Over the past few months, Fridays on Twitter have been an opportunity to bask in the beauty of those blessed with Melanin. On March 6, 2015, the #BlackOutFriday campaign was launched on Tumblr and has expanded to other social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Friday’s #FlexinMyComplexion was the latest hashtag to fit this trend. A concept originally created by Brooklyn-based artist-activist Kameelah Rasheed a year ago to bring nuance to the effects of colorism beyond the black and white binary, “Flexin My Complexion” took on a new life as it became a viral hashtag across our timelines.
— thegirlygurlll on IG (@BADANARI_) August 14, 2015
Many of us were scrolling through our respective timelines like:
The goal is simple: create a space for black people to circulate images of ourselves flourishing. And this is radical. We are incessantly bombarded with images of our dehumanization. These campaigns remind us that we are alive and living, and that it is our duty and our right to do so as black people.
But unlike #BlackOut, #FlexinMyComplexion wasn’t just about being black, but creating a space for our darker-hued siblings.
And this matters.
It’s one thing to talk about the meager representation, if not complete erasure, of black people and people of color due to the institutionalization of white supremacy in so many facets of our lives.
But #FlexinMyComplexion demands we recognize how we have internalized that erasure within our own community through colorism.
Colorism is a term that was coined in 1982 by Alice Walker in her essay, “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?” But the conditions that made the term necessary are rooted historically in the details of slavery that linger with us today. In order to maintain a system of enslavement based on white supremacy, a race line had to be drawn, one that we know of proverbially as the “one-drop rule.”
One of the ways to make our racially codified understandings of the blood we could not see concrete was by associating it with skin color. The lighter your skin tone, the more closely you were associated with having white kin, and with whiteness came preferential treatment. This can be tied to plantation dynamics in which white masters gave preferential treatment to the children they had by raping enslaved African women. In order to circumvent complete bastardization, as the social rules required, lighter-skinned black people were granted certain types of access to mobility. From working inside rather than outside in the fields, to being presented with opportunities to purchase their freedom that their counterparts were not allowed.
But 150 years after the end of slavery, colorism has not been eradicated. Instead, it has taken on new disguises. The “paper bag test” of Jim Crow was made to exclude black people who were not as light as or lighter than a paper bag. At times this meant being denied membership to social organizations, but in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina we also saw it’s deadlier side. In New Orleans, white vigilantes used the metric to shoot darker skinned black people who were simply trying to escape the city.
We know the violence that comes up against black bodies. But we’re not all susceptible in the same way.
We have #SayHerName in order to combat the patriarchal invisibility that leaves us ready to fight for justice for black men and boys while forgetting about black women and girls. We have #BlackTransLivesMatter to stop allowing the disappearance of our siblings who aren’t recognized through a cis-gendered gaze.
The same applies to skin color.
The fact of our differences can’t be ignored for the sake of blackness itself, and if we deny it we impede ourselves from doing the work of dismantling the many ways that racism operates.
When India Arie sang “Brown Skin” in 2001, the value of lyrics such as “You make we want a Hershey’s kiss, your licorice” cannot be underestimated. There is a multi-billion dollar beauty industry that only recognizes European beauty standards. But we see this not only in microaggressions of being told we’d be “prettier if we were white” but also in the profits derived from devaluing darker hues through the creation of chemical skin-lightening creams. The film and television industry also has few qualms about Zoe Saldana playing Nina Simone in blackface or proposing Issa Rae be replaced with a lighter-skinned black woman for the TV adaptation of her hit The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. Arie’s song is a radical affirmation of the value, worth and desirability of those of us in the black community whose melanin production isn’t just on fleek during the summertime, and who are wrongfully disavowed because of it.
#FlexinMyComplexion is another unapologetic embrace.
Our world insidiously values our lives and our ability to be lovable based on our proximity to whiteness figuratively, but also very physically. Quite frankly, the least any of us can do in continuing the work of dismantling racism’s legacy is to make and allow room to support and celebrate our siblings celebrating themselves.
— Maisha Z. Johnson (@mzjwords) August 14, 2015
So while this might mean that lighter-skinned folks will have to sit this one out, it’s only because within the black community itself, this is too often not the case.
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