Authors: Ibram X. Kendi
I did not sleep much that night. Between fine-tuning my speech and quieting my nerves and fears, I had too much going in my mind. I fell eventually into a deep sleep, so deep I did not hear my alarm. When I awoke, I realized I had missed the competition. Upset but also relieved, I made my way to school.
Angela was waiting for me at the competition all morning. After the last participant had spoken to the Stonewall judges, Angela demanded they reconvene when I arrived at school and she did not take no from them—the same as she didn’t take no from me.
And sure enough, when I got to school, the judges reconvened for me. Hearing all that Angela did, a storm surge of gratitude washed away my fears and nerves. I was determined to give the speech of my life. And I did. I won, racist ideas and all.
INNING STARTED TO
melt away the shame I felt for myself and my race regarding my academic struggles. The Black judge was proud of me. I was more than proud of myself. But my racist insecurity started transforming into racist conceit. The transformation had actually already started when I decided to attend Florida A&M University. “It felt right,” I told people. I did not disclose to anyone or myself why this historically Black university felt right.
On my visit during the summer of 1999, everyone gushed about Florida A&M as the biggest and baddest HBCU—historically Black college and university—in the land.
had named it College of the Year in 1997. For the second time in three years,
Florida A&M had outpaced Harvard in its recruitment of National Achievement Scholars (the best of the best of Black high school students). President Frederick S. Humphries, a six-foot-five-inch bundle of charisma, had personally recruited many of those students, while growing his university into the nation’s largest HBCU.
Whenever we say something just feels right or wrong we’re evading the deeper, perhaps hidden, ideas that inform our feelings. But in those hidden places, we find what we really think if we have the courage to face our own naked truths. I did not look within myself to see why Florida A&M just felt right—a reason beyond my desire to be around Black excellence. The truth is, I wanted to flee misbehaving Black folk.
Florida A&M became for me the best of Blackness, all right. I never could have imagined the enrapturing sound of Blackness at its peak. Two weeks after landing on campus, I heard it in all its glory.
A powerful collection of racist policies that lead to inequities between Light people and Dark people, supported by racist ideas about Light and Dark people.
A powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to equity between Light people and Dark people, supported by antiracist ideas about Light and Dark people.
Y VOICE CREAKED
like an old staircase. My arms flailed sluggishly as I stood on the highest of the seven hills in Tallahassee, Florida. I wasn’t tired from climbing on that September day in 2000. I’d been on campus for a few weeks and the school spirit had already mounted me and worn me out, just as it had the thousands of people around me—my fellow Rattlers of Florida A&M University. We called our school FAMU, pronounced as in “family,” FAM-YOU.
I looked again at Bragg Stadium’s football scoreboard.
FAMU 39. MORGAN STATE 7.
But I had no time to rest my tiring arms and screams. Halftime approached.
I should have saved my energy, but as a freshman I did not know any better. I had never seen a performance by the Marching 100, the high-stepping pride of FAMU, arguably the most accomplished marching band in history and certainly the most imitated marching band in the land. I’m biased, but see my receipts. William P. Foster had just retired after fifty-two years of raising what
the best college marching band in the country.” FAMU band members hit the Grammy Awards stage in 2006. But nothing compared to that Super Bowl in 2007, when I bragged incessantly and danced horribly as my friends and I watched the Marching 100 play for Prince.
Back in 2000, though, the Marching 100 confused me on first sight in the first quarter. Winter-clothed in thick pants and long-sleeved orange, green, and white uniforms, adorned with capes and towering hats, they made me hot just watching them roast in the Florida sun. They played off the heat like jam sessions between plays. But nothing prepared me for what I was about to see at halftime.
My roommate, Clarence, stood next to me. Clarence and I arrived at FAMU from different places, had come running from different trails that converged in friendship. Him: an academic titan from Birmingham, Alabama. Me: an academic minion from up north. My daring, untethered ideas complemented his methodical analyses. My fuzzy sense of self and direction embraced his clarity. Clarence considered FAMU a pit stop on a mapped-out trail to a top law school and corporate law and wealth. I considered FAMU an inclusive Black commune to explore and find myself. My explorations amused Clarence. But nothing entertained him more than my eyes.
Clarence’s hazelnut skin matched his hazel eyes, an eye color that is rare for anyone around the world but most commonly found among people of Southern and Eastern European heritage, not African Americans. When I first saw his lighter eyes, I assumed they were fake. It turned out, his genes provided him what I had to buy.
