Breaking Down Privilege, Light Skin and Beyond

Precious-2
Precious wasn’t a 110-pound light skinned girl for a reason.

As NPR described, “the writer known simply as Sapphire, tells the story of a dark-skinned, heavy-set, illiterate African-American girl who has survived multiple pregnancies by her father.” In other words, the character Precious was created by Sapphire to depict one of the most rejected, unprotected, less privileged demographics.

In an interview, Sapphire explained,

I wanted to show that this girl is locked out through literacy. She’s locked out by her physical appearance. She’s locked out by her class, and she’s locked out by her color.

There were similar reasons behind the creation of  characters Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Celie in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Because of denied privileges to women fitting their characteristics, Black women writers felt a need to share these stories. Three things these legendary characters all had in common: poverty, dark skin and sexual abuse. This was not an accident.

It has been known for a very long time that people with dark skin have often been treated with the utmost disdain and abuse. This is not a new discovery. Yet still, a few of my readers had a digital meltdown when I discussed light skin privilege.

Dave-Chapelle-Rick-James

At first I was surprised but then I remembered how difficult recognizing privilege can be. After all, a huge component of privilege is not realizing it exists.

So I’m going to rewind and thoroughly explain what privilege is, how it works and who has it.

It wasn’t until I was older that I realized I had privilege. Even as a little girl, when a white class mate (afraid of my Blackness) refused to come near me, I had privilege. Even in middle school when a group of Black girls compared me to a gorilla, I had privilege. Even in the 9th grade, when I was bullied to the point of crying in class by other Black kids because of my permed but still nappy hair, I had privilege.

It wasn’t until I was older, when I saw some of these same people and their lives, that I realized the privilege I had. I grew up in a two parent household. Both of my parents were college graduates. The concept of college was never a question. Never had I ever been asked, “Are you going to college?” It was a given. Not only was I going, I had already begun writing, playing instruments, learning modern dance, and performing in theater productions. When I wanted to do something, my mother wrote a check.

Black-ish-money

We were not rich, but she was able to pay for every school activity I wanted to do.

My mother was very busy, but still had time to go over my school work. During the summer, I would get mad at her for forcing me to complete workbooks before I could go out and play. I didn’t know that any of this was a privilege. It was always assumed that everybody was able to do all of these things. In my mind, everybody’s mom read them stories, gave them books, made home-cooked dinners every night, and helped them apply for financial aid to attend college.

I later learned that some of those same people that bullied me so badly, were living in abject poverty. Baldwin County, Ga has a poverty rate double the national average. Many of their mothers were working overtime in service and fast food industries trying to make ends meet. I realized that those playground wars, where I had been called such horrible names, were their own attempts to feel better about their status in the world. If they could succeed in making someone else feel the way they felt, then they could feel powerful (even if it only lasted for a few hours.)

If you had told me at the time I was being called a gorilla, that I had privilege, it would have been hard for me to believe you. I would have said, “But my feelings are hurt, what privilege?”

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when so many Black kids failed to pass the Georgia High School Graduation Test, that I started to realize the disparities. It wasn’t until I saw members of my senior class receiving a certificate instead of a diploma that I realized what happened. Their lives were cheated, opportunities had been denied and it was systematic. I recalled how certain students were automatically put on the technical track while others were put on the college track. The state of Georgia had predetermined who was going to college and who wasn’t.

But not me. I was going to college. I was going to leave and study whatever I wanted to. In high school I worked at McDonald’s, Sonic and Papa John’s. Quitting these jobs was never a make or break situation for me.

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I had no problem saying, “I quit,” because, I was college bound. Fast food or retail wasn’t going to be my future. Hence my confusion when I saw other students dropping out of high school once they finally got their highly coveted job at Walmart.

