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Profiles of Black women of different skin tones
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“High-yellow bitch think she cute!”

“Yeah, think she better than us, cause she red.”

Those were the insults I received from other Black girls while growing up in Roanoke, Virginia. Their ire was directed at my lighter skin tone. Why they treated me that way was beyond me; I was a very nice person.

But they made assumptions about who I was based on my appearance. I was experiencing a form of discrimination from peers of the same race. Colorism, a term first coined by feminist author Alice Walker, is the privileging of lighter skin over darker skin.

Throughout U.S. history and still today, lighter skin tone connotes certain implicit and explicit advantages. What these girls were saying to me was a rebuke to that hierarchy — they were saying that I thought I was better than them because of my skin tone.

Later on they got to know me and discovered the person I really was. But their attitudes were reflective of something deeper that existed in my hometown: Black folks divided themselves before any other race even had a chance.

There were us light-skinned girls and boys, and the dark-skinned girls and boys.

I personally had a romantic preference for the dark-skinned brothers, and they, in turn, had a thing for me. That is what the majority of middle and high school couples resembled around my way. Only when I got older did this partiality change.

But beyond looks, I also had a fondness for bad boys. Dope boys in particular. If I saw something I wanted, or if I simply wanted money, they gladly obliged. And I gladly accepted.

Time and maturation have illuminated what was once obscured. Hidden behind all of the fancy cars and clothes were my misguided Black brothers, boys and men who felt a need to fit into the crowd, all without the awareness of how society had secretly molded, stereotyped, marginalized and ostracized them. But in our eyes, at that time, they were just cool. Being who they thought they should be. And sadly, us girls only compounded the problem.

I fell in love with one of those dope boys and had my second child, a son. Our relationship was tumultuous. We hung onto one another for the sake of our baby boy, but ultimately it was to the detriment of us all.

Both of my son’s parents were eventually imprisoned. Our child grew up without us for a time, but still managed to become an exceptional young man.

As I’m older now, I better understand how important it is for Black people to support each other, no matter the shade of their skin. We already have U.S. history working against us. Looking back, I see how the weight of history pushed those girls and the dope boys into negative behavior. I want something better for our children.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Chanell Burnette is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.