Who Taught You That?

A reflection on finding traces of colorism in my writings and doing the work to remove it.

Today I was scrolling the interwebz — as usual — and I stumbled on this tweet from one of my writer peeps:

And I felt triggered because as of late I have been doing the work of really understanding what my words, the images they convey and the scope of my stories, are really saying to my readers (shout out to my Rafiki for that); looking at the sum total of the characters in my writing, I realized I wasn’t immune from this behavior. Littered through my manuscripts were images of dark skinned men with grey eyes and honey-toned women with curves.

The problem with this isn’t that these people don’t exist in real life — they do or else my imagination wouldn’t consistently pull the images; the issue is that if this is all I am writing then I lack diversity in my writing. Black people come in all different shapes, colors and sizes; if I am only focusing on the one I deem attractive or the one I personally find interesting, I’m no different than the authors using the prevailing argument for lack of diversity in fantasy which states non-white character’s aren’t around because non-whites “weren’t around.”

This is a hot button issue for the Black community because let’s be honest, slavery and anti-blackness did a fucking number on us. Whiteness has been the standard and ideal ever since the Elite decided it’s best not to have the Niggers, White Trash, Injuns and other Derogatorily-named marginals, band together. It’s hard to love the skin you’re in, in a society where your color is conflated with your morality; especially when penalization increases with the level of skin darkness. Prejudicial practices of separating light skinned Blacks from dark skinned Blacks bred intra-racial contempt for one another that still continues to this day.

I have friends who were told to stay indoors lest they get too dark; people who had to endure the paper bag test to see whether they were worthy of dating someone’s son or daughter; people who felt the need to bleach and lighten their skin, all so they could be accepted in society. Hell this was part of the premise of the The Bluest Eye.

I personally had the luck and fortune of not being directly insulted for my dark sienna tone (y’all forgive me for trying out new ways of saying brown but after a number of experiments I think I might just stick to brown; all the other synonyms are too cringe-y)I do remember wishing for different colored eyes as a child. All the characters I saw on television and in the books I read had light colored eyes; I saw myself in them, so naturally I wanted grey, blue or green eyes to be cool like them.

This led to me buying cheap contacts — it was a thing in my neighborhood at the turn of the Millenium — grey and hazel in color and wearing them hoping people would notice my really cool eye color. But you know what happened? Nobody cared about my eye color; no passersby came and stopped me and said: “Hey if it weren’t for your dazzling eye color I would have never noticed you”; which was a pretty tough realization considering how irritating cheap contact lenses were (they made my eyeballs feel like they were sweating) and how dangerous putting them in my eyes were. That’s how I came to learn to accept my own eyes but apparently the curse of colorism hadn’t lifted itself since these crazy ass beliefs have worked their way into my writing.

I am thankful I recognize the problem; I’m working consciously to fix it, but there are a lot of other writers who remain unaware or worse dismissive of the claim(:cough cough: Tyler Perry :cough cough:).

The road to true freedom and liberation from the ideals of an oppressive society is fraught with cognitively dissonant obstacles forcing you to question what parts of the poison of said society slipped into your consciousness unnoticed. It could be a simple as making sure you give people more than grey eyes or far more serious as considering whether or not to make a Black villain dark or light skinned and how to make that choice.

I’m praying I remain this aware of how easy it is for the language of my mother society to slip into my work; that I’ll continue to do the work of examining my language and imagery as suggested by Ursula K. LeGuin in Conversations on Writing and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, but I know I’ll be up against a major obstacle in myself: figuring out what parts of myself to keep and which ones to throw away; that’s not an easy work in an ever-changing society where all I want is to be myself.

I hope more writers recognize this struggle as well moving forward, because books, stories and media have a larger impact on our development and socialization than I believe we are willing to give them credit for.

In the words of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz:

“Who taught you to hate yourself?”

Every seeker of truth and freedom needs to ask this question; then do the work of answering it.




I create thought-provoking content for people crazy enough to believe they can change the world. #fortheblacksheep www.jaelrbakari.com

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Jael R. Bakari

Jael R. Bakari

I create thought-provoking content for people crazy enough to believe they can change the world. #fortheblacksheep www.jaelrbakari.com

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