“I am more complex than my complexion.” –Lasha Marie, Mulatto Empowerment
Welcome to The Complexion Chronicles, a twice-monthly column where we’ll explore the complexities that shape and color our lives. This is a special edition of the Complexion Chronicles.
DON’T WASTE ALL THAT YELLA
The question isn’t whether you have Light-Skinned Privilege (LSP). It’s what you’re going to do with it.
By now you’ve probably seen, heard about and/or read how “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jesse Williams rocked the 2016 BET Awards with the powerful anti-racist speech he gave when accepting the Humanitarian Award. Watch the video. A few highlights include:
“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data, and we now know that police somehow manage to de-escalate, disarm, and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we are going to have equal rights and justice in our own country, or we will restructure their function and outs.
“… the burden of the brutalized is not to comfort of the bystander. That is not our job. Stop with all that. If you have a critique for the resistance, for our resistance, then you better have an established record of our oppression. If you have no interest … in equal rights for black people, then don’t make suggestions to those who do. Sit down. We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called ‘whiteness’ uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight/out of mind while affecting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, like gold, demeaning our creations and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.
“The thing is, though, just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.” Read the transcript
Williams has a solid record of outspoken support of Black progress. He was one of the first to show up in Ferguson. He is connected with the Black Lives Matters movement. In fact, legendary activist Harry Belafonte posed for a picture in Ebony symbolically passing the torch to Williams.
He is also strategic, starting his BET Humanitarian Award acceptance speech by thanking his parents, so the camera would show the White woman and Black man beaming at their son. He described how his father had steeped him in Black history and consciousness, ensuring that viewers saw both the origins of his light skin and big, blue eyes and his activism.
Most of the Black lovefest for Williams’ speech was unequivocally there for him and his inspiring message. It wasn’t long, though, before a few folks came for his Biraciality and his light skin and eyes, challenging whether he was Black enough or disinvested enough in his LSP to be trusted.
As we know, many celebs would clapback at the accusations, denying and/or defending their racial cred. But Williams simply owned it. As he said when receiving the Drum Major for Justice Award at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California (SCLC-SC) Legacy Awards Gala in Los Angeles:
“European beauty standards have given me a better seat at the table and the favor of the microphone over my darker brothers and sisters my entire life.”
Truth is, most people are born with some kind of privilege: Cis-gender, able-bodied, wealth, class, beauty, height/size, etc. Some types of privilege are easier to admit and embrace than others.
For People of Color worldwide, Light-Skinned Privilege has always been a minefield of anger, pain, resentment and tension. It has fractured families, splintered communities and threatened unity for centuries. LSP stems from colorism, which is an offshoot of racism. It’s also important to note that not all light-skinned folks are Mixed and not all Mixed folks are light-skinned.
Still, the topic is naturally squirmy. It’s natural to want to deny, debate and/or defend our Light-Skinned Privilege. These days some light-skinned folks push back by saying that darker-skinned folks don’t have it worse than they do. This kind of “my pain is more legit than yours” cycle results in what author/activist Sil Lai Abrams calls “the Oppression Olympics,” which keep us sniping at each other instead of moving forward. So let’s note all of the difficulties and discomfort in embracing our Light-Skinned Privilege—nobody ever said it was easy or painless.
But it IS necessary for the sake of racial progress.
We possess a form of sociopolitical and racial/ethnic currency that affords us many advantages. And the more European (i.e. Whiter) we are in appearance, the more valuable our currency. Yes, there are disadvantages inherent in the tensions around skin color politics, but in the bigger picture, Light-Skinned Privilege often works to our advantage in the “larger society.” It grants us access. It gives us credibility. It enhances our perceived value and appeal to many, many people of all races. Light-Skinned Privilege is a powerful asset—one that we need to understand, and use strategically.
As a young political radical shaped by Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, I spent years wondering what to do with my Light-Skinned Privilege. We didn’t use that term back then, but the dynamics were the same. A college professor steered me to examples in Black classic literature to help me see a larger context and purpose for my LSP. Like Williams, I was guided to invest my physical currency in the movement for progress and positive social change.
Back in the day, Black elders would talk about some light-skinned folks “wasting all of that yella.” Sometimes it meant that they weren’t really as good-looking as their coloring suggested. One woman fussed at me for “wasting all that yella” because I wouldn’t climb the Creole social ladder in my Seattle hometown. I respectfully told her that I didn’t play that.
As Williams said in an interview with The Guardian, “We are programmed to believe that someone is attractive because they told you that blue eyes are hot. I am not going to participate in that shit. I aim to do what I can with what I have.”
He’s not the first or the only one in this line. A few famous examples who put their looks to work for the Civil Rights and Black Power movements include Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, Belafonte, Julian Bond, Walter White, Rosa Parks, Kathleen Cleaver, Angela Davis and Elaine Brown. Some recent examples include Amandla Stenberg (“Hunger Games”), actress/singer Zendaya, superstar ballerina Misty Copeland and activist Shaun King. (Add your faves in the Comments!)
Each of us with this currency has the chance and the responsibility to use it for good. What will you do with yours? Rather than deny, debate, defend or devalue it, consider how you can invest this bittersweet, double-edged sword to fight injustice and right wrongs. Recognize its power and wield it with care, purpose and wisdom. Whatever you do, heed the elders and don’t waste all that yella, hear?