Growing up, I was blessed to be among various skin tones. With a deep chocolate complexion, my mother birthed a brown rainbow that ranged from vanilla wafer brown to an adobe reddish-brown. Growing up around this range showed me that there were all kinds of brown that fit under the umbrella of Blackness.
Despite this understanding, it was apparent that certain skin tones were treated differently. For example, my little brother and I were on the deeper brown spectrum. Our cousins often teased him about his complexion. Ironically, these cousins were just a shade lighter than he.
As a child, I recall that the worst insults hurled towards African-Americans was anything involving the word "African." Because of his dark complexion, my brother heard that insult quite often. Having internalized the negative stereotypes of Africa and Africans, my little brother was deeply stung by those comments. As a young boy, he would cry about the comparison, which my cousins wanted.
On the other side of the color spectrum was my older sister, who was lighter than the rest of us. Though I never witnessed it, she often shared the pain of being light-skinned with me. This pain was caused primarily by my deep chocolate brown maternal aunt. This hurt was, on the flipside, coupled with more attention from boys and young men who found her attractive. It didn't help that the disproportionate appreciation for lighter-skinned Black women in visual and audio media supported her perception. These conflicting experiences led her to believe that her light skin was a mark of superiority, partly because she thought it caused jealousy and envy in darker-skinned women. I grew up just loving her because she was my big sis and the only other girl in the house. I share these two memories to demonstrate the complexity of colorism.
We often think of colorism as causing pain to only dark-skinned people that society views as lower in worth, less attractive, and more criminal than lighter-skinned people. And, while the dark-skinned women in my family experienced a great deal of pain and ridicule for their God-given appearance, the receivers of their pain were often their flesh and blood, like my sister and brother.
I used to ask myself why didn't I also have a story of color-based mistreatment to share like my siblings? Was it because I was a "safe" brown to others? I was not too dark and not too light. Was it because I grew up completely different from my much older siblings? We moved from a homogenous community on the Southside of Chicago to a melting pot on the Northside. Was it because I went to a diverse middle and high school? All of the above, I would say. My sister did experience a great deal of abuse as a child, and she was (and still is) healing from that pain. This is where colorism often stems from--a deep-seated trauma that has poisoned our view of attractiveness and worth.
Keisha Mathew is a mother of two and has been with her South-Asian husband for over fifteen years. She has a masters from the University of Chicago and dabbles in all forms of visual art. When she is not counseling youth by day, writing about her experience as a woman of African descent is her passion.