Before arriving at FAMU, I’d started wearing “honey” contact lenses, or “orange eyes,” as my friends called them. My colored contacts were hard to miss on me. Hazel contacts were perhaps the most popular colored contact lens among Black folk, but I picked one shade even lighter. It seemed okay to me to play with my eye color. I knew some Black people who wore blue or green contacts, which I thought was shameful. I saw them—but not me—as straining to look White.
Above my orange eyes, Clarence did not see a low haircut, sometimes with fading up the back and sides, all times a brush flattening the kinks that struggled to stand and band in freedom before the next killa haircut. I started cornrowing my hair in college, twisting them up in small locs, or letting the kinks stretch out, hardly caring that racists judged these hairstyles as the unprofessional uniform of thugs. My cornrows signified an antiracist idea. My honey eyes a capitulation to assimilation. Together, they braided the assimilationist and antiracist ideas of my dueling consciousness.
Did I think my honey eyes meant I was striving to be White? No way. I was simply refining a cuter version of myself, which studies show is the explanation of most buyers of artificial eyes, complexion, hair, or facial features. I never asked myself the antiracist question. Why? Why did I think lighter eyes were more attractive on me? What did I truly want?
I wanted to be Black but did not want to look Black. I looked up to the new post-racial beauty ideal, an outgrowth of the old White beauty ideal. Lightening eye color. Killing kinks. Lightening skin color. Thinning or thickening facial features. All to reach an ideal we did not label White. This post-racial beauty ideal is Lightness: the race of lighter skin and eyes, straighter hair, thinner noses, and semi-thick lips and buttocks, perceived as biracial or racially ambiguous.
The dueling consciousness of antiracist pride in one’s own race and assimilationist desire to be another race stirs this paradoxical post-racial beauty ideal. “It is simultaneously inclusive, multicultural, and new, while remaining exclusive, Eurocentric, and…old-fashioned.” It is “
white beauty repackaged with dark hair,” sociologist Margaret Hunter explains.
I had no idea my light eyes embodied the latest form of “
colorism,” a term coined by novelist Alice Walker in 1983. The post-racial beauty ideal hides colorism, veils it in euphemism. Colorism is a form of racism. To recognize colorism, we must first recognize that Light people and Dark people are two distinct racialized groups shaped by their own histories. Dark people—the unidentified racial group of darker skins, kinky hair, broader noses and lips—span many races, ethnicities, and nationalities. Light people sometimes pass for White and may yet be accepted into Whiteness so that White people can maintain majorities in countries like the United States, where demographic trends threaten to
relegate them to minority status. Some reformers project Light people as
the biracial key to racial harmony, an embodiment of a post-racial future.
Colorism is a collection of racist policies that cause inequities between Light people and Dark people, and these inequities are substantiated by racist ideas about Light and Dark people. Colorism, like all forms of racism, rationalizes inequities with racist ideas, claiming the inequities between Dark people and Light people are not due to racist policy but are based in what is wrong or right with each group of people. Colorist ideas are also assimilationist ideas, encouraging assimilation into—or transformation into something close to—the White body.
To be an antiracist is to focus on color lines as much as racial lines, knowing that color lines are especially harmful for Dark people. When the gains of a multicolored race disproportionately flow to Light people and the losses disproportionately flow to Dark people, inequities between the races mirror inequities within the races. But because inequities between the races overshadow inequities within the races, Dark people often fail to see colorism as they regularly experience it. Therefore, Dark people rarely protest policies that benefit Light people, a “
skin color paradox,” as termed by political scientists Jennifer L. Hochschild and Vesla Weaver.
Anti-Dark colorism follows the logic of behavioral racism, linking behavior to color, studies show.
White children attribute positivity to lighter skin and negativity to Dark skin, a colorism that grows stronger as they get older.
White people usually favor lighter-skinned politicians over darker-skinned ones. Dark African Americans are
disproportionately at risk of hypertension. Dark African American students receive
significantly lower GPAs than Light students. Maybe because
racist Americans have higher expectations for Light students, people tend to
remember educated Black men as Light-skinned even when their skin is Dark. Is that why
employers prefer Light Black men over Dark Black men regardless of qualifications? Even
Dark Filipino men have lower incomes than their lighter peers in the United States.
Dark immigrants to the United States, no matter their place of origin, tend to have less wealth and income than Light immigrants. When they arrive,
Light Latinx people receive higher wages, and
Dark Latinx people are more likely to be employed at ethnically homogeneous jobsites.
