“Stop Acting So Light-Skinned!” Being Mixed in Modern America

I had a very interesting encounter today. I was sitting in the Malcolm X Lounge, a study room at the University of Texas that’s dedicated to African-American studies, but open to anyone. I was on a couch and had my feet up on a small table. When a girl came and sat down on the couch to my left, I jokingly made a big deal about moving my legs. She responded with, “Stop being so lazy, light-skin.”

I really wasn’t offended by the light-skin reference, but I was totally caught off guard by the way she used the term. See light-skinnededness (no that’s not a real word) has been the target of black humor for a while now, but usually people just say, “Stop being so light-skinned.”

A lot of y’all are probably wondering what that even means so I’ll break it down for you (sorry black people, bear with me here- I know ya’ll already know this stuff). It actually means somewhat different things if it’s being used to describe a guy or a girl, although there are some commonalities.

Guy acting light-skinned means:

  1. Showing and expressing emotions too freely,
  2. Being too “friendly”,
  3. Doing anything that could be seen as gay or feminine,
  4. Acting like Drake and/or listening to too much Drake,
  5. And just generally being “soft”

Girl acting light-skinned means:

  1. Acting boojie- in essence acting like you’re better than others (this also applies to guys somewhat, but not nearly as much as it applies to girls),
  2. …that pretty much covers it for girls actually.

It’s a very complex concept indeed. My lists are just the basics, but if you actually hear it being used on the regular in real-life you quickly realize that you can assign it endless meanings.

While most of the time the light-skinned jokes are in good fun and not really meant as racist shots (in my opinion), they still make me ponder on the origins of the ill will between black people and mulattos (people mixed with both black and white).

I assume some of this stems from the favoritism showed to slaves (especially women) with lighter complexions. They would often be given jobs in the house (hence the term “house negro”) as opposed to having to work the backbreaking “field negro” jobs outside.

Also, there is definitely a lingering “us vs. them” mentality in the black community towards white people. Acting white is a definite insult in the black community, and many black women hate nothing more than seeing a successful black man with a white woman. Could a part of the ill will towards light-skinnededness be related to blacks’ view of white people?

Bad grammar aside, this random collage illustrates a long-standing stigma in the black community

Black people in America, and black men especially, have developed a very stoic demeanor- partially because until fairly recently in our country’s history it wasn’t a good idea for a black man to express himself too much in public situations.

Expressing yourself too much as a black man in slave times was potentially life threatening, and even during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, black men who expressed themselves too much often faced a number of dangers. Many people would argue that it’s still not a good idea for a black man to express himself too much, particularly in business situations where his upwards mobility is dependent on white bosses. I would agree with these people.

I think this is where some of the judgment for being too expressive originated. The black man is stoic. Even in casual or social environments, the black man does not go up to men he is unfamiliar with (especially non-black men) and start conversation- that’s being “too friendly”.  That’s exposing too much of yourself to someone from outside of your circle. That’s what the white people do. Don’t be like them. Obviously some of this is hyperbole, but you get the point.

Anyways, because of the way this girl phrased the insult, I replied somewhat jokingly, “That’s racist!”— What really blew my mind was that she then proceeded to say that it wasn’t, citing two reasons:

  1. Light-skinned isn’t a race so it can’t be a racist statement, even if it’s a generalization.
  2. Light-skinned people are black people; therefore it’s not a racist remark since it came from a black person.

I immediately told her that the first reason was bogus: just because being mixed or having light skin isn’t a race in itself doesn’t mean that making a generalization based off skin color isn’t racist.

This is really part of a bigger issue- the conceptualization of race as something that is clear-cut when in reality it’s about as far from clear-cut as possible. It’s based partly on how you look and partly on where you’re from, but more than anything it’s based on how we define ourselves; the government isn’t changing what race or ethnicity you fill out on the census, even if most people wouldn’t define you the same way.

The second reason, while I think it’s bogus as well, is worth examining, if only because it’s a fairly common view. To make her point she asked me what I fill out on tests or forms asking for my race. Bad idea since I either bubble in both African-American and Caucasian or, if that’s not allowed, I choose Other and write in mixed or mulatto.

