“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 is 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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52 comments

  1. 0
    Ekundayo says:

    Colorism is a cancer in the Black community that has its roots in the historical practices of whites categorizing and separating Blacks on the basis of phenotype and perceived proximity to whiteness. Your claim that Blacks who identify as mulatto are accepted across racial groups is patently false. The definition of “acceptance” is “the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group.”
    Light-skinned Blacks are only acceptable in America to the extent that they represent a palatable form of Blackness (in their physical presentation) that contrasts with the unacceptable dark-skinned person. You see, your “acceptance” as a light-skinned Black person in non-Black social spaces is provisional and has nothing to do with your relationship to the romanticized American racial struggle. Were there not a dark-skinned Black with whom you could be compared to reinforce your perceived closeness to whiteness, the degree to which you would be embraced by the larger society would diminish, as you would become the most identifiable (and least desirable) racial “other.” Moreover, much of the tolerance (that you have mischaracterized as “acceptance”) that you experience as a light-skinned Black person is rooted in the historical practice of exoticizing your kind. It’s not a loving embrace of your light skin. It’s the same sort of fascination that one has with a newly-acquired tiger cub: it’s cute and novel until it becomes threatening in any way. Then, it’s disposable.
    On the point of relating to the dominant white culture, no, you cannot. It is impossible to see things from a perspective that you simply will never be able to occupy. With the exception of Blacks who “pass” as white in the larger society, Black who classify themselves as mulatto are, for the most part, visibly identifiable and therefore subject to discrimination. As long as your body “gives you away” as a person of African descent (or as anything other than white as our society defines it), you are precluded from having a white experience and understanding what it feels like and means to be white. The closest that the light-skinned Black can come to understanding the dominant white perspective is by engaging in speculation based on observation and conversation. You can *imagine* what it might be like to be white, but you can never know. As such, the light-skinned Black is in no better position to have a deeper understanding of whiteness than the dark-skinned Black is. Dark-skinned Blacks can imagine things, too.
    Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the point must be made that IN THE AMERICAS, BEING BLACK HAS *ALWAYS* MEANT BEING MIXED. If you do a genetic analysis of any self-defined Black/mulatto/trigueño/creole/coolie/indio/light-skinned/etc. person in this hemisphere, you will invariably find an admixture of African, Indigenous/Native, and European blood. The only thing that varies is proportion, not content. What irks me the most about this conversation is that we have started posit Blackness as something “pure” when the case has always been that Blacks are defined by our diversity and heterogeneity.
    Being Black is experiential, and it encompasses–and always has encompassed–the experience of having a white (or Native or Asian or…) parent. When one distances him/herself from the construction of Blackness in America by staking out a separate space that appeals to colonial categorization schemes, it may offer temporary relief of psychic anxieties around identity, but ultimately it serves to weaken the larger struggle of people of African descent by fragmenting our loyalties.
    I think that Black people with one parent of another race (or those who are the product of parents who both identify as “mixed”) feel like “Black” is an inadequate label. This is the result of infighting, a breakdown in conversation, and a shift in our understanding of what Black means. Perhaps part of the solution is to move away from colonial labels that Europeans gave us (including Black and mulatto… as impractical as that may be) and moving toward a system of classification that explicitly affirms both our unity and our diversity as people of African descent. What we must do away with in addition, however, is this notion that Black people are not “mixed” and that “mixed” people are not Black.

  2. 0
    Bea says:

    First I want to thank you for this article because it’s not often I see another mullato saying the things I say and believe, too! Biracial people who want to do for themselves and define themselves are rare, so it’s nice to meet another one. Hi. :)

    But, I have many thoughts on this article. Before we begin, know that I am a 23 year old biracial woman, half black half white, and very lightskinned and fair. My eyes are green, my hair is curly and light brown. I ID as mixed.

    “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.”

    Make no mistake, being a “house negro” was arguably just as hard, albeit in different ways, as being a “field negro”. Most women who were brought into the house were raped on a regular basis and they worked back-breaking domestic duties from before sunrise to well after sunset.

    “Both white and black people seem to view mulattoes as more black than white.”

    This has not been my experience whatsoever. I am so fair that black and white people alike seldom know what I am. Some can tell I’m mixed black/white, others assume I’m Latina, Middle Eastern, or sometimes to the very naive, just plain white. When a black person does find out that I’m mullato, they do not see me as black, they see me as mixed. Which is fine! I see myself as mixed, too. But you can be mixed and still “read” as black, the way my brothers do. It’s for this reason that President Obama is in fact our first black president. Firstly, he identifies as black, so that’s good enough for me. Second, blackness comes in many shades. Just because he’s not dark doesn’t mean he’s not black (this is in response to the “blackwashing” photo and not anything you wrote in the article proper). Third, the world at large treats him as black. He “reads” as black. The racism he’s been subjected to during his terms? It’s not because he’s biracial. It’s because he’s black. You can be mixed black and white and be still be black.

    “however, mulattos are … fighting to define themselves as what they truly are: equal parts black and white.”

    Thank you for this, because I’ve been repeating this for the past few years–I want mullatos to identify as THAT! As mixed, because we don’t have to be forced into one box or the other, worrying if we’re “black enough” or “white enough” when we can so easily just be both. You never have to be “mixed enough” for our club! But again, identifying with a certain label is all fine and dandy, but how you “read” will affect how people and society treat you.

    The above two points lead me to this: “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”

    This I include because its absolutely true and plays in to “reading” as a certain race, because at some point it gets very… Seemingly arbitrary. How dark does someone have to be to be “black”. How wide does their nose have to be, how thick their lips, how coiled their hair. I’ve got thicker lips and nose than my brother but he’s got the darker skin–what features in what amount will classify one as “black” in our society, to other black people? These things I think about a lot, as a biracial with passing privilege I wish I did not have.

