Light Skin with the Good Hair: Colorism and Hair Texture Bias

It’s not lost on me that people find my skin tone and hair texture “pretty”. I get compliments on them all the time. I think we are well aware of the notion (particularly within the black community) that lighter skin and soft curly hair is an immediate ticket to an easier life and an automatic assumption of beauty and eliteness. Being that I fall (somewhat) in this category and I am on the receiving end of plenty of compliments surrounding my hair and skin tone, I know how prevalent these opinions are.  I was just a little girl when I realized such a ridiculous hierarchy even existed. I am a middle child with two sisters who both have darker skin tones and tighter curl patterns than I do. Although my dad freely expressed his adoration for the darkest skin tones and the kinkiest hair types, I quickly realized that most people in the world around me did not share his views on this.

When I decided to go natural about ten years ago, most of my friends adamantly refused to go on the natural hair journey with me. Their reasoning was that I had “good hair” and (based on society’s standards) they supposedly did not. I would always argue back by saying “healthy hair is good hair”! Ten years later, thankfully most of my friends have embraced their natural hair in a gorgeous variety of different textures and curl patterns. It was a similar experience for me regarding skin color. I grew up hearing all types of stipulations dictating to darker skinned women why they were too black to wear red lipstick or bright colored clothing like their lighter skinned friends. When a new baby was born, I watched as family members would look at the baby’s ears to predict whether or not the baby would remain fair skinned or if it would become darker over time.

After observing this for decades, I sometimes find myself conflicted. I am proud of who I am, while also despising the predjudices and biases that exist surrounding skin color and hair texture. When I get compliments on my curly hair and lighter skin tone,  I often find it difficult to fully receive these compliments. This is in large part due to the deep seated self-hatred and/or ignorance that I assume is bubbling underneath some (but not all) of these compliments. I truly hate that I have to be so deep with that. I mean… why not just accept the compliment and go? That would actually never work. It’s just not who I am. Besides, I know too much history on this, so I know better.

I know that if I were six shades darker with these exact same features, I would not get so many compliments. I know that if my hair type were 4c instead of 3c, I would not get nearly as many compliments on that either. I know the stark difference in the reactions I got from people when I introduced them to my dark-skinned, straight from Africa boyfriend versus the responses I got when I introduced them to my much lighter “high yellow” boyfriend with hazel eyes and freckles. I know the reactions I get when I tell people I’m a member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc.  Which is usually something along the lines of “Oh wow, you don’t look like a Zeta. I thought all Zetas were big, black, and ugly”. When someone asks me the question, “What are you mixed with?” it’s not endearing or complimentary to me, because I know it’s rooted in the assumption that my features could not possibly come from two black parents.  

Usually when women give me compliments on my hair, they simultaneously say something to insult their own hair texture. I’m always torn when trying to decide if I want to use that moment to educate them or if I should just smile and keep it moving. We are constantly being bombarded with propaganda telling us what we should look like in order to be considered beautiful. I know how easy it is to lose yourself in that. So if I could take advantage of a teachable moment and deliver a different message to someone in retaliation to that— to make them think deeper and possibly motivate them to educate themselves further and look at themselves through a different lens, then why not say something?

When I do decide to take advantage of the moment, it’s usually a quick thought provoking statement or question. The intent behind this is not to preach to them, but to simply plant a seed and hopefully move them to ponder things just a little bit deeper. Because in a world where we are constantly being bombarded with other people’s versions of what beauty looks like, I know that I can make a conscience choice to be apart of a community that creates our own standards that includes people of every size, shade and hair type, etc. This is where change is born. Obviously there is a huge shift towards this already, so I will use my “privilege” and perspective to lend a helping hand whenever the opportunity presents itself to me.