My French Creole features speak to a long history of miscegenation: green eyes, skin the color of a white peach and a sharp Puritan nose to match my thinly drawn Vermillion lips. Still, my blackness is always in question because of my lightness, especially among my darker sisters. Imagine if you will, having an appearance that, if we're honest, harkens an antebellum era in which black women were viewed as a cross between farm equipment and an outlet for other's deviant sexual desires. A time when light and dark black women were separated and pitted against one another in the hopes of forever severing what should have been an unbreakable bond -- creating envy, disdain, self-loathing and unnecessary competition.
Welcome to the plight of the light African American woman navigating the "darker the berry the sweeter the juice" cosmos, where mere physical differences (fine hair to thicker locks and thin lips to billowy pouts) serve as the basis for generational division. Sadly, I recently learned that these divisive lines, created generations ago, remain frustratingly in place.
Weeks ago I wrote an essay critiquing a popular entertainer (who happens to be light, though she's darker than me) who I believed had wrongly received an honor partly because of America's preference for lighter blacks over darker ones. In the time that it takes to write a hateful tweet, I was labeled a self-hater and, humorously, a "tragic mulatto" who was secretly ashamed of my "obvious European heritage." For the record, both of my parents are black. As are both sets of my grandparents. Of course these vital facts mattered none. As the piece went viral, I found myself pitted against both those who looked like me (I'd apparently broken code and dared critique another light sister) and those who didn't (I had not only caused "unnecessary division," but I had the audacity to talk colorism when I certainly hadn't experienced the same depth of racism so many others had.)
In all fairness, this "mulatto" (which technically I am not) has led a far easier life simply because I lack darkness. The unwritten rule is that the darkest women are the most burdened while lighter black women are, I suppose, damned to "house Negro problems" that equate to mere hiccups in days that are perpetually long with happiness, job promotions and our pick of viable suitors. Dark or light, black women are long overdue to finally own up to our deep-rooted resentment toward one another. No, I may not have lost out on a promotion, but when I walk into a room I am still deemed an "other." It's not clear to most to what extent I am unlike the majority, but it's enough to ensure my piece of the American pie is unfairly smaller than non-blacks.
Allow me to join an already uncomfortable conversation. I'm going out of my cotton-picking mind trying to convince my darker sisters that I'm not their competitor, and that loving who I am, and what I look like, isn't a condemnation of darker women. If I've made great strides in my career it is because I've faltered, failed and tried again, ad nauseam. But is also because society finds me less threatening. I do not believe I'm prettier than any other woman, and know that my finest qualities have nothing to do with my "funny-colored eyes" or "fine hair." I'm saddened that we have imposed a self-defeating value system based mainly on our exterior differences. And contrary to certain beliefs, I too have experienced the most blatant racists insults, perhaps more so than others because I'm a writer who targets her subjects indiscriminately. Don't let this "light, damn near white" complexion fool you.
As a journalist, author and the designated "light girl" in my coterie, I'm frankly "Fanny Lou-Hamer tired" of the nitpicking among black women. Since moving to Atlanta in the millennia, I've befriended mostly white women. Why? The unvarnished truth lies somewhere between my own emotional hang-ups and the fact that most of the darker black women I've met are competitive, strident, pushy and critical of my decisions. As such, it's been easier to socialize with those women who value my friendship without stipulations and constant backtalk. Thus, my friendships with white women are neat, unfettered and based solely on our likes and dislikes. And instead of forcing my friendship on black women who want nothing to do with me, I've allowed my other relationships to develop organically even if it meant there was a glaring absence of color that would cause my ancestral foremothers to spin in their unmarked graves.
So why is it so hard for some black women (myself very much included) to foster and gain positive long-term friendships with each other? The initial response would be petty jealousy, arrogance and confrontational behavior, systemic roadblocks that were put in place long before this generation was born. The whole truth, I suspect, harkens back to slavery, in which blacks as a whole were forcibly pitted against one another; no group more so than black women. Lighter mothers, daughters and sisters were given an unfair, unjust and amoral advantage over so-called jezebels, mammies and jigaboos which fostered disheartening prejudices that continue to stain and cripple our modern day relationships.
Instead of cutting each other underfoot for the slightest of infractions, we need to appreciate the complexities of our differing experiences, appearances and preferences. When will we replace our hip-swerving, eye-rolling bitching with a genuine sisterhood that's unwavering in its devotion? Sadly, I fear we're responsible for reigniting pre-civil war valuations by competing against one another, taking over where Jim Crow laws left off. My green eyes don't make me inherently superior, nor does it make me insensitive to the plight of darker women. Just as your darker skin doesn't make you blacker than me, nor does it negate my experience as a black woman in post-slavery America. I'm not lighter for any other reason than you are darker. It simply it what it is.
Allow me to digress. When I speak of jealousy, I don't necessarily mean jealousy from darker women toward lighter ones. I've been jealous of those with richer, darker skin, those with almond eyes and wavy, fuller hair. In fact, every time I see a gaggle of darker black girlfriends I can't help but long for their camaraderie, their sincere compatibility. Over the years, I've had numerous friendships with black women of all shades but only a precious few resulted in true amity and enlightenment. Sadly, most of these "friendships" were beset with backstabbing, hurtful rumors and instances of fierce rivalry from both sides. Have I ever encountered these same headaches with my non-black girlfriends? Of course, but black women have disappointed me in far larger numbers than white women. Could it be my fault that I don't have black social circles? Likely.
I might come from a family that replaced the usual New Year's Day celebratory dinner of collard greens and black-eyed peas with quiche Florentine, but we were still that minority family in a predominantly white Denver subdivision that had to repeatedly validate our presence among the majority. My childhood was ripe with advantages, but we weren't immune to racism. My older sister, who is darker than me (we have different fathers) has always been my mother's beloved daughter. To grow up in the shadow of a sister who is forever deemed smarter, more accomplished, prettier and more popular has certainly instilled prejudices that I'm ashamed to own, and have been slow to acknowledge. What I know for sure is that I don't believe I am better than anyone else. Nor is that my goal. There's more than enough blame to go around, and no one can escape accountability.
I often wonder if high-quality black friendships, formed in adulthood, are as easily attainable as our conferred 40 acres and a mule? Is my lack of black girlfriends due to my childhood? Or am I naively assuming my interests are exclusive to white women? Or is it because I've allowed other's preconceived notions about darker black women to wedge a divide between us? Perhaps it's all of the above. We can only lay blame at the feet of a bigoted and divisive American for so long before our oppressions become self-inflicted. We can't continue to blame our harsh indifference toward one another on "colored-only" water fountains and segregated lunch counters. It's time to ask the difficult questions and prepare for the unvarnished truth, even if the answer reveals resentments that are a comet high and a soul deep.
It's not politically correct to question the behavior and negative tendencies of those in your own race, but sometimes it's necessary for collective forward evolution. Admittedly, my desire to judge is twined with my own insecurities. And I can't be alone. When you juxtapose two diametrically opposite things you normally wouldn't see coupled together, it should force you to reevaluate each and hopefully create a new appreciation of both, separately and as a whole. This has been the case with my white girlfriends and I hope one day it will be the case with my darker sisters.