    Just my two cents, of course. I loved this article and agree with mostly everything you’re saying, and thank you again for writing it, we need more mullato voices out there.

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

      Hey Bea! Thank you so much for your comment!

      I’ll start by saying I didn’t mean to trivialize the jobs of the house slaves- I recognize that their jobs were extremely hard and the psychological torture that especially the women were put through (via sexual violence) is arguably just as bad if not worse than the physical torture of the whip.

      The point I was making, however, is that there was a level of resentment from field slaves towards house slaves. They were typically perceived as being somewhat privileged by the field slaves, regardless at to how far from privileged they actually were.

      Also, you make a good point about our racial ambiguity. You’re right, when most people SEE a mixed person, they often have a LOT of trouble figuring out what we are. I should have worded that better- I was moreso saying that once somebody actually learns that a person is half black half white that they tend to view that person as more black than white. This is my experience personally, and I have seen this constantly with other mixed people too. However, it’s definitely not universal, and may be somewhat related to where you live (I’m in Texas).

      On the topic of Obama, did he ever actually come out and identify himself as black? I don’t ever remember that happening (although I could be wrong). It was definitely a political advantage for him to be seen simply as black, and I think he worried about alienating the black vote by calling attention to his mixed-ness. The image wasn’t supposed to illustrate blackwashing, it was supposed to represent the one-drop rule.

      Thanks again for your comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the piece! :)

  3. 0
    Bill Freeman says:

    Very nice stated — eventually there will be countries full of blended people — race will be replaced by geographic ideals

  4. 0
    Alisa says:

    Hello I’m Alisa! and I found this particular statement interesting.”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” . I think more of the insult of black men dating white women stems from the fact that black men don’t seem to value the strengths and beauty of black women and instead seek white women or date outside their race. And I think it has alot to do with how the media portrays black women as mean and bitter and constantly angry for LIKE NO apparent reason and its just insulting (in my opinion) to see that our own men don’t see the beauty in us. I don’t really have a problem with interracial love as long as its not stemmed from dislike of black women and while we are talking about black men dating outside of their race, how about we talk about the double standard and the doubled edged sword that is used when black women outside of their race. :) I liked your piece, good work.

    1. 0
      Angelo Vicente says:

      Why do black women want us so bad? Hurry up and date another race have kids so that America can be like Brazil or Latin America with good looking mixed people everywhere. I’m half Puerto Rican myself my sister is too. She is with a white Rican. I don’t care, but I don’t know American Black women are really stuck on claiming and being with us and I’m tired of the whole why aren’t you with a black girl thing. There is no double edged sword it’s in your head, be with who you want.

    2. 0
      mbiyimoh g. ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

      Thanks for your comment! I agree with a lot of what you said, especially about the media portrayal of the black woman, but I take issue with this statement:

      “I think more of the insult of black men dating white women stems from the fact that black men don’t seem to value the strengths and beauty of black women and instead seek white women or date outside their race”

      I guess I’ve never really understood this. I don’t understand why a black man dating a white woman is perceived as him not valuing the strengths and beauty of black women. Why can’t a black man be with a white woman simply because he really loves her, and not because he has something against black women?
      I’m not saying that there aren’t black men who date outside their race because of the reasons you stated, but I think this is a small minority.

      Also, it’s a phenomenon you rarely see in other races, at least here in the United States. I’ve never heard a woman from another race disparaging a marriage between a man who shares their race and a woman who doesn’t. Not saying it doesn’t happen, but it seems to happen waaaay more with black women. Again I think I must point to the “us vs. them” mentality. If a black man is marrying one of “them” it must mean he doesn’t value “us”. I think this viewpoint is very narrow-minded and is damaging to the black community.

      Again, thanks for your comment! I really enjoyed reading it :)

      1. 0

        “I guess I’ve never really understood this. I don’t understand why a black man dating a white woman is perceived as him not valuing the strengths and beauty of black women. Why can’t a black man be with a white woman simply because he really loves her, and not because he has something against black women?”
        Let me help you understand. From the time a Black boy is born, he is inundated with images of White women. Society sees her as the standard of beauty. Many women around the world want to be closely associated with her because she’s seen as the purest form of beauty. This ideal is not lost on Black men or women. He sees commercials, music videos and TV/movies depicting WW or any women resembling her as the “prize,” and he wants it.
        Do not get me wrong. I’m not saying all of them, but many of them. Many Black men (especially dark-skinned ones) are very insecure. These “other” women represent the prize or trophy. That’s a fact. She is simply seen as more superior than the women who share their same ethnicity.
        However, there are those who don’t see the race of a woman and fall in love. We aren’t talking about them. We are talking about the color struck Black men who blame Black women for why they date out. There is an all-out WAR against Black women, and we are getting hit left, right, from the top and bottom. Many Black men will publicly demean Black women. I do not recall seeing other races of men doing that. There is something twisted in the minds of many Black men, but they won’t admit it. Many Black men don’t value themselves. I know it sound all romantic to believe it’s all about love. They’ll play the “L” (love) or “preference” cards to justify their mental garbage. Again, I’m not speaking of those who are in love, but those who are in denial.
        I hope that answers your question.
        P.S. Go on youtube and look up videos of the myriad of Black men who spew hatred toward Black women, and you’ll see what I mean.

    3. 0
      Bill Freeman says:

      Very nicely stated — eventually there will be countries full of blended people — race will be replaced by geographic ideals

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