Beyoncé’s song “Formation” has solidified itself as an anthem of sorts for black women in America—invigorating a segment of society who are often overlooked by the majority. While Beyoncé’s pride in her Black heritage is evident, another aspect of her heritage has inspired me to write on a particularly troubling subject immersed within black culture— colorism.
Colorism is a term used to describe individuals who are prejudiced or discriminate against individuals with a dark skin tone. It is typically exhibited among people of the same ethnic or racial group, but it does trickle outward. For those who are unaware, here is a brief history lesson on colorism within the Creole community specifically:
At some point during the early part of the 19th century, the term Creole was created by European colonists to distinguish those born in Louisiana from those who had recently emigrated there. The Creole distinction eventually trickled down to black people to distinguish light skinned/ biracial black people from the newly arrived African slaves who were typically darker in complexion. The native and often lighter skinned black folk were often looked at in higher regard by white Louisianans, as opposed to darker skinned blacks. They were praised for their more European features and were often awarded more privilege than their darker skinned counterparts. This preferential treatment toward the lighter skinned blacks resulted in many developing a sense of superiority over darker skinned Africans—a sentiment that still exists in Louisiana (and elsewhere) today.
Generally, black people of Creole descent typically have a mixed lineage composed of African, French, and in some cases Spanish and/or Native American. While skin tone can vary, the majority of Creole black people are lighter complexioned, possess more European facial features, and have what is often referred to within the black community as “good hair” (I’ll get back to this).
In 1997, Lynn Whitfield and a young Jurnee Smollett, both of Creole heritage, starred in Eve’s Bayou as a mother and daughter hailing from an affluent black Creole family. The film provides an excellent glimpse into black Creole culture in the Louisiana Bayou during the early 19th century.
Though subtle, there are certain instances that can be observed in the film where the Creole families come across a bit bourgeois. They are wealthy and are privy to a lifestyle that many other black people during that time period would never experience. In an essay on the issue of colorism within the black community, one woman writes “If colorism is the child of White supremacy then light skin privilege is its grandchild.” While many of us are aware of “white privilege”, what is rarely discussed is the privilege that at times come with being a lighter skinned black person.
As far as personal experience goes, I can remember a conversation I had with a close family member when I was pregnant with my oldest son. My son’s father is a dark skinned black man of Jamaican descent while my complexion is more of a light caramel. When I showed a picture of my son’s father to one of my family members, I was disappointed to hear them laughingly remark “Wow, your baby is probably going to be dark as hell with nappy hair.” My response was “and if he is dark-skinned with “nappy hair” he’ll still be beautiful”
Personally, I’ve dealt with colorism within my own community on several occasions in my life time. Like many black people, my skin tone has fluctuated over the years. Though I’m not exactly dark skinned, had I been alive a bit earlier in history, I wouldn’t have passed the “brown paper bag test” either. Nevertheless, the reception I received about my complexion in comparison to my lighter complexioned sisters in my youth was significant enough to form an impression on me—and resulted in periods of self-doubt and low self-esteem—especially during puberty.
There were times when I was told in so many words “too bad you’re not as light as your sisters, but at least you have good hair.” Likewise, there are times that I’ve been embraced due only to the texture of my hair—as if my hair gave me a pass for not exactly being light skinned.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been told I have “good hair”; as if I possess some sort of magic token due to this” good hair” of mine that can catapult me beyond the struggles that comes with being a black woman in America. Truthfully, the so called privilege that comes with having “good hair” has never done me any good— because it doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is the horrible reality that this sort of destructive mentality continues to be ingrained within black culture. In the end, I am a black woman on paper and in real life.
While the aforementioned experiences were fairly rare during my upbringing in northern New Jersey, I can only imagine what darker skinned black girls and boys endure in social climates saturated with colorism; a terribly misinformed ideology that has been and continues to be prevalent in black communities nationwide.
To date, the separation among Black people on both ends of the Mason Dixon is still observable. In Louisiana, it is not uncommon for Creoles to only congregate with other Creoles, intentionally separating their selves from what some Creoles refer to as “common black folk” in Louisiana. This is very much reflective of a sort of classism deeply rooted in racism–and many don’t even know it.
One writer described an incident that occurred in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where an obviously distressed Creole woman approached a darker skinned black woman, and specifically asked where all the “light skinned black folk” were. It was obvious she was uncomfortable being around black people with darker skin tones, and through all the chaos and tragedy that everyone was experiencing in Katrina’s aftermath cumulatively, her only thought was to be reacquainted with her “own kind”.
In her book on the topic of race, Lauren Joichin Nile writes of her experience as a child living in Louisiana’s 7th Ward:
“During my two years there, I observed that some of the teachers (not the majority, fortunately), all of whom were African American, were more comfortable with and therefore warmer toward the light skinned Creole kids. As for the students, some of the dark brown-skinned and light brown-skinned kids disliked each other automatically, on the basis of skin color.”
Honestly, colorism affects all shades of black people, and the harm it causes—especially to Black women, is not exclusive to those with dark complexions– no one wins in this particular fight. So— when I heard Beyoncé’s lyrics “You mix that negro with that Creole…” I automatically wondered why being Creole is seen as being something other than just black or even biracial, when in essence it’s a socially constructed term?
The truth is, the majority of black people in America who descend from African slaves have been affected by colonialism to some degree and have mixed ethnicities, regardless of their individual skin tones. The truth is, the “negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” that Beyoncé refers to is not necessarily seen as an attribute within the Creole community, so referencing both in the same sentence is somewhat of a contradiction (a possibly intentional one on Bey’s part). The truth is, racist white people could care less these days that our great, great, great grand pappy was a distinguished French man, because in their minds that one drops rule still exists.
So, while I can see the attempts being made by Beyoncé to inspire solidarity among black women, due to no fault of her own, her Creole pride awakens a certain “ghost” of the Mississippi that is hardly dead and gone.
It is so important that we continue this conversation about the work that still needs to be done—not only outside of our communities, but within them as well. Regardless of the socially constructed group we as Black people identify with, we are ultimately more connected in our blackness than we are different, and so it is my hope that we begin to act accordingly, minus the labels dividing us.
*SB: First off, yes, I made up the word “creolism”. *Kanye shrugs* Second, I originally wrote this piece shortly after “Formation” first came out, but never published it, because I felt the media was oversaturated with individual reactions to Lemonade at the time. However, the issue of colorism is once again in the news, and the conversation has trended again in social media due to various reactions on Sophia Richie’s recent comments on the racism she has experienced as a biracial young woman in America. So., I decided now would be a time to contribute to the conversation.