I am a light-skinned person with a light-skinned/passing Latina mother and a brown-skinned Pinoy father. I do not pass as white. However, I am often seen as mixed Asian by other people, which means I am afforded the many privileges that come with that perception. It means, for instance, that white gentrifiers trying to move into my neighborhood in North Oakland have stopped me on the street as I walked by and asked me if the neighborhood is “safe.” It means that when I get pulled over or questioned by police I don’t fear my imminent death. All this social location stuff to say that I’m about to get into some shit that is based on my personal experiences. I have done all of the things listed below. I have seen many people I love and care about do them. And lots of people I don’t love or care about.
I also want to say that I respect self-identification unless proven otherwise. If you tell me you are a person of color, I believe you. However, there are people in our communities that have ZERO people of color lineage anywhere in their immediate ancestry (Cherokee princess great great grandmother does not count EVER) who actively have lied and told people they were people of color. Those people need to get called out. There are also crazy ass white people who feel they are “transracial” and try to call themselves another race. Those motherfuckers need to be given a stern talking to or something (by other white people, not POC). Preferably on an isolated island away from POC for the next 25 years.
I don’t know what it is like to be a light-skinned or white passing person with black, middle eastern, polynesian, native american and quite a few other ancestries. So I’m not gonna try to tell you what to do. There might be parallels between your experience and mine, though, so take what you will.
If you call yourself POC and are not lying or crazy (go ahead and call my crazy ass ableist for using this term; dare you) then I’m down for your right to call yourself that. Don’t trip. But if you act a fool, I will let you know. Here’s some tips for not acting a fool.
- Stop saying that other people of color are policing or excluding you from POC-ness. There is no such thing as reverse racism NOR reverse colorism. If this makes no sense to you, see #2 - #10.
- Colorism refers to the ways in which material and social gain is systematically given to people who meet or uphold white supremacist notions of beauty. NOT ONE POC who is light-skinned or white passing is being denied jobs or housing or being targeted for violence in a SYSTEMIC way because of their light or white skin. Please don’t tell us about how somebody called you “white bitch” because they were jealous of how white you looked and that this was a form of violence. This is not an example of historical systemic oppression. It’s mean, it’s bullying, it’s misogynist, but it’s not colorism. Note: violence or outright insult, harassment or bullying is never okay no matter who does it.
- Never tell a darker-skinned or non-passing person of color that their behavior is upholding internalized oppression. Never ever. Especially when it’s cuz you feel like they did something to you for being light-skinned or white passing. Just shut up about it. You telling a person with less societal power than you about their internalized oppression is really just you using your privilege to silence them and avoid your feelings of guilt and alienation for being a light-skinned or passing person. Especially if you do it in a public forum. (And no it still isn’t okay even if you “beat” them on some other front, like you are poor and they have money or you have a chronic illness and they seem healthy or you think they have gender privilege over you). Note again: violence or outright insult, harassment or bullying is never okay no matter who does it. If you are being physically or emotionally abused by someone, please seek support.
- That being said, deal with your feelings of alienation and guilt around being light-skinned or white-passing. Like really, really fucking deal with them, historically, emotionally, ancestrally, spiritually, but especially MATERIALLY. I can’t tell you exactly what this looks like without writing a whole other essay. It is still in constant process for myself. But chances are if you are doing any of the problematic shit listed here, you are having a hard time with dealing. Start with checking your defensiveness. If you are thinking about writing me a tirade about how racist I am or how I didn’t say it the right way to get anyone to listen because I’m being mean, or how I am being divisive to POC unity, or how I am ignoring the fact that you are really pale right now because it’s winter, take a moment to pause. Those arguments are so tired and a symptom of your need for self-reflection.
- Build communities of accountability with other light-skinned and white-passing people of color. Communities of accountability are groups of peers who lovingly push one another towards growth, transformation, and active rejection and dismantlement of colorism and white supremacy. For instance, when you feel bad about something related to #1 - #4 but manage to keep it to yourself in the moment, take care of yourself by talking about your feelings with these light-skinned or white passing peers. If you did say or do something fucked up and have realized that you made a mistake, let your peers support you as you take accountability. If all these peers do is validate your experience and tell you were right or that it’s okay because we all make mistakes, they are not holding you accountable. They are handing you a warm bottle of baby formula, a teddy bear, and a singing you a lullaby. They are keeping you asleep. Nitey nite.
- If you gather with other light-skinned or white-passing people, but you all never talk about and TAKE ACTION around your privilege, then your association with them is just the white/light POC equivalent of an “old boys’ club.” It is not a community of accountability; it is just a franchise for white supremacy.
- When you notice you are someplace where there are only light-skinned or white-passing people, talk about it. Especially if it is an environment that is touted as a people of color space. Do not allow yourself to be the token or amongst a small minority of people of color in a space that is claiming to be POC-inclusive without at least saying something. Verbal acknowledgement holds power. Interrupt spaces that uphold white supremacy by speaking up and naming the elephant in the room. Unless your basic needs or physical safety being met is at stake, take action by stepping down from tokenizing roles where you and other light-skinned white-passing POC are the only members. Demand that darker-skinned and/or black folks with more experience than you replace you. Actively make sure this happens. Actually I take that back. DO NOT send other POC of any skin tone into an environment where tokenization is happening. Put in the work to shut that shit down or actively warn people against getting involved in tokening projects and organizations.
- If other people of color (even ones who you consider “as” light-skinned or white-passing as you) ask you about your race or don’t accept you right away, don’t get all hurt. Just be straight up. Let your acts and how you show up in the future speak for itself and build trust. Do you trust every POC you meet just because they’re POC? I certainly don’t. Yes, it might hurt you to feel rejected or be met with suspicion by a community you want to call your own, but truth is you have access to all sorts of communities and privileges that others in your group don’t get because of your skin privilege. Also, protecting ourselves from whiteness is a REAL safety issue. People of color want to know who is white so they know who to not to turn their back on. This is healthy self-preservation, especially for people perceived as black, who face regular threat to their very lives by the state and other upholders of white supremacy. The closer you are perceived to be to blackness, the closer you are to physical, economic, and psychological violence committed by white supremacy and its agents.
- Remember that privilege is not just an idea or a thought or a conversation. It is also an experience of embodiment that can be observed by others. Remember that the hive mind of human consciousness is so adept that we can all state, without doubt, which races are at the top and which are on the bottom. White is on top. Black is on the bottom. If you cannot admit that and let yourself feel the way the consciousness of white supremacy lives within your flesh, then there is no hope of ever exorcising that hierarchy from the hive mind. Pretending our whiteness isn’t there just gives it more power and prevents the healing that needs to occur between people of color in general.
- 10. Be able to name your light-skinned or passing privilege without stuttering. And don’t expect a parade with glitter and a marching band when you do. You can imagine one in your head if you like. That’s okay.
- I lied. I have one more because I’m generous like that. If your darker-skinned or non-passing POC homies agree with you when you tell them how fucked up this article is and assure you that you are really awesome, they might be reassuring you because they are scared of what they might lose if they disagree. Don’t put them in the position of reassuring you. THAT’S fucked up.
None of these ideas are new. In fact, there are almost no new ideas under the sun. Thank you to those around me and who have come before me who have been formulating and enacting these ideas for longer than I’ve been alive.
If you find this post offensive, that is good. Hopefully it will push you towards transformation. Nothing you say can hurt me. I am open to dialogue and critique, however, and will think deeply and respectfully about thoughtful and respectful responses. If you act a fool in general, I will treat you like a fool.