But still, that perception is definitely very real. Both white and black people seem to view mulattoes as more black than white. This could be a remnant of the “one drop rule” from slave times: if you had any negro blood then you were considered a negro. As the racial climate has grown more tolerant in modern times, however, mulattos are pushing back against that classification, fighting to define themselves as what they truly are: equal parts black and white.

“The 1st Black President”? Barack Obama has just as much white blood as black

Part of this pushback is evidenced in the birth of “acting dark-skinned”, which followed soon after all the light-skinned jokes started. Acting dark-skinned for the most part just means doing things that reinforce stereotypes about black people: being too loud or obnoxious, being impolite, acting ignorant, doing hood-rat stuff with your friends, etc.

If you think I’m overstating the growing disconnect between these two groups, go get on Twitter and search the hashtags #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin, or look up light skin vs. dark skin on Youtube (the video below is an example of what you’ll find); I guarantee you will be convinced afterwards.

I think that some of this pushback has also fed the ill will from the black community- it’s perceived as an attempt by mulattos to separate themselves from blackness, which many black people see not only as aloofness but as mulattos trying to be more white.

Despite all this racial tug and pull, most mulattos tend to be accepted by pretty much any group- not only by white and black people but every other race as well. It’s because we embody the American racial struggle. We can relate to both the most privileged and the most oppressed racial groups in the United States. We’re able to see things from the perspectives of both the minority and the majority. We are the bridge between two groups who are still many years away from truly becoming colorblind and reconciling their dark past. So let us define ourselves, please.

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40 comments

  1. 0
    Theodora says:

    All of you mulattoes above are American slaves. Us Africans want nothing to do with slave minded people like you. The whole point that you think black people only have one look shows how ignorant many of you are. Also latina and arab are not races. The native arabs are black. After, the Turkish invaded Arabia that is how the turkish mulattoes and quadroons came about. Also,All races come from the sans people of Africa. Light skin does not come from being mixed with white because white people descend from us horn African. Their are over 500 Ethnic groups in Africa. It is very offensive but not surprising to read the comments of you ignorant slave minded mulatto americans. In Africa we have every hair type, skin tones, facial features (without being mixed). Ethiopians, Somalians, Eritreans, Sudanes, Fulani West Africans (etc) are all black people but just because they have smaller features does that mean they are mixed ? No American blacks come from a small region in west and central africa. They do not represent how ALL black people look.
    Black Native Arab Women
    https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQw0YhghfUQ6oGIX_Y7WIDm5VG2AAi1M_dXobRyRi0JdVd5RG-eNA
    http://31.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_ln3jonS0ZT1qkhamuo1_400.png
    http://i851.photobucket.com/albums/ab74/sabaaa/i.png
    http://i851.photobucket.com/albums/ab74/sabaaa/untitled.jpg
    http://www.thestate.ae/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/bedour-alagraa.jpg
    http://www.thestate.ae/bedour-alagraa-afro-arab-black-arabness/
    http://dalje.com/slike/slike_3/r1/g2011/m04/ox281264770236421037.jpg
    http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-lOzYEBeQouE/UUn7VsQ-ZZI/AAAAAAACh2k/RcnCd7PIXUI/s640/Women+Portraits+of+North+Africa+(5).jpg
    http://rulajebreal.net/wp-content/uploads/Miral_Doha_0031.jpg
    http://www.biyokulule.com/sawiro/sawirada_waaweyn/Afro-Arabs3.jpg
    http://www.middle-east-online.com/meopictures/big/_11964_saudi-pilot-23-11-2004.jpg

    Horn African Women
    Sabrina a fellow Horn African lets it be known that we are not “mixed” with any other race. We are black Africans
    http://s1.zetaboards.com/anthroscape/topic/5145047/1/

