“Team light-skinned” has been rolling off people’s tongues like layups in the last few weeks, in conversation and social media alike, mostly because two-time league MVP Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors dominated the NBA this year and were in the finals, and maybe because Zach LaVine of the Minnesota Timberwolves won the 2016 Slam Dunk Contest. Lots of stuff of this ilk has been floating around (this verbatim from a Facebook post):
Dear God: The world is a dark and confusing place lately with many things that disturb me. Therefore, for at least one day I need you to restore normality by putting a stop to the light skin dominance of the NBA. Please give the Eastern conference, King James, the hood, and Kevin Love, the only white man in America who truly understands what it's like to be a minority, the win. Thanking you in advance. [brown prayer hands emoji.]
Yeah, I've heard it all. LeBron versus #TeamLightBright. “The Golden Skinned Warriors.” Even "the Splash Brothers look like they maybe have a splash of coffee in their cream.” Ha. Actually, Steph Curry looks black as hell to me, despite his slight features and blue eyes—mostly because of his hair and demeanor. Klay Thompson, too.
But even in jest, to call these black men out in this way is divisive, obnoxious and, as an astute editor said, gauche. It’s not doing anything about light-skinned privilege, which is real, with a virulent history in the black community. As a light-skinned black woman with a light-skinned son, I find this type of joke petty. No one can help what their gene pool serves up (unless your family consciously procreated with people who are also light, and if so, I'm so sorry).
I know, people will say stop being so sensitive. People with dark skin have been enduring insults for years, so quit your whining. But something more insidious happens when you equate being brown with being “down” and “talented” and light with unchecked privilege and inauthenticity. There is this underlying narrative in our community that the essentialism of blackness is tied to melanin. And it’s foolish.
As I was writing this, I checked in with a good friend from college for his thoughts. Adam is a basketball coach and light-skinned black man. He has been on many a court from Newark, N.J., to mostly white communities in the Deep South. Surely he must have some insight. Surprisingly, he feels that this kind of talk should be kept within the community.
“It’s like saying the n-word in mixed company. If it’s just me and the fellas and it comes out, that’s fine. I know what you mean,” he says. “But that doesn’t need to be said in front of other folks.” He continues, “I’ve always felt like when people say ‘light-skinned,’ they assume there are certain advantages that go with that. But that privilege only seems to exist in the black community.”
Though it could be argued that there is some privilege in being light outside the black community, I am clear that when white folks see me, they see a black woman. When they see my son as he grows, they will see a black man. There will be no brown-paper-bag test before the cops go upside his head.
But to bring it back to us, our color politics can be f—ked up; and I know images matter. And in some ways, although colorism is a keeps-on-giving gift of white supremacy, it is on us that we continue to perpetuate it in new and creative ways.
Popular culture today is especially rife with colorism, especially along gender lines. It makes me sick that in rap videos, every single one of the women is light-skinned, white or Latina in barely-there clothes and long hair, or that the majority of actresses and pop stars today are on the lighter shade of the brown spectrum. Is it coincidence that Beyoncé and Rihanna are our biggest pop stars? That Viola Davis still talks about colorism in Hollywood? Frankly, this lack of image diversity is uninspired, boring and damaging to us all.
As Michal "MJ" Jones wrote in Everyday Feminism, “We live in a country and world that perceives dark skin as evil, threatening, foreign, exotified, and objectified.” Light-skinned women—though still objectified—ostