by Sam Holmes

It took me a minute to process what she had just said. It was pretty straight-forward, but I struggled to really wrap my mind around it. She paused, and then repeated herself: “I want to study outside, but I can’t afford to get any darker. This is as dark as I am willing to get.” One of my classmates, someone who seemed so confident in herself, seemed genuinely afraid of a darker shift in her complexion. I wasn’t even part of that conversation–I just heard it in passing–but her reaction stuck with me for the rest of the day, despite its brevity. Then as the days passed, I began to notice the same attitude in other exchanges between classmates, especially my fellow black women.

Shadeism was not a major problem for me until I became a college student. Over the years, I have become a little too well-acquainted with more –isms than I am comfortable with: classism, ableism, sexism, racism, and more. Those broad, umbrella forms of discrimination were such constant forces in my life that I felt as if I knew the entire spectrum of oppressive institutions. So shadeism threw a curveball at me.  In high school, I definitely had classmates who judged people based on race, but that system was different. Since there were so few people of color, we were lumped into “white” and “other.” The latter category was fairly limited, so there were not many deeper divisions within our identity of otherness.

But my college has a vibrant black community; it’s one of my favorite things about the university. I share classrooms and common rooms with people from across the globe. Seeing people who look like me has reduced some of the warped self-image that I had from growing up in such a homogenously white town.  However, I’m now seeing how the range of backgrounds within the black community can sometimes be a point of contention. The whole “team light skin versus team dark skin” debate has unspoken undercurrents on my campus. I’ve heard guys talk about girls’ hair texture, eye color, skin tone, and other traits. In these circles, the most desirable girls are the ones who are white or half white. They garner the most attention, receive the most compliments, and even receive more homework help from the guys.

This whole experience has made me think about my appearance more when I look in the mirror. Going to school in the south, I have been getting more sunlight than I have ever had before. My foundation no longer matches my skintone and a series of unfortunate tanlines have been making guest appearances on my shoulders and legs. Normally, this would not bother me. But now I am tempted to ask myself about the potential repercussions that would come with a change in my complexion? Would I move further from coveted fairness and closer to stigmatized darker skin? I wonder whether or not this is a legitimate fear.

In these moments of doubt, my mind wanders back to the stories that my relatives have told me about race relations. Specters of the paper bag test, Jim Crow laws, and white imperialist standards of beauty permeate my thoughts. While this de jure form of discrimination has been crossed out of legal documents, its legacy is still strong. Media tend to prefer black actresses with lighter skin. If an ad campaign features a black woman, the spokesperson is more likely to resemble Beyoncé than Lupita. While we slowly inch away from this paradigm, there are still miles and miles of progress to be made.

Media are severely lacking in portraying people of color, and they rarely show the spectrum of possible skintones. Fortunately, there are groups dedicated to changing this abysmal reality. My SPARK sisters have been highlighting the dangers of colorisms before I began to experience it firsthand, exploring how shadeism impacts young women. [Ed. note: our ‘Diverse & Lovely’ colorism toolkit will be released soon!] Across the globe, this emphasis on light skin has caused women to have the same reaction that I did and question the consequences of their complexions. Companies prey on this insecurity and produce harmful bleaching creams. Their products cater to women of light and medium skin tones. Darker women do not deserve to exist in their world. On the rare occasion that they do feature a black woman, advertisements will use photoshop to lighten their skin tone. There is this unspoken message: darker skin is not worth displaying. With their ethos, darker is bad. This is fully intentional. These companies benefit from internalized hatred. Consequently, they do everything in their power to perpetuate such feelings of inadequacy.

I am grateful to be a part of the movement against shadeism. And, while I have my moments of insecurity, I appreciate that skin tone has not been a major problem in my life. I empathize with my classmates who continue to fight this daily battle. The next time that someone feels isolated from shadeism, I will whip out my laptop and show them that there is solidarity in ending the institution.

Currently, my campus is blanketed in Autumn’s cloak. I am spending less time outside, and the bright summer days are almost behind us. However, when the next sunny day does visit us, you will find me studying on the grass, letting the sun paint me a new complexion, and enjoying every minute of it.