate the attitudes that racism has bred or we can choose to reject them and find our own truth and racial identities.
It’s important to acknowledge that although forces beyond our communities started patterns of racial hatred, we can also be oppressive to each other.
There are the obvious problems of sexism and homophobia within our communities. It’s easy to say that men of color can discriminate against women or straight people of color can be oppressive toward sexual minorities.
But there are also those moments of oppression that have been introduced by the patterns of racial hatred set in motion by colonialism, slavery, and other atrocities that have been committed against people of color.
Whenever a little black girl is made to feel unlovable for the shade of her skin by other brown people, when a non-black person of color uses the n-word, when we play the game of judging each other for being too black, too Asian, or not enough, we are taking part in a system of oppression that doesn’t benefit any of us.
People of color who regurgitate the language of racism and “white is right” may believe that doing so gives them more power or authenticity in a white dominated world, but it doesn’t. They’re simply soaking in messages of white supremacy that they should be criticizing instead of parroting.
Kids Are Paying Attention –Are We?
Kids notice race, and they notice the subliminal racial messages that adults often ignore or think are no big deal.
There aren’t many Barbie dolls with kinks and coils, or literature classes that don’t corral black authors into a section of the curriculum designed to be skimmed, or movies that don’t whitewash or horribly stereotype characters of color.
Children notice these absences.
They notice what’s being touted as normal by the world around them.
The question is, are we challenging those norms or simply letting the kids in our lives absorb them unquestioned?
When we let kids silently take in media without ever voicing criticism or just “letting them have fun,” they form their own opinions about why there are so few positive representations of themselves in the media.
Without the understanding of the history of white dominance and racism in America, they may easily conclude that people of color aren’t positively portrayed as often as white people because they are somehow less than –less beautiful, less powerful, less likeable.
It’s important to speak up to kids about how silly it is to believe that skin color negates beauty or character and to show them the existing media showcasing the achievements of people of color.
It’s easy to say that “kids aren’t seeing race yet” or “kids shouldn’t have to analyze everything,” and to some extent, these things are true. But as kids grow, they’re seeking out role models. They’re looking for the kind of representation that we have to dig through countless stereotypes and misrepresentations to get to.
We as adults know how powerful it is to see ourselves in the public consciousness. We root for those TV shows that “get it right,” we care that the man in the White House is a man of color, and we understand the impact these images have on society’s attitudes toward us. We shouldn’t expect our children to need these things any less.
Respectability Politics is Bull
In the eyes of some people of color, being “respectable” –as in non-threatening to white people –is tantamount for survival.
For these people, mental health struggles, accents and dialects, racial markers, and so on must be well hidden under an acceptably middle-class, well-educated veneer.
I understand this to a certain extent, and I can code switch with the best of them, but respectability politics has been used by some people of color to denigrate others.
Deflecting conversations about external racism to talk about how some black people are acting or treating each other is one example.
Yes, conversations about intra-racial issues need to be had. Hell, I want to start one right now. But there’s no reason to act as if racism is mitigated when we start acting more “respectable.”
People are always more worthy of respect than they are deserving of racism.
I’m going to repeat that last line: People are always more worthy of respect than they are deserving of racism. Because that’s really what this is all about –our worth.
When people of color internalize racism and become self-hating, they have made a mental link between worth and whiteness. The whiter something appears, the more worthwhile it becomes. Hair that isn’t nappy becomes “good,” attractive people must be “mixed with something,” and so on.
When we strip ourselves of the lie that whiteness is something to be worshiped, we can start to see ourselves as whole rather than deficient.
And only when we see our wholeness and understand that we’re worth fighting for can we advance any movement that holds the best interests of people of color at heart.
Jarune Uwujaren is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. A Nigerian-American recent graduate who’s stumbling towards a career in writing, Jarune can currently be found drifting around the DC metro area with a phone or a laptop nearby. When not writing for fun or profit, Jarune enjoys food, fresh air, good books, drawing, poetry, and sci-fi.