I had a very interesting encounter today. I was sitting in the Malcolm X Lounge, a study room at the University of Texas that’s dedicated to African-American studies, but open to anyone. I was on a couch and had my feet up on a small table. When a girl came and sat down on the couch to my left, I jokingly made a big deal about moving my legs. She responded with, “Stop being so lazy, light-skin.”
I really wasn’t offended by the light-skin reference, but I was totally caught off guard by the way she used the term. See light-skinnededness (no that’s not a real word) has been the target of black humor for a while now, but usually people just say, “Stop being so light-skinned.”
A lot of y’all are probably wondering what that even means so I’ll break it down for you (sorry black people, bear with me here- I know ya’ll already know this stuff). It actually means somewhat different things if it’s being used to describe a guy or a girl, although there are some commonalities.
Guy acting light-skinned means:
- Showing and expressing emotions too freely,
- Being too “friendly”,
- Doing anything that could be seen as gay or feminine,
- Acting like Drake and/or listening to too much Drake,
- And just generally being “soft”
Girl acting light-skinned means:
- Acting boojie- in essence acting like you’re better than others (this also applies to guys somewhat, but not nearly as much as it applies to girls),
- …that pretty much covers it for girls actually.
It’s a very complex concept indeed. My lists are just the basics, but if you actually hear it being used on the regular in real-life you quickly realize that you can assign it endless meanings.
While most of the time the light-skinned jokes are in good fun and not really meant as racist shots (in my opinion), they still make me ponder on the origins of the ill will between black people and mulattos (people mixed with both black and white).
I assume some of this stems from the favoritism showed to slaves (especially women) with lighter complexions. They would often be given jobs in the house (hence the term “house negro”) as opposed to having to work the backbreaking “field negro” jobs outside.
Also, there is definitely a lingering “us vs. them” mentality in the black community towards white people. Acting white is a definite insult in the black community, and many black women hate nothing more than seeing a successful black man with a white woman. Could a part of the ill will towards light-skinnededness be related to blacks’ view of white people?
Black people in America, and black men especially, have developed a very stoic demeanor- partially because until fairly recently in our country’s history it wasn’t a good idea for a black man to express himself too much in public situations. Expressing yourself too much as a black man in slave times was potentially life threatening, and even during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, black men who expressed themselves too much often faced a number of dangers. Many people would argue that it’s still not a good idea for a black man to express himself too much, particularly in business situations where his upwards mobility is dependent on white bosses. I would agree with these people.
I think this is where some of the judgment for being too expressive originated. The black man is stoic. Even in casual or social environments, the black man does not go up to men he is unfamiliar with (especially non-black men) and start conversation- that’s being “too friendly”. That’s exposing too much of yourself to someone from outside of your circle. That’s what the white people do. Don’t be like them. Obviously some of this is hyperbole, but you get the point.
Anyways, because of the way this girl phrased the insult, I replied somewhat jokingly, “That’s racist!”— What really blew my mind was that she then proceeded to say that it wasn’t, citing two reasons:
- Light-skinned isn’t a race so it can’t be a racist statement, even if it’s a generalization.
- Light-skinned people are black people; therefore it’s not a racist remark since it came from a black person.
I immediately told her that the first reason was bogus: just because being mixed or having light skin isn’t a race in itself doesn’t mean that making a generalization based off skin color isn’t racist.
This is really part of a bigger issue- the conceptualization of race as something that is clear-cut when in reality it’s about as far from clear-cut as possible. It’s based partly on how you look and partly on where you’re from, but more than anything it’s based on how we define ourselves; the government isn’t changing what race or ethnicity you fill out on the census, even if most people wouldn’t define you the same way.
The second reason, while I think it’s bogus as well, is worth examining, if only because it’s a fairly common view. To make her point she asked me what I fill out on tests or forms asking for my race. Bad idea since I either bubble in both African-American and Caucasian or, if that’s not allowed, I choose Other and write in mixed or mulatto.
But still, that perception is definitely very real. Both white and black people seem to view mulattoes as more black than white. This could be a remnant of the “one drop rule” from slave times: if you had any negro blood then you were considered a negro. As the racial climate has grown more tolerant in modern times, however, mulattos are pushing back against that classification, fighting to define themselves as what they truly are: equal parts black and white.
Part of this pushback is evidenced in the birth of “acting dark-skinned”, which followed soon after all the light-skinned jokes started. Acting dark-skinned for the most part just means doing things that reinforce stereotypes about black people: being too loud or obnoxious, being impolite, acting ignorant, doing hood-rat stuff with your friends, etc.
If you think I’m overstating the growing disconnect between these two groups, go get on Twitter and search the hashtags #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin, or look up light skin vs. dark skin on Youtube (the video below is an example of what you’ll find); I guarantee you will be convinced afterwards.
I think that some of this pushback has also fed the ill will from the black community- it’s perceived as an attempt by mulattos to separate themselves from blackness, which many black people see not only as aloofness but as mulattos trying to be more white.
Despite all this racial tug and pull, most mulattos tend to be accepted by pretty much any group- not only by white and black people but every other race as well. It’s because we embody the American racial struggle. We can relate to both the most privileged and the most oppressed racial groups in the United States. We’re able to see things from the perspectives of both the minority and the majority. We are the bridge between two groups who are still many years away from truly becoming colorblind and reconciling their dark past. So let us define ourselves, please.