How Colorism Hurts Us and Enables a Racist Society
The following piece has personal elements that dive into my own history. With this blog I am not trying to dismiss people from the Rio Grande Valley or minorities who talk and act in a certain way, I am trying to give this problem some attention.
Whenever I hear a new baby’s looks being discussed in the Rio Grande Valley I wait for it. I look at the child in question, the person examining the infant, and I hold my breath in anticipation of the compliment to come that shouldn’t be a compliment. I sit there on stand by for the moment until the adult takes the child’s face into his or her hands (usually without permission) and smiles.
“She’s so guera.”
In between my embarrassment and shame I feel for the person saying this, I manage to be proud of myself for calling it.
There it is. What I have been waiting for. She’s so white. She’s so guera.
Except guera, a Mexican-Spanish slang word whose origins cannot fully be found, is not just a description of an infant. And it’s not similar to the way a parent would say their newborn has a full set of hair and a cheeky grin, or even the way people would point out facts about a person to distinguish them in a large group: the black man with the grey shirt, the red head at the table in the back of the restaurant.
No, guera means more than white. Guera means acceptable, good, “thank god” status.
But most importantly guera means not dark.
I grew up in Brownsville, the southernmost city of the Rio Grande Valley, which is located in the state of Texas. Hispanics make up almost ninety percent of the population in this area, so as a result of this I never considered myself, a Mexican female, entirely out of place in my environment. The cause for separation, if any at all, came more from my slightly argumentative, charming (?), sarcastic personality. As a newborn, I entered the world bald, white, and looking nothing like I do today. Sometime around the age of five, unbeknownst to me, I developed more of the features I now have. Long brown hair, darker brown eyes, and dark brown skin, capable of turning almost borderline black during the summer, when long days in the sun made me tan.
And there were a lot of those active days in my childhood, with the kiddie pool and swing set as my company. During July, away from school, playing outside in upwards of 100 degree weather, sunblock became a necessity for all of us. I was encouraged to put it on to protect my skin, something I will not argue with. With days that reached triple digits, no one can. But I was also urged to apply it because it would prevent me from getting “too dark.”
This, and I will carry it with me always, was the beginning of “too dark” being bad. Something you didn’t want to be. Sunlight, direct sunlight, was regulated because being too dark was not equated with being too burnt, drastically in no way the same thing. It was regulated because it would make me not as attractive.
But I am not saying anything new am I? The idea of “too dark” being seen as bad by one person, one group, or the world. Racism exists and is widely believed to be unacceptable. Colorism though is so tricky, it sneaks by unnoticed by most.
Whiteness, being white, has always held, unfortunately, the top spot on the totem pole in society. To be white is to have privilege. To be white is to be the default perfect person. To be white is to have power. But in a society, like Mexicans in the valley located in the United States, being white is unattainable. It is however, an identity one can try to claim, try to attain to no avail, which ironically polarizes us as minorities even more.
In the context of Mexicans, to be whiter is to achieve that power and that beauty spoken about. The darker you are the more you have to strive to be the most beautiful, in spite of your skin color.
And I witnessed this time and time again growing up in this environment, so much that it became an intricate part of what I myself defined as beauty. Never did I believe one person was prettier because they had lighter skin, but I understood at least the treatment of a person could entirely be based on their skin color, even if two people both identified as Mexican. If a light skin chicana was standing next to a dark skinned chicana (both seen as desirable) the lighter skinned one was more desirable. It did not matter if I did not think that was the case. I recognized that the light skinned person was more beautiful in relation to society so society would treat them better. And that was all that mattered.
In the valley it happened more times than I could count. Colorism. I saw it every day. From my family to my friends, across conversations at schools and in restaurants with complete strangers. It was not out of the ordinary for a person to stop by our table or the table next to us, see a whiter kid than most of us were used to seeing by the border and comment on how white that child was. It was not uncommon for people to call other people “brown” if they were trying to insult someone. It was not uncommon even for people to compliment the grandkids of a friend for being so pretty and pale as if the skin color of that child was an amazing personality trait or a set of manners instilled by a parent or person close to the child.
In the valley, and I know it happens in other communities across other races, it is frighteningly normal.
What is so interesting about Brownsville and colorism, what sets it apart, is that there are varying different degree of Hispanics in the lower valley that had different color and skin tones who were not American. Funnily enough, it was the children who came across from Mexico every day to attend private school in the United States that had lighter skin and lighter blonder hair. See being American was not being whiter. Being whiter, another revelation to me, really was just based purely on pigment. In the valley, how white you are was how close you were to a white standard of attractiveness, a scale set up somewhere that people latched onto without thinking about it. If I was white, it was because I have and always will identify with white culture very much more than anyone did in my friend group or family.
Being white in this area (Brownsville) meant you were more desirable, more coveted, and that you had it easier. Getting singled out for being dark, too dark, was a funny cheap joke that people often used. Morenita. Negrita. Families that had one darker member usually made fun of that member. Such was the case with people I knew, where separation came swiftly from a group I much mention again was already separated against. The irony kills me, but it’s not at all surprising.
This social construct, colorism in communities, has been explored before. As stated before, I am not re-inventing the wheel.
An astoundingly in depth documentary called “Dark Girls,” directed by Bill Duke, D. and Channsin Berry was produced highlighting how Black women are often given their worth of beauty by how light their skin is. In this documentary the paper bag test is discussed. The paper bag test is the notion that if you hold a paper bag up to your face and you are darker than that bag you have failed the test. This “test” was used before as a way for people to rightly discriminate others from entering certain establishments but also from being let into parties and social gatherings.