Dark sons and Light daughters receive higher-quality parenting than Light sons and Dark daughters.
Skin color influences perceptions of attractiveness most often for Black women.
As skin tone lightens, levels of self-esteem among Black women rise, especially among low- and middle-income Black women.
Dark African Americans receive the harshest prison sentences and more time behind bars.
White male offenders with African facial features receive harsher sentences than their all-European peers.
Dark female students are nearly twice as likely to be suspended as White female students, while researchers found no disparity between Light and White female students. Inequities between Light and Dark African Americans can be as wide as inequities between Black and White Americans.
HE SECOND QUARTER
ticked away. I stared as the world’s longest multicolored Rattler uncurled itself. The Marching 100 should have been named the Marching 400. Hundreds of band members slowly stepped onto the field, one after another, into lines of instruments, into a rhythmic strut. Lines low-stepped behind FAMU’s team on our side of the field, to the other side of the field behind Morgan State’s team, and into the end zones. The line colors draped over the green field like strokes of paint on a canvas. Skin color didn’t matter in this procession. It never should have mattered.
I watched the spreading lines of cymbals, trumpets, trombones, saxophones, clarinets, French horns, flutes, and those big tubas. Instruments rhythmically swayed in unison with bodies. The half ended. Football players ran through band lines and departed the field. Instead of a rush out to the concession stands, people rushed to their seats to stand and wait.
Some male students didn’t care about watching the Marching 100’s first performance of the season and instead prowled inside the shaded concourse or outside the stadium, searching for a new friend, hoping they had more game than football. If they were anything like my friends, then Light women were their favorite, and it showed up in the words they spit. “Ugly-Black,” they called darker women. “Nappy-headed.” But straight and long hair was “good hair.”
“She’s cute…for a Dark girl,” was the best some of them could muster for darker-skinned women.
Even Dark gay men heard it: “I don’t normally date Dark-skin men, but…”
The first woman I dated at FAMU was lighter than me, with almost caramel-colored skin. Straight hair fell down her petite body. I liked her (or did I like that she liked me?). But I did not like how my friends fawned over her and overlooked her darker roommate and best friend. The more my friends ignored or denigrated the Dark woman, the more I resented myself for liking the Light woman. After a few months, I had enough. I abruptly cut off the Light woman. My friends thought I had lost my mind. To this day, they deem the Light woman the prettiest woman I dated at FAMU. After her, they say, I rolled downhill into the Dark abyss.
They are right about the darkness—if not the abyss. That first Light college girlfriend ended up being the last at FAMU. I pledged to date only Dark women. Only my Light friend Terrell did not think I had lost my mind. He preferred Dark women, too. I looked down on the rest—anyone who did not prefer Dark women, as well. I hardly realized my own racist hypocrisy: I was turning the color hierarchy upside down, but the color hierarchy remained. Dark people degraded and alienated Light people with names: light bright, high yellow, redbone. “
You’re never Black enough,” a Light woman once told Oprah about her feelings of rejection. Light people constantly report
their struggle to integrate with Dark people, to prove their Blackness to Dark people, as if Dark people are the judge and standard of Blackness. The irony is that many Dark people—read me, circa 2000—do think of themselves as the judge and standard of Blackness, while at the same time meekly aspiring to the standard of Lightness or Whiteness.
White people and Dark people reject and envy Light people. White people have historically employed the one-drop rule—that even one drop of Black blood makes you Black—to bar Light people from pure Whiteness. Dark people employ the two-drop rule, as I call it—two drops of White blood make you less Black—to bar Light people from pure Blackness. Light people employ the three-drop rule, as I call it—three drops of Black blood mean you’re too Dark—to bar Dark people from pure Lightness. The “drop” rules of racial purity were mirages, just like the races themselves and the idea of racial blood. No racial group was pure.
When people look at my chocolate-brown skin, broad nose, thick lips, and the long hair I locked during my junior year at FAMU, around the time I retired my orange eyes for good, they do not see a biracial man. They do not see my White great-great-grandfather.
Nothing has been passed down about this White man except that he impregnated my great-great-grandmother, who bore him a Light child named Eliza in 1875. In the 1890s, Eliza married the Dark-skinned Lewis, who had recently arrived in Guyton, Georgia, from Sylvania, West Virginia. In 1920, they bore my grandfather Alvin. Eliza, Alvin, and Ma, all lighter-skinned, all married Dark people.