    Taureg north africans
    https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-22LQ0tMgbI8/U2rJP90uXEI/AAAAAAAAAQU/gM31D_9Sz5U/w433-h288/Taureg +2.jpg
    https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-LauL3JzAN9M/U2rKj8DjpNI/AAAAAAAAARs/2ZJM5Ug2EqI/w433-h289/Taureg+women.jpg

    http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/80/41/90/8041905a4e2e44e1b737c842e0460ed7.jpg

    https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcR-j0Yla3lTgCZbfM7zCFojawxmPUa7lnEsOUoAC68CfmVHE2eI

    http://29.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lvhu43IQbS1r5lbqdo1_500.jpg
    http://37.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_mbfykqnhna1rx8i7eo1_1280.jpg
    http://i1.trekearth.com/photos/19775/essouk.jpg
    https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcT3AgdsoljlIKPKV2KcuI4fw8L4KEXk6nREfdRleFvpxLxXYDvA
    http://37.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m85l1dvjt61rx8i7eo1_1280.jpg
    http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/e1/3f/34/e13f34e6441cd00f2ac2675af0eba84c.jpg
    https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRS14RvwunNat8kiyVJGwuXLV0_wL3BY1srLvTOe3KTIiro4cws
    https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRon6Ky0jEZj96bKPlDtd_BOhkodAea47kU9PELM4RUmLxa3ses
    https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRhQjt2izH6DNUJ4ZcAuY6JCnP1CEzQSH6GYkp_4SmRFnblf4Qj5Q

    Straight hair West African Tribes
    http://31.media.tumblr.com/1405e23c8449c8d10ee6218a64409d39/tumblr_mukwl0TV8S1r5lbqdo1_400.png
    http://againstinternetattacks.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/fulani.jpg
    http://media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/8c/9b/c2/8c9bc29fc96d8d741471c20a091a323f.jpg
    http://www.africanark.org/images/Fulani%20tattooed%20man.jpg
    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3437/3873485674_9367e8514a.jpg
    http://pro.corbis.com/images/BD001486.jpg?size=67&uid=%7B74ed8406-1b6b-4559-92ba-afcdbb8325d9%7D
    http://i46.tinypic.com/sgqpfs.jpg
    http://www.sjb.org/galleries/niger/images/IMG_6484.jpg
    http://farm2.static.flickr.com/1396/982751712_6604db1ac9.jpg
    http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4095/4771211119_6c7e89c05e.jpg
    http://www.africaresource.com/rasta/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/blakk-egyptians12.jpg

    and this is just a little of African diversity. The features of mulattoes or any other race is nothing new or special to us black Africans. Because as scientist already proves all races come from Africa. We do not need to be mixed to look the way we do.

    1. 0
      mbiyimoh g. ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      i agree we all came from Africa at some point, so you could argue that everyone in the world is really african. but for the sake of this discussion, it’s necessary to work within the racial framework that people understand. i never said black people have only one look- i said there is a stereotype as to what a black person should look like and act like. this whole piece is about how i don’t want to define myself racially at all because race is a social construct, not something genetic or absolute. the pressure to define myself racially comes much more from my black acquaintances than from my white acquaintances. that is why i wrote this piece- racial lines divide people unnecessarily, and we in the black community should stop letting them dominate how we view the world. the fact that you called me a, “ignorant slave minded mulatto american” because i refuse to define myself as either black or white proves my point. and i never said any of my features were new or special. i don’t think i’m any better or more important because i’m mixed. what you have to understand is that having one black parent and one white parent in a country where those two races have such a bitter history with one another (yes, I know they all came from Africa originally, but i’m using our societal definitions of race here) gives you a very singular viewpoint that someone who has two white parents or two black parents simply cannot understand.

      if you want to attack my ideas, attack my ideas. but don’t call me and those who identify with my experience “ignorant slave minded mulattos”. ignorance is attacking the character of a person you know nothing about instead of attacking his words.

      i don’t want to define myself racially because of all of the bitter racial history that leads to comments like yours. why does it anger and/or threaten you so much that mulattos don’t want to work under the constraints of racial categorization?

    2. 0
      Dean says:

      As a man of african descent I learned one thing early in life. There there are no ethnicities. Treat everyone based on the way they treat me and don’t let color be a guide. It will fail you every time.

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