Later in college, I saw how girls that were darker than me in skin tone were treated by men. I saw first hand how their deep brown skin was used a prerequisite for excessive abuse or utter disregard. I’ve seen their love interests dodge them and pursue me or other girls. I’ve also seen how they were treated by faculty members and staff. They were under constant attack. My lighter skinned friends also faced hardships, being not considered Black enough or having to deal with people’s assumptions about them. But what our other friends were going through was undeniable.

We were also treated differently according to body type.

Coming-To-America

Dark skin plus thicker body equaled additional problems. It was during this time that I also realized thin privilege. And yes, that’s a real thing. I had never thought of this before either, but it existed and I benefited from it.

Later I learned about abelism and the privilege I have as a person with no physical or developmental disabilities.

So here I am a Black middle class, 2nd generation college graduate, with two educated parents, with no known disabilities, that wears a size medium. I have a lot of privilege that other people don’t have. That doesn’t mean I’ve never experienced racism or bullying.

So when I wrote about the documentary Light Girls, referencing its avoidance of privilege, the commentary was out of a real need to address historical facts that affect the Black community. Light skin privilege is real. It has been studied and documented throughout history. It is a subsidiary of White privilege, where people of hues closer to white on the racial hierarchy are afforded with certain advantages. Over the past 300 years, it has become a part of the fabric of Western society.

Here are the 6 most common responses when discussing Light Skin Privilege:

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1. But I’ve experienced racism. I don’t have privilege.

2. But other Black people picked on me because I’m light skinned. I don’t have privilege.

1-2: Your concerns are valid. However, it needs to be remembered that this issue isn’t about individual situations or circumstances. Light skinned privilege isn’t about anybody’s assumptions or hurt feelings. Race is a social construct that was created to sustain a hierarchy. In the Western world “whiteness” has been used as a measuring stick for human value. People of lighter hues have been treated with less “disdain” than other Black people. This is a historical fact, not an idea or assumption. It doesn’t mean that light skinned people never face racism or colorism. 

3. But I went to prison or had some other horrible experience in life. I don’t have privilege.

Light skin privilege does not mean that people labeled as light skinned never experience hardships or adversity. However, it does mean that at times, certain hardships will have less of a blow if your skin tone is lighter. For instance, a recent study showed that among Black people in prison, those perceived as light skinned received shorter sentences than those perceived as dark skinned.

4. Stop making assumptions about my character. I don’t have privilege.

Privilege isn’t about making assumptions on someone’s character. People need to understand the concept of light skin privilege is not an indictment on light skinned people, but instead an indictment on how racial hierarchies operate. Challenging this issue, is necessary in order challenge the false concept of white supremacy.

5. I don’t believe it. Show me the receipts! Where is this privilege?

Whitney-Receipts-1

For all naysayers, part of “privilege” is having the ability to not “see” the problem, because it has become so normalized.

Here are the requested receipts:

http://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2011/07/color_bias_do_lightskinned_blacks_get_shorter_sentences.html

http://www.multiculturaladvantage.com/recruit/diversity/bias/Skin-Tone-More-Important-Than-Educational-Background-African-Americans-Seeking-Jobs.asp

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/11/us/school-discipline-to-girls-differs-between-and-within-races.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/14/skin-tone-bias_n_4597924.html

http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/study-people-associate-education-with-lighter-skin/283086/

http://thegrio.com/2014/01/16/study-light-skinned-black-men-perceived-as-better-educated/

http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/05/13/doll.study/

http://jezebel.com/368746/study-men-are-more-attracted-to-women-with-lighter-skin

http://www.sentencingproject.org/detail/news.cfm?news_id=1136

6. Why are you talking about this? What good does it do? This is just divide and conquer.

Talking about Light Skinned Privilege does not promote “divide and conquer.” Ignoring it does.

Divide and conquer can only exist in a state of confusion. Right now, confusion exists because we haven’t learned how to effectively pin point and deconstruct the inner workings of racial oppression. By rejecting the privilege of light skin or at least calling it out, we are also rejecting the concept of white supremacy. We are saying that all Black lives are just as valuable as the others. This same thing can be said we we reject homophobia and sexism in our communities. We’re saying all Black lives matter the same, despite our perceived differences.