But it was not white people doing this, it was black people doing this to their own people. White people, of course, were the one to perpetuate this with their influence of slavery, the division of lighter slaves being allowed to work indoors as opposed to picking the fields, but this seclusion of skin color still happens to this day. The invisible paper bag test is in effect. When you are lighter than the average of your race, whatever that race may be, you are more worthy. What that worth is comes down to a number of things: status within your own family, more attention and more praise, both indications of the self-esteem that a child will develop which will eventually mold them into how they view and act in the world.
So many stories I have heard from those close to me represent the dangers of colorism’s effects in this relation. Stories about boys or girls (who are part Hispanic, Black, etc.) that grow up in environments where they are teased for being too “white” in their own community (they rightly have deserved to be a part of), but then are equally criticized for some feature or distinguishing mark that shows that they are still “dark” to white people.
Or, contrastingly, even stories about white people complimenting the dark skin of their peers to a person who has never been complimented by his or her own race because the older minority community, those giving praise and attention to other children, believe that only those who are white are special.
See saying that a whiter child is special is saying is that being white is superior, because in addition to beauty opportunity is given to those who are white.
When you are whiter as a child, who is not by definition actually white, you will have it easier. You are able to go anywhere in this world and fit in, free to avoid most discrimination that come with racism. Therefor when you say a child born into a dark community is pretty or special because he or she is white what you are actually stating is your ability to relinquish your power of being a minority to the cultural script that white people are prettier, more well equipped, and the dominant race not in terms of population but of all cultural influence. And that being dark is only good when white people think that being dark is good. Therefor when you do this you reinforce racism.
It is this allowance that allows white people to appropriate other cultures, in everything from hairstyles to even, you guessed it…skin color.
Let’s put it this way, I never laughed more in amusement, displeasure, and gratification than when I went to college and saw not only white girls desperate for tans but also people from my own community in the valley update their Facebook pictures with their fake tans, spread across the beach as if they had acquired that color from the sun or, dare I say it, their genes. Here they were eager to look like what they now deemed beautiful because white women everywhere wanted to look this appealing. It was now socially acceptable to them, despite the fact that they went their entire childhood teasing their classmates about their skin colors. It was good, but it was bad, it was everything to feel validated.
But elsewhere in the rest of the world, colorism continues to happen in a much more accepting and dramatic ways, such as in the horrifying process of skin whitening, which is technically practiced in the Americas but more prevalent, commonplace, in southeast Asian countries. South Korea, Philippines, India, and Taiwan have predominantly more people using dangerous beauty products, meant to bleach their skin in an attempt to hopefully make the person look more “beautiful”. Marketers of these creams have no problems with advertising their product as something close to life changing. “Lighter skin, better skin.” “Brighter skin, healthier skin, younger skin.” These logos, these creams, become not only a way to look more attractive but also a way to make yourself healthier. But these products are not helping skin discoloration or any medical situation. It’s a lie. All these products are doing is telling people, entire countries, that to be black is not only to be ugly but also to have your health in jeopardy.
Going forward, fighting colorism, is fighting within your own community. Calling out comments as I have done, but failed to do often enough. Challenging how we classify people by their color. Remembering that our colorism, racism, is something we do to ourselves. It originally was brought to us by others but we chose to keep it in our home. So it is as much as our problem as it is white people’s problem. And in no way do I mean that as an attack on white people, nor do I view them as the onset of all problems.
But it is always important to find the sources beyond the source.
Away from my childhood, growing into adulthood I keep an ear open in communities I have been a part of and ones I have recently joined. I recognize that when people tell me I am “pretty for a dark girl” those people are reducing me to plain exoticism, even when it comes to mundane issues such as dating. Sure colorism exists as a way to suppress people on a grand scale but it effects my everyday life, down to the moment when I am a bar hanging out with a guy I might be really starting to take to.
I’ve had it said before in a few ways but I remember one instance in particular which really highlighted both colorism and probably fetishism. Over a few drinks the attractive man I was talking to for more than an hour looked at me, grabbed my hand and said “You’re gorgeous. I am so over dating blond haired blue eyed girls. They do nothing for me anymore.” And then he kissed me, after which I got up and left the bar, heart pounding in my chest.
Being looked at as less desirable because I am dark is never good. But neither is being more desirable because I am dark. I can’t know every single way I have been discriminated, that is the ugly truth of discrimination, but having it thrown so casually in my face to this day still shocks me.
And the casualness of it is everywhere.
It is is there in instances when people say “I hope my kid comes out lighter than me.” (And let’s not pretend this is because people all the time are focusing on the discrimination their offspring will face.)
It is there in instances when celebrities are photo-shopped on magazines with lighter skin to appeal to a larger demographic.
Hell it is there even when the “flesh colored” band aid I pick up looks nothing like my skin tone.
In the future I will face more of these instances, big and small. It’s a given. I can be certain of that. But I hope the messiness of colorism, the culture of the valley, does not affect the future, my niece or nephew in this way.
Both of them little hyper kids, both pale, have a lot of great qualities I can already see in their young years. And yes one of these qualities is that they are both attractive kids and will probably continue to evolve into pretty attractive adults. And that attractiveness, in itself a privilege, is placed on their small pale faces.
And so I hope that the comments on their looks (although I wish the comments were more about character, but you can’t ask too much can you?) come not from a place of being more powerful because of their pigment.
To the rest of us, the little dark girls who thought we were ugly both inside and out. RISE.