Monday night, actor and activist Jesse Williams gave a powerful speech at the BET Awards upon receiving the Humanitarian Award, during which he spoke eloquently, passionately, and dare I say -- even lovingly to the audience of millions. I have seen hundreds of awards show acceptance speeches and Williams was the first Black man I witnessed stand up and acknowledge the sacrifices of Black women on this type of platform. In fact, through this speech he acknowledged damn near everyone, from "activists," to "the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families the teachers, the students, that are realizing that systems built to divide and impoverish us cannot stand if we do." He called out the names of those who have been killed by the police and railed against cultural appropriation and exploitation by White media corporations.
Williams' speech was profound and emblematic of what it means to be "truly woke," yet for some it wasn't enough. While many tweeted their adoration for his message, there was a vocal group of people expressing their frustration that Williams -- a light-skinned, biracial Black man, was being given center stage as "the face" for the Black Lives Matter movement. While criticizing his appearance, they conveniently ignored that there are plenty of prominent Black folks with darker complexions who haven't said a damn thing their entire lives about social justice, stars with platforms even bigger than Williams.
Samuel L. Jackson spoke after Williams, but his speech paled in comparison. Now, I love me some Sam-You-El, but let's be real: he had the same opportunity to speak out against racism and injustice and chose not to do so. While not present at the awards, the iconic actor Denzel Washington, arguably one of the most popular actors of the latter part of the 20th century, has to my knowledge never embraced social justice causes, at least publicly. He may have played Malcolm X, but it appears Washington does not possess the desire to speak out on these issues. In Hollywood and real life, dark skin does not determine one's capacity for wokeness any more then having light skin symbolizes one's complicity with maintaining a racist, White society.
Spoiler alert: I am a light-skinned Black woman of biracial descent who possesses various privileges -- which I didn't ask for and was born with, like all the other light-skinned folks. As much as I have benefitted from my various privileges, I also have had a hell of a lot of disadvantages that my light skin did nothing to mitigate. In fact, in some cases, the very thing that is/was considered a privilege actually decreased my safety as a Black woman in a White patriarchal society.
As an outspoken critic of domestic violence and Black women's media representation, I regularly use my voice to challenge the status quo. Like Williams, I have found myself in situations where my message has been lost (to some) based upon my appearance. I would be a fool to say that my entree to certain spaces hasn't been a direct result of my possession of specific privileges. But to have your work devalued because of the color of your skin, whether it is chocolate brown or light and bright, is dehumanizing and demoralizing, no matter your hue.
Those of us with light-skin privilege who speak up about the injustices that we all face as Black people should not have their message minimized while being vilified for their appearance. Our skin color is our birthright, one that no one has control over receiving. We do however, have control over how we acknowledge the advantages or disadvantages of our color.
The truth is that more than color comes into play when determining one's place in the American hierarchy--specifically in our capitalistic society, class. Fact: No matter how close her proximity to Whiteness based upon her appearance, a light-skinned bus driver will have less privilege than her dark-skinned investment banker sister. We do not live in a binary world. You can be light-skinned and poor and have all the benefit of your color privilege stripped away because of other disadvantages. Conversely, you can be as dark as Idris Elba and be treated better than your lighter kin because of other advantages that offset the impact of the stigmatization of darker skin in our society.
I'm not reducing the damage and wounds that darker-skinned people experience regardless of their accomplishments in the world. Their burden is different and very, very real. Unless you have willfully shoved your head in the sand your entire life, you know that darker-skinned Black people have historically received poorer treatment, not only in our country but globally. They receive harsher sentencing, higher suspension rates, lower earnings, and lack of media representation as darker-skinned Blacks. Darker skin color plays a direct role in one's socioeconomic status. These are facts that cannot be refuted.
As the late Black lesbian poet and scholar Audre Lorde wrote, "Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around differences some of which we ourselves may be practicing." It is fallacious to assume that it is solely because of their lighter skin that some Black people have advanced further and more easily in this country. We cannot afford to look at racism and colorism through a binary lens. One can't examine the subject of colorism without taking into account the various privileges (and disadvantages) which intersect and shape how oppression plays out in our lives, irrespective of whether our color is cafe au lait, or ebony.
We as a people must recognize that using the shades of our Blackness as a barometer to determine who is truly oppressed contributes towards the maintenance of structures that prevent us from collectively working together to create a world where we can all flourish. Social stratification based upon skin color ends up building walls between us when we should be tearing them down.
While there are variations in how White Supremacy functions in our society, it has only one steadfast, immovable rule: the inherently superior position of White people over persons of color. From my own experience growing up in Central Florida, racists don't really care if you are as light as Angela Davis or as dark as Miles Davis. In their minds, "A n*gger, is a n*gger, is a n*gger."
Instead of directing our frustration about White Supremacy at our lighter-skinned sistren and brethren, we should embrace them and their work to liberate us ALL and focus our rage on dismantling the systems of oppression that enable those who are lighter to continue to be the face of what it means to be free in America.