Last but not least

Part of the normalization of privilege is not being aware it exists. Even as a former landlord happily called me her “new pitch black friend,” I had privilege at various levels. In other words, this isn’t about your or my hurt feelings. Transforming society hinges upon our ability to proactively breakdown privilege: white, light skinned, class, economic and beyond.

In the case of racism and colorism, recognizing light skin privilege is a step towards understanding how to dismantle white privilege and Black oppression. The recognition of light skin privilege is not an indictment against light skinned people, it’s an indictment on the currently normalized role of false white supremacy and how it plays out in our lives.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & Culture The Web. To bring JAM to your school or show, email OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci

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All My Life I Had To Fight

About four years ago I was having a discussion with a friend about his new web show. He wanted to focus on topics concerning the Black community. I told him we should discuss domestic violence. To which he responded, “That’s not an issue. A sista would never let somebody beat her!” I stood there in disbelief, that a grown man with a family could actually believe such a thing. But there we were, standing outside with me trying my best to convince him that many Black women were getting physically abused everyday and it had nothing to do with us “letting” something happen.

Fast forward to earlier this year when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was seen on video dragging his then girlfriend’s body on the floor of an elevator. Excuses ensued. What happened that night? The theories went as followed:

She was drunk and he was taking her back to their room.

They were both fighting.

Maybe he beat her up.

We don’t know what happened, so “let’s not judge.”

While watching him kick and drag her limp body, there were many presumptions about what happened. The main one always circled around “her involvement.” Not long after, Janay Palmer and Ray Rice married. Then, came the press conference. The couple sat along side each other with Ray trying to undo the PR disaster, while Janay was forced to apologize for “her role.”

Months later, with the football season starting, the full video of the assault has been released. It showed that he spat on her, punched her in the face multiple times, kicked her and dragged her. Now that the public has a wider view of the assault, the excuses are:

They were both fighting.

Maybe he beat her up.

We don’t know all of what happened, so “let’s not judge.”

She provoked him.

She started it.

She still married him.

She doesn’t care, why should we?

She must be a gold digger.

The excuses are almost the same even though we’ve seen the footage. We saw what happened to her. We saw how it happened. Yet, there is still somehow this belief that it “didn’t really happen like that.”

The same thing happened in 2007, when preacher Juanita Bynum was choked and stomped in an Atlanta parking lot. The excuse then was, “She didn’t let him be the man.” This was a woman that had advocated for women to have sex with their husbands, even if they didn’t feel like it. If anyone was a trumpet of patriarchy, she was. Still, the very community she preached within ignored the violence and conjured up ways to blame her for being physically abused.

This leads me back to the discussion I had with my friend. Perhaps, he didn’t see domestic violence in our community because he didn’t want to. Perhaps he didn’t believe it for the same reasons the people defending Ray Rice don’t. They don’t want to believe it because it would mean that Black women can no longer be the blame for “violence” against us. That’s scary because then people would have to be held accountable, Black men included. That’s something our community continues to grapple with. How do we end violence against Black women without further criminalizing Black men in an atmosphere that is hostile to Blackness?

That’s why at this moment there are some people worried about Rice’s career. Where will he work? How will he live? Will he ever be able to get a job again?

Yet, we should be worried about Janay Rice. Will she be okay? Will he take his anger out on her…again? Is she safe? Where will she go? Does she have family members that will support her instead of tell her to “stand by his side?”

There is a difference between criminalizing and protecting. Criminalizing is when a person or group of people are unjustly deemed as inherently criminal. Protecting is when there are consequences for harming a person or group of people unjustly. Protection is a mechanism of prevention. When a man kicks a woman and punches her in the face and he loses his job or goes to jail for it, that’s called Protection. We’re letting members of society know that for the safety of everyone, this will not be tolerated.

