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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Lightskin privilege and its place in activism


After reading a letter to the editor this week questioning the place of biracial students in campus activism, I thought it was an important question that deserved to be expanded upon and hopefully answered to some degree. So I've reflected on my race, specifically how my race is perceived by others and how, if at all, it impacts the ways in which I form my racial identity.

The first time I distinctly remember my biracial identity being affirmed was, perhaps unsurprisingly, in Drake’s "You & The 6." “I used to get teased for being Black, and now I'm here and I'm not Black enough.” This line summed up the in-betweenness I had felt for most of my life; the tugging from either side of the aisle by those trying to have me racialize and categorize myself. 

I was accused by my white friends of “using” my Blackness on college admissions applications, and told that I wasn’t “really Black” throughout most of high school. Consequently, their characterization of me left me feeling unauthentic or disingenuous whenever I hung out with my Black friends. Thanks to the toxic ways in which race defines and structures our interactions with one another, I felt trapped in a lightskin purgatory feeling both privileged and marginalized and not knowing how to reconcile that. 

This experience, however, gave me a unique perspective on a sociological phenomenon which has come to operationalize light-skin privilege — colorism. Colorism asserts that, as an outgrowth of white supremacy, the consequences of being both a racial minority and darker-skinned can compound. This can lead to, as in our case, not only a hierarchical social stratification between races but within them as well. 

According to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, sociologists found a correlation between students’ skin color and increased likelihood of being suspended. There aren’t only consequences for being darker-skinned, there are benefits for being lighter-skinned, too. Using data drawn from the Multi City Study of Urban Inequality and the National Survey of Black Americans, researchers found a gradient in income based on skin tone. Among working men earning less than $100k per year, they found the following decline in hourly earnings: white skin ($15.94), light skin ($14.72), medium skin ($13.23) and dark skin ($11.72). 

How does this relate to the place of light-skinned individuals in activism? Well, it is empirically clear that light-skin privilege does exist. However, it is important to keep in mind how colorism works and note that that privilege is the stepson of white supremacy and operates most harmfully within communities of color. Therefore, if the goal of racial justice movements is to promote equity between races, one’s involvement in the dismantling of systems of white supremacy should not be legitimized, or de-legitimized, by the lightness of their skin.

So yes, light-skinned students absolutely have a place in race-based social justice movements, regardless of the race ascribed to them due to their skin color. However, it is crucial that we abide by the same standards to which we hold our white counterparts like acknowledging our privilege, knowing when to take and make space and elevating the narratives of those who are most negatively affected by systems of white supremacy.

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