THE SUBJECT OF COLORISM — intra-racial discrimination of dark-skinned people of color — really hits home for me. I’ve been tied up in its grasp, a light-skinned black girl aware of her privilege but not yet mature enough to know the causes or implications. I’ve also witnessed it with my teenaged students in Martinique. In one English lesson, we were teaching them to describe physical characteristics and personality traits, and I came up with the idea to have them write out dating profiles explaining what they were looking for in a date.
The first thing a lot of them said was “Chabin” or “chabine” — a French colonial term for someone who has lighter skin, though not necessarily biracial. It seemed to be a stand in for “attractive.” Even more striking is that this seemed to outweigh personality traits like “sense of humour” or “intelligent.” Of course, these were hormonal teenagers, but light skin as a trope for attractiveness is a recurring theme in the Caribbean — and many former colonial societies.
In countries with a history of slavery and colonialism, skin tone stratification placed those with a light skin tone in a higher class than those with a darker skin tone, which has led to an internalization of European standards of beauty.
It’s easy to watch Lupita Nyong’o on the big screen and say, “Look how far we’ve come,” but critics have suggested that, had she not been catapulted into the Hollywood A-List via 12 Years a Slave, few would be discussing her beauty. Some have even said that an African-American director wouldn’t have even cast her in the role.
The fact of the matter is that we still have to talk about race, and until we’ve transcended those discussions, we won’t have arrived. Lupita’s speech is another step in the right direction — she talks about humanity and inner beauty. An understanding of that is for more than just little black girls — or even every little girl. It’s for everyone. Spirit is universal.