For many battered women, there is no where else to go. They often endure mental abuse that prevents further access to care and freedom. This belief that she somehow “provoked him” or “he just snapped” is why so many women are battered and die under those circumstances. It’s just an excuse, another trope of denial in order to circumvent accountability.

This did happen. This is happening.

Still, it is no surprise that Janay Rice partially blames herself. This often happens to battered women. As a well meaning survival mechanism, at times they defend the abuser, taking on the blame for themselves as a way to avoid facing the reality of what’s really happening.

Often times when there are debates about sexism in the Black community, male counterparts often ask, “What privileges do Black men have?” In case you’re still wondering, this is what Black male privilege looks like. It’s the privilege to withhold accountability in cases of sexual and physical abuse against Black women, and still have members of the community vehemently defend their right to do so. Abusers will have people rally on their behalf, including their own victims.

The same thing happens to sexual abuse victims. People go through oratory gymnastics to blame molestation, rape and sexual abuse on the women and girls that were abused. We’ll hear things like:

She was a fast girl.

Why was she over there if she didn’t want it?

She knew what she was doing.

Why didn’t she say anything, if she didn’t like it?

This shower of condemnation of the survivor and excuses for the perpetrator happen time and time again in the case of sexual abuse against Black women.

However, it would be dangerous to believe that sexism, patriarchy, and abuse exist as vacuums in Black communities. They are an overall societal problem, prompted up my mainstream culture. The key issue with the Black community is, because mainstream culture already demonizes Blackness, the Black community fears that by outing abusers, they are adding to the demonization of their community. This has become a dangerously error-prone survival mechanism. Instead there should be an understanding that outing abusers (no matter who they are) is a way of strengthening the overall health of communities.

In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, many Black women related to the now famous words:

 All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men. But I never thought I’d have to fight in my own house. I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I’ll kill him dead before I let him beat me.

Country wide protests were launched against the movie by Black men and women stating that it would make our community look bad and that it demonized Black men. When on the contrary, it shed light on key issues like incest, child molestation, sexual abuse, patriarchy and domestic violence. These are the issues, we often refuse to seriously address as a community. There was nothing unreal about it. It was just the ugly painful truth for many generations of women. It for this reason that The Color Purple has since become a classic, with many scenes viewers can recite word-for-word.

Indeed, all our lives we’ve had to fight and it will only end when our community rejects its abusers. I’ve had close friends and family members that faced the world with broken souls after being sexually/physically abused and blamed for it. We have to make the decision. Will we protect abusers or not? Will we take a stand against violence or not?

In the case of Janay Rice, the three minute visual of Ray Rice beating her has created more public awareness. Though this is a sad situation, the good thing about public cases like this is that more and more people are publicly condemning this behavior. These condemnations are added boosts needed to sway public discourse around this topic. This issue isn’t solely about one couple or one woman. It’s about the strengthening of our community as a whole. Otherwise, it will crumble within.

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IMG_0054-ZF-7906-35913-1-001-006Jessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com. To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com. Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.

Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

HIV Negative…I Got My Papers. Do you?

A few days ago I was at work skimming through an old issue of Essence Magazine that I kinda sorta stole from one of my closest sista girlfriends. I got to this article called Capital Offense about the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Washington D.C. According to this article, D.C. is our nation’s leader in AIDS cases, with Black women making up most of the new HIV cases. African Americans make up “84% of newly reported HIV/AIDS cases” in The District of Columbia. Now, usually I skip articles like these because they are very scary to take in. But this time, I forced myself to continue reading and the more I read, the more I realized that I had been underestimating the extent to which HIV/AIDS was affecting the Black community. I kept thinking wow, this is real. HIV/AIDS is real and the topic should not be ignored or avoided because many of us are dying. The poverty that plagues the city plays a key role in this epidemic as nearly 19% of its resident’s are poverty stricken. Needless to say poverty begets crime and drug use, which leads to the exchange of needles, which leads to more cases of HIV/AIDS.

So I decided that I would take a step towards eliminating this epidemic and get myself tested. The last time I was tested was about 9 months ago but the health department encourages follow ups so I scheduled an appointment yesterday. Today, I sat in the Health Department anxiously awaiting my turn, paid my $15, and saw the nurse. My nurse was an old Black Woman with a warm southern accent. She reminded me of someone’s no nonsense but loving Grandmother. She drew blood from my finger, pushing down hard around the opening to get a good drop of blood. After she sent the blood off for testing (which took 20 mins), she decided that we would have a talk.

We went to another office, closed the door and she said to me, “What do you know about HIV?” I was so startled by the question that my little Master’s degree went out the window. I found myself stumbling over words and saying the little bit I could remember. Then she gave me the most elaborate explanation of HIV/AIDS that I have ever heard. She started at the beginning and talked about everything: “The best ways to avoid contracting HIV is abstinence and condoms. Condoms are 99% effective. Don’t exchange needles. Don’t even exchange crack pipes because there may be wounds in your mouth. If you are bisexual, wash your toys in Clorox. HIV/AIDS dies within seconds when it hits the air but if you are positive don’t leave bloody articles around. If you are positive and you have unprotected sex with someone else who is also positive, you may increase your chances of turning HIV into AIDS.”  And so on and so on. I was like a little kid again in school at my desk. Then my teacher said, “Okay now sit out there while I go get your results.”

As I sat, all of the things that she said were running through my head. That’s when I realized that this woman really cared about me. I have been tested on numerous occasions and nobody took the time to see if I really understood what was going on. No one ever took the time to make sure I knew how to protect myself. No one ever took the time to speak to me on a personal human level about getting a HIV test.

When she called my back to the office, she informed me that my results were Negative. Then she gave me another talk about protecting myself. These were her words, “Trust NO ONE. Don’t trust anybody! The Black male has little concern for the Black female. He will go out and have sex with a risky person and then come right back to you and give it to you… A lot of women get HIV from their husbands. A woman I knew died this way… If a black man goes to prison and doesn’t have it already, chances are he has it when he comes out and passes it right along…Some people with HIV get sad and go spread the virus on purpose to share it with others… Don’t trust anybody!…Use a condom.”

The words of this old Black woman stung me. Reality set in. How many times have I engaged in intercourse unprotected with a boyfriend? How many times have we all done this, whether it was a girlfriend or boyfriend (maybe even one that we didn’t really trust)? Then, usually, especially in youth, those relationships don’t last. We don’t realize how many times we are putting our lives at risk. On the subject of the black man, those are her opinions. However, it has been proven time and time again that you may think you’re the only one and in reality you are as Aretha Franklin puts it, in a “Chain of fools.” The results are higher rates of HIV/AIDS cases among Black women than any other category in the U.S. Still, we hardly ever talk about it in our communities. It’s a secret, a hidden all out epidemic.

I just want to say to everyone. Love yourself. My sista Griselda reminded me of that in an article she wrote a few weeks ago. We’ve got to start loving ourselves better. We need to talk about this issue more openly. Churches (the best avenue to reach Black People) need to have some HIV/AIDS classes and testing days. We need to fight for Brothas in prison to have access to condoms. We need to remind Sistas that love for self is more important that HIS love. And we need to destroy this sexist misogynist illusion of Manhood that so many Brothas have fallen susceptible to. We need to replace it with “real” knowledge of self and self love.

So, I just wanted to let you all know about my recent eye opening experience. Please go get tested and tell your friends to get tested. Get educated about HIV/AIDS, so that we can prevent it from spreading. We don’t have to live like this. We can prosper. We can save our communities.

By Jessica Ann Mitchell

info@TheLegaciOnline.com