Monday, July 4, 2016

Jesse Williams: The Pain of the Light Skinned Black Man

photo from LA Times

I waited for it; I knew the backlash against actor and activist Jesse Williams would be hard and fast. I watched his speech, and like many I applauded his bravery. He did what many of us are afraid to do: bite the hand that feeds us.

When he was given the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award, he seized the moment to speak out against the injustices and inequities that African Americans face in America. It was a great speech.  What difference does it make that he didn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said? As long as the problems exist, the message bears repeating again and again.

I’m not surprised at the folks on Fox who criticized Williams. I am inclined to agree with Jane Elliott that racism is a mental illness. Tomi Lahren’s rant and subsequent response to the Black Twitter beating she took, was nothing more than her making a name for herself—again!--on the back of Black pain. There are some people who simply cannot help themselves. She is one of one of them as is her partner in crime Stacy Dash. Dash has sold her soul to the devil to stay relevant. And she had the audacity to call Williams a plantation Negro! She too, is a non issue.

But what burns my grits is that some of these so-called conscious people who are doing the most complaining just woke up. We know that light skinned people have been favored, and some of us still long for what they have. How many times have we talked about good hair, being mixed or having Indian in our family? How many of us think pretty eyes are anything other than dark brown?  Black folks quick to claim everything but African, but now we mad?

We speak of skin color bias as something that happened in the past when enslaved Africans worked in the field and in the house. Even today we continue to use this as a marker to divide us as evidenced by some of the posts that I read following the speech. The first two posts I read in opposition to Williams both mentioned his appearance: . . .you got this grey eyed Man say a couple of words and all of a sudden He’s the “New Face”???” a dark skinned woman wrote on Facebook. I look at the Jesse Williams speech for what it is, entertainment. . . I try not to take it seriously, but some of y’all be pushing a pretty bitch to do just that. Ugh, okay. This was the opening of a long post by a non pretty, average looking Black man. Am I saying that Willams is above being criticized? Not at all, but I do take issue with those who attempt to discredit what he said based on how he looks and who his mother is.

The notion that his bi racial background and European-like appearance disqualifies him from speaking for the masses is rooted in colorism and sexism--something that we are not willing to talk about. But looking at the role of complexion and how it relates to our definition of Blackness will explain some of the discontent and/or ambivalence with Williams’ comments.

It is well documented that lighter skinned Blacks do benefit from a culture that is steeped in a Eurocentric esthetic. Those of mixed-race backgrounds or lighter coloring have had advantages since the days of slavery, but it has not come without a price. Many of our leaders and firsts have been fair in complexion carrying the burden of race and color. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm shared his conflicted feelings about his complexion—thinking it was a status symbol, but feeling his mother’s pain of being a child of rape.  

Malcolm’s father, though dark skinned, was not immune to the effects of colorism. “Father was belligerent toward all the children except me. . .I actually believe that as anti white as my father was, he was subconsciously so afflicted with the white man's brainwashing of Negroes that he inclined to favor the light ones and I was his lightest child." (excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X).

I have had numerous conversations with people whose preference in a partner is in part based on their complexion. To deny that color does not play a role in our interactions with another is to deny a part of our reality.

The pendulum of colorism swings both ways. Colorism is the discrimination of others within a race based on skin tone, hair texture and facial features, so those questioning someone’s blackness based on the lightness of their skin, need to come into the light. Wake up.
We have a racist and sexist perception of what a “real” Black man is, and a light-skinned Black man ain’t a man at all, let some of us tell it.  We live in a society that doesn’t even acknowledge Black men as men. We refer to them as boys and/or males. And then when we want a Black man to “man up”, we want him to be the stereotypical Big Scary Black (dark) Man.
Light skinned men might be pretty, but we don’t think they’re manly.

This continued stereotyping based on lightness or darkness of skin and facial features hurts everybody. The pain of dark skinned people is real. But we have to stop measuring pain. At some point, pain is pain. Now we need to start the healing process.  From the lightest to the darkest we’re all Black. It’s time to be united, not divided in overcoming the challenges facing us.


  1. Bravo! I remember as a child I used to hear my mother tell people "I prayed to God to send me a beautiful black baby, but instead I got Ms. Ann". Even as an adult I listen to her refer to my cousins daughter (a much darker skin color) black Beauty. I'm not even what would be considered "light skinned" but I still wasn't dark enough for her.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. Some of us don't think of it as colorism when we discrimnate against light skinned people. But it is.

  2. Colourism. Disgrceful painful and unfortunately still going on. it's actually really annoying at times!
    Great Post

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I see colorism being acted out all the time. We have to name it, an then work to eradicate it.

  3. Do yourself a favor and stay out of the comments section of these blog posts. People are filled with pure rage, and although their frustration is understandable, it's useless and self-destructive when turning that rage toward one another. Thanks.

  4. People had a right to be upset. Colorism is not a two way street regardless of how dense you want to be, as well as others. Biracial is a completely separate identity than that of being black no matter how much black people seek to allow them in their space as “just as black”, it’s not only genetically incorrect but it’s socially incorrect. Jesse’s speech was to be taken seriously and appreciated but the reality is that dark skinned and monoracial people say the same things and all of this has to do with acceptability. If this was a woman, it would be the same thing and worse because the way biracial and ambiguous people are treated as well as light skinned folks (monoracial blacks) are better than everyone else. People listen to things they have to say by default. This is why you have biracial like Zendaya, Amandla and Yara talking nonsense that they don’t know about and it’s ingenuine. They talk bullshit and don’t realize they are where they are not just because of intelligence but colorism.

    This is dense and he is “less black” it’s just reality. It doesn’t take away from what he said.