"You don't have to be so stuck up about it. We can still be friends," a black man once told me after I rejected him at a bar.
Prior to calling me stuck up, the only thing he knew about me was my background—not even my name. He had approached me with the all too familiar line, "What's your background?" And after I told him where my parents are from—Jamaica and the Philippines—he asked if I had a boyfriend. I said, "Yes, I'm all right, thanks," and he dropped the good old "stuck up" light skin stereotype that I often hear.
At least once a week, someone asks me what my background is. Usually it comes when I meet someone new, before any significant introduction regarding who I am.
Being half Jamaican and half Filipino, I understand that people will be curious about how I look the way I do. But I don't understand how people can assume who I am and how I act based on the shade of my skin.
People of color are constantly subject to stereotypes based on the lightness or darkness of skin tone. Dark black skin equates rudeness, light skin black girls think they are better than everyone, and dark Asians are dirty. All of these are part of a long, icky list of stereotypes colored people face inside their own communities.
Colorism (a.k.a. shadeism) is discrimination based on a person's skin tone. A prejudice that is similar but yet separated from racism, colorism strikes an invisible divide between people of the same race or ethnicities.
In many cultures, light skin is hailed as superior in several aspects of life. In China, an old saying actually states, "one whiteness can cover three kinds of ugliness." Additionally, most Asian beauty products have skin-lightening qualities. Societies award light-skinned people with beauty and wealth-related power due to their proximity to whiteness. In India, for example, most successful movie stars and social figures are light skinned. This not only creates perceived hierarchies between people of similar backgrounds; it revives histories of colonialism, slavery, and hatred.
Recently, there was controversy after actress Zoe Saldana was cast to star in the Nina Simone biopic, Nina. Simone, an artist whose life was defined by her talent and activism against anti-black racism, was a dark-skinned woman with distinct black features. However, Saldana, while she is a black Latino, has features that fall much more in line with society's white canvas beauty standards. And if you didn't think this decision was already ill-advised, Saldana wears makeup to darken her complexion (which some critics have straight up called blackface) and a prosthetic nose in the film. By choosing an actress who reinforces white beauty and superiority to play an obviously black woman, critics say that the casting directors completely erased Simone's efforts for black equality.
To further understand the impact of these prejudices and cultural norms, I asked a bunch of people how colorism has affected their lives.
One day in fifth grade, I was walking home from school and [some kids] started calling me "blueberry." They were like, "Get it? You're so black you look like a blueberry!" That was also the first time anyone had ever called me a nigger. I actually subconsciously believed that, and from there it trickled on into adulthood. I never really believed I was pretty, or that my color was good because I'm so black, because I'm so dark. Today, I always assume a guy doesn't like me because I'm dark skinned. When the summer's coming, I'm always trying to find things that won't make me darker. And even bleaching—I've never done it, but I've contemplated it so many times.
Background: Guyanese (with black, Portuguese, Indian, and First Nations descent)
I know that [my light skin] benefits me, which is a really sad fact. At places where I've worked, I doubt I would have gotten my job if I didn't look so ambiguous, because people can't tell where I'm from all the time. For years, people have loved to tell me how white I am—just taking that away from me and deciding who I am. When people ask me questions about my identity, all it does is reinforce all of the really outdated and self-absorbed assumptions about my own cultural identity. And I'm speaking from a city that has a lot of cultural knowledge, too. I can only imagine it's probably infinitely worse if we moved out of Toronto.
Background: Cuban, Jamaican, St. Lucian, and Vincentian
I grew up as a child model. [Brands] know when you have a mixed kid, and you use them as your model—you have a way bigger span of people who associate themselves with that kid. Parent wise, they'd always stick me with light skin guys, light skin women, or maybe one black person, one white person. They place you with who they assume the public thinks are your parents. You get a good concept of social norms. Growing up, I was very aware of myself, of my skin tone, very aware of my looks. To date, almost every place I've worked at requires you to fit the company's brand. And if you look like you can hit more diverse backgrounds, or you are more diverse in your look, it's better for them.
Background: Indonesian and Kuwaiti
When it comes to Indonesia, there's a lot of whitening bleaching products. Indonesian girls who are paler are seen as more pure and clean. There's this perception about tanned Indonesians—they're seen as run-of-the-mill girls. They're seen as [slutty]. People who are pure Kuwaiti are darker skinned, but again, if you are paler, they assume you are mixed with something "beautiful." I'm not the darkest Asian, but I'm not the lightest. In the summer, I tan really easily, and in the winter, I'm pale. So I'm just in a constant back and forth. Coming from these two backgrounds, it's complicated, and it can be really frustrating.
Background: Chinese and Jamaican
One time, I met this dude on a bus. He was a friend of a friend I went to elementary school with. Years later, he called me, and he was like, "Who's this?" I said, "You called me." And then he said, "To tell you the truth, I just had your number saved as Light Skin." I just hung up the phone. I mean, this guy only just saw me as light skinned. And it's not even the most terrible thing. I find that light-skinned women feel like they should shut up about everything that happens to them because it's worse on the other end. But it still is kind of shitty when people see you and think you're slutty, or someone goes after your looks and nothing else deeper. So what's better, being objectified or being unwanted? Neither of them are really that great.
From my experience, people are way faster to think that they understand the type of person you are. There's been so many times that I'll say the type of music I listen to, and people will be surprised. They'll be like, "What, you don't listen to Waka Flocka? You listen to rock bands?" One time, I was at a party, and I saw this girl who I followed on Instagram. I never spoke to her before, but I went over to her, and we started talking. Somehow we ended up talking about what we found attractive, and she said she thought light skin guys are most attractive. She was basically saying, I'm not her type.
Background: Jamaican and Portuguese
When I was younger, I was told by adults, "Thank God you're light skin," or "It's a good thing you're half white." Unfortunately, this led me to believe that being half white or having lighter skin made me better than those who didn't. It was a lot harder for me to learn to love myself and accept my black heritage. As I started to date, I noticed how I was fetishized and exoticized by most white men and denied by most black men. My experience dating white men always left me feeling more like a prize that they won at a fair. My experience dating men of color was far more tolerable. However, there are those that believe because I am light skin I cannot claim my blackness because I'm half white.
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Interviews have been condensed for length and clarity.