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“It’s definitely a shock when you find yourself feeling excluded in an environment that has been built to make each and every person that enters it feel included,” says VOX ATL staff writer Kayden Skeete.

Collage by Kayden Skeete

Colorism at School: The Dark Side of Being Dark-Skinned

by share

I’ve been going to the same school for my entire life. A predominantly white private school. I’ve always been one of the few black kids in my class. I never felt uncomfortable until the first time I realized I was different from everyone else, because of the color of my skin. I had never really thought much about race, let alone colorism. I was in kindergarten. We were being given a presentation about the human body. The presenter was teaching us about veins and how you could see them if you flip your palm to the ceiling and look at your wrist. She told us to do exactly that and raise our hands if we could see our veins. I remember being the only one in the room who wasn’t raising their hand. A lighter-skinned black classmate looked at me and said “I can see mine!” in a teasing tone. I remember how bad I felt about myself at that moment. Feeling like being dark-skinned was a bad thing, while only being about 5 years old. 

When I got into middle school, that’s when it really hit me — colorism is real, even in environments where we are meant to feel included. I was sitting in the library after school with a group of friends. We were talking, laughing and joking around. One of my friends made a comment about some of us being darker-skinned and some of us being lighter-skinned. I really didn’t see the point of the comment, so I didn’t pay much mind to it. A suggestion was then made by another friend of mine, who said, “Let’s get in a line in order of lightest to darkest. Kayden, you’re at the end and I’m in the middle.” I was shocked by this comment, considering the fact that the majority of us were around the exact same skin tone. 

“I don’t think it makes sense for me to be at the end when most of us are the same skin tone,” I responded. 

They shot back, “Kayden, are you blind?! I’m lighter than you! You’re at the end!” At that moment, I felt hurt and confused. Damn, I thought. I sat down and didn’t participate in forming the line. I thought it was stupid. I never understood why who was lighter and who was even darker mattered, let alone why it was a competition. 

“I’ve experienced colorism from lighter and darker-skinned people, said Kenady Parks, a 15-year-old student at Atlanta International School.  “I feel like it’s not uncommon for me to hear it from a darker-skinned person. I feel like the majority of my experiences were people claiming to be lighter than me in some shape or form.”

She added, “I feel like colorism is another way to other people or to make someone feel different than others. I think being black in a community is already othering enough as is, it’s just adding more difficulty to be in an environment where not only are you black but you’re also in another subcategory of dark-skinned. So you’re not just the black girl, you’re the dark-skinned black girl.” 

Over the years, I’ve slowly started to feel more and more out of place at my school. That isn’t a feeling that I was ever used to because I’ve been at the same school for my entire life. I really started to notice the feeling during freshman year. I guess I just truly began to feel like I wasn’t like some of the other black students at my school, because of my skin tone. Remarks that were made about my skin tone in comparison to other black students in my class started to make me feel like I was inferior to them. It made me feel like I was different … but in a bad way. 

“Colorism in schools causes conflict and separation between students,” said Jaay Fuqua, a 16-year-old student at South Atlanta High School. 

These remarks caused me to look at myself in a negative light when I was at school. I tried to never show it, but it was hard to hide sometimes. I would sometimes isolate myself from others, just to avoid feeling like I was inferior because that was an awful feeling. 

Now, I’m a sophomore in high school. I’ve grown a lot as a person. Although I still experience colorism to this day, I’ve grown to become completely comfortable in the skin that I’m in. We all have our insecurities and things that we don’t completely love about ourselves, however, I can honestly say that I love my skin tone regardless of what anyone else has to say. I don’t take being called dark-skinned offensively. I just take it as people stating the obvious. Yeah, I’m dark-skinned. But does that make me inferior to you? No. 

“I don’t take offense to being called dark-skinned,” Park said. “It’s just the connotation that the word has with it, due to how society has shaped being dark-skinned as a bad thing.” 

I’m a firm believer that black comes in many different shades, and all of them are equally as beautiful. Someone being lighter does not make them any smarter, better looking or superior to anyone who is of a darker complexion. Our society has been shaped so that people think that lighter-skinned people are superior. However, this is not the case. Our skin tones do not define our character.

During a photoshoot that was being done with Harvard Professor Sarah Lewis, she experienced colorism from the photographer. She wrote an article about her experience, titled “The Racial Bias Built Into Photography.” She was told by the photographer that it was an issue that the color of her face was darker than the beige jacket she was wearing. “Her comment reminded me of the unconscious bias that was built into photography. By categorizing light skin as the norm and other skin tones as needing special corrective care, photography has altered how we interact with each other without us realizing it,” Lewis wrote.

This is a prime example of how lighter-skinned people are glorified and elevated, while oftentimes the darker-skinned people can be criticized and looked down on. 

Colorism is an issue that has also been apparent in our prison systems. There’s an idea of “the lighter the skin, the shorter the prison term” that is present in our society. In the United States, there is an abundance of advantages that come with being of a lighter skin tone. This is something that darker-skinned people have known for many years now. When we look at the prison systems, oftentimes, it’s expected that a person of a darker skin tone will get a harsher punishment than a person of a lighter skin tone. 

According to a study by Villanova University sociologist Jill Viglione titled “The Impact of Light Skin on Prison Time for Black Female Offenders,” it was discovered that the women who were of lighter skin tones had shorter sentences than the women who were of darker skin tones. Research also found that darker-skinned women were sentenced to about 12 percent more time in prison than lighter-skinned women. Researchers also discovered that lighter-skinned women had the advantage of spending 11 percent less time in prison than darker-skinned women. 

Colorism is an issue that is present in many different aspects of our society. The idea that lighter is better is an idea that has been adopted by our society and is applied in so many different ways. This is an idea that has been present in our society for many years — even back to when slavery occurred in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries. Although the enforcement of this idea is not as extreme as it has been in the past, it’s still an issue that remains present in our society. 

Being a minority in any environment isn’t easy, let alone in an educational environment. My school is widely known for its inclusivity and acceptance of many different race groups, religions and sexual orientations. It’s definitely a shock when you find yourself feeling excluded in an environment that has been built to make each and every person that enters it feel included. It’s important to me, as one of the few black kids in my class, that we all stick together and have each other’s backs. But when you’re made to feel inferior to members of your own race group in an environment where you’re already a minority, it just makes the whole experience even harder to navigate through. 

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comments (2)

  1. Andrea Jeffress

    This is a really brave, insightful and well written piece shedding light on a difficult subject in our community and families. Kaden is clearly a young journalist to watch, penning an inspirational work of self-awareness journalism to share.

  2. Jessica Satterfield

    I did not realize that colorism is this much of a problem for so many people. Thank you for bringing attention to this issue that people avoid talking about.