This article was originally published for the Brown Daily Herald and can be found here.
I lean in for a picture with a group of friends. I am in the front row and sitting beside two girls, one white and the other black. As we pose, the white girl in between us turns to the crowd behind and says, “Oh my God! I’m going to look so pale in this picture! Look who I’m sitting next to!” My group of friends erupts in laughter as I blink my eyes in disbelief, and the other black girl jokingly says, “I know, right!”
Even now, a few days later, this entire exchange takes me aback because this presumably well-intentioned joke so obliviously mirrored the colorist language that still exists on this campus and across the country. For a start, it isolates black students and students of color by making them feel self-conscious and separate from the group, and it serves as a reminder that students of color face unique barriers as they move through campus. From where I sit as a black woman, it is significantly more difficult for black students to navigate the social circles on campus. Take the party scene, for example: I often walk into crowded rooms only to find a few other people of color in a sea of a hundred. In this context, “jokes” about skin color only highlight the differences in perceived social capital attached to darker-skinned folks.
Which leads to the second issue with this incident: It perpetuates unofficial popularity contests and historically-exclusive beauty standards. My friend’s humorous outrage over her appearance next to us caters to the idea that attractiveness is somehow linked to skin tone — that there is a color palette to how we perceive beauty. Comments like “I’m going to look so pale” feed into the idea that there is a “perfect” golden tone; “too pale” is frowned upon for some unknown reason, and apparently “too dark” is laughed at because it magnifies paleness. They propagate the wrongful internalization of ideals that undervalue beautiful, kissed-by-God, melanated skin. And when laughter arises after a colorist joke, and one of only two dark-skinned students in the group says, “I know, right,” it leaves the second student searching for camaraderie in the face of colorism and anti-blackness.
On top of that, the joke erases the fraught history of colorism and how reductive statements like this have a great impact on the lived experiences of people of color. Comparing skin tones has its roots in some of the darkest moments of American history, when enslaved people were separated by skin tone: Those with lighter skin generally received better living arrangements, assignments and food. Flash forward 300 years, and this same sentiment is echoed on a campus that was established with wealth accumulated from the slave trade. This is part of the reason why black students can have an especially complicated relationship with the colorist language expressed on campus and in the United States. This language attests to the contradiction that students of color are sent acceptance letters to Brown, but are still not accepted into the culture and atmosphere on campus. Colorism, even when unintentional, is isolating.
Most jokes don’t carry this much weight and are easily seen for what they are: jokes. But there are still light-skinned–dark-skinned rivalries within communities of color around the country. Add in the reality that minorities in positions of power are frequently light-skinned or white-passing professionals, and one will realize the racist attitudes of the Jim Crow era may still live on in other forms.
It is 2017. It is long past time to eradicate the unjust treatment of black and brown bodies. Yet it is evident that we have failed to move past these race-based misperceptions and disparities. Take, for example, the riots in Charlottesville. Or the 2016 Presidential campaign and election. Or Maria Sharapova getting more endorsements than Serena Williams when Williams was the top-ranked tennis player in the world. Or Colin Kaepernick being unofficially ousted from the NFL after performing a peaceful protest.
Whether we admit it or not, colorism and racism are still alive and well. They continue to live through jokes that are told and the speech that is tolerated. Laughing away issues and statements that have historical prominence silently encourage their continuation. It’s unrealistic to think that things will become picture perfect overnight, but a collective effort towards its eradication would certainly speed up the process.