Why Light-skinned Black Americans Turn to Activism
Race is often defined not by genealogy, heritage, or by ethnic background, but by a person’s phenotype or appearance. For example, if a woman has pale skin, long straight hair, and green eyes, one would easily presume that she is white—not European, not German, not Lebanese, but white. Quite often, because of this flawed definition, there are many people who do not fit into the very small box of what a race gets generalized as and condensed down to. Social theorist Rodrick Ferguson argues that race, though typically thought of as defined by appearance, is really defined with strong social constructs that traces to a person’s culture and heritage and the stigma that surrounds what it means to be that race. Ferguson’s definition creates this question of what happens when people do not easily fit into the generalization of their race, i.e. either not looking black enough or acting black enough.
Of course, there are multiple ways someone might perform or exhibit their belonging to that race. For example, a woman with blonde hair, blue eyes, and freckles who is Chilean might make sure that she rolls her Rs prominently when speaking Spanish. For a black person who does not fit the normative image of what it means to “look black,” the usual way of performance is through activism, since the ties to language and culture are typically just American culture and not necessarily African culture. Specifically, within the black-American community the performance of race or blackness is exhibited commonly in light-skinned people through activism and taking political stands against the overall mistreatment of black lives.
When pondering over the black faces that have revolutionized history (not just black history), they are not the faces of melanin rich people, with heavy Southern and/or African accents, but they are often fairer skinned people who could have easily been (and were) mistaken for another race. Think of Rosa Parks: she refused to get up from her rightful seat on the bus because she was tired of the mistreatment of her race, and, when she probably could have easily passed for another raced-woman, she sat down not just for the sake of herself but for them, too. Or think of Malcolm X, whose mother was biracial, which in turn caused him to be a natural red-head, giving him the nickname “Detroit Red”: he used his knowledge gained through oppression in prison to empower and speak for his people that he did not look like. Even the United States’ very first black President, Barack Obama, could easily be mistaken for another race because of his fairer complexion, even though his father is literally from Africa. The list goes on and on: Billie Holliday, Angela Davis, Jesse Williams, Amandla Stenberg, etc. Each figure illustrates that light-skin activism is not coincidental but, rather, is intentional for the sake of creating community and bonding over the very idea that race is so much more than color and more than a set image of a person’s appearance.
Black authors, such as Nella Larsen and Ralph Ellison, alongside activists themselves like Angela Davis, have made specific efforts to fight against the notion that to be black looks and means the same for every black person. In her novel Passing (1929), Nella Larsen addresses the history of black racial ambiguity and the pressures that come with it. Often in the early to mid-twentieth century, lighter-skinned black people would use their position of not “looking black enough” to “pass” for white. Passing was commonly performed because of the perceived advantage of living a white life. Yet, in her novel, Larsen exposes the fact that to pass is to reject one’s self and identity, as well as to struggle internally and externally with what it means to live in a world in which one cannot tell the truth. This becomes abundantly clear at the end of the novel when Clare, a light-skinned passing woman, talks to Irene, another light-skinned woman who chooses not to pass. Claire confesses:
“But it’s true, ’Rene. Can’t you realize that I’m not like you a bit? Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ’Rene, I’m not safe.” Her voice as well as the look on her face had a beseeching earnestness that made Irene vaguely uncomfortable.
Though in this scene the two are speaking first of motherhood and what it means to have children, Larsen alludes to Clare’s willingness to pass for a white woman despite the inevitable consequences and shift of conscious that comes along with disowning one’s race. Here Clare is clearly realizing the harm in her ambition for wanting things “badly enough” and the toxicity she has embraced by passing for a white woman and living a lie. Larsen uses her novella Passing to convey the hardships of passing as another race while black as being more detrimental to one’s character and altogether well-being than owning one’s blackness and living in that blackness.
Arguably, and in addition to resisting the notion of “passing,” light-skinned black activism also comes from epistemic violence suffered by Black Americans. Because of slavery and segregation, there is no traceable tie and connection to African culture and heritage in the same way that a Latinx or Asian American person may have. Instead, Black-American identity and culture has become tied to experiences of resistance and activism. As a result, light-skinned black people internalize their inherited disconnection from the past and their passed-down sense of inequalities and injustices to perform an image of what it means to be black. Just over forty years after Larsen’s novella was published, activist Angela Davis became the center of public conversation on black rights and activism. Davis did not let her voice go mute after her run-ins with racism and wrongful arrests, but she made a platform for her and other black people to be heard.
Today, Davis continues her focus on activism, specifically focusing on mass incarceration, as seen in her book Are Prisons Obsolete? Davis writes about the need to abolish prisons because of the negative impact they have on society, not just from a black standpoint, but from a standpoint focused on people altogether. She uses her own experience of arrest and incarceration to speak on behalf of those who are slaves of the state. In the same way that Davis uses her voice for the whole of the victims of incarceration and arrest, many lighter skinned people who have experienced mistreatment because of their race use that experience for the sake of being a voice for the whole of the people. Their use of these experiences reinforces the notion of using a collective brokenness that speaks for those living in the present who are unable to speak for themselves. Just because Davis does not fit the image of what comes to mind when thinking of legal reforms for mass incarceration and prison policy, does not mean that her ideas are any less valid.
The stigma of being light-skinned excludes some from the black community because of their differences in feature and color, but this stigma of not “being black enough” is redacted through the various faces of black activism. This activism is represented by light-skinned black people who are fighting not for the rights and voice of the light-skinned but for the whole of the black community. Though the experience of black culture may be harder to define than it is for other races and ethnicities, the ongoing display of activism by light-skinned black people is one example of wholly owning one’s self and sense of racial belonging. Being black in America is an experience that cannot be paralleled because of the ambitious and unrelenting efforts of all black people to recreate a community together than transcends race and is a culture on its own.
About the author: Gabrielle Herry is a soon-to-be graduate from Seattle Pacific University with a bachelor's degree in English literature and minor in Christian scripture. Gabrielle plans on continuing her studies at Pratt Institute in the near future, working to create publications and formal awareness of the need for education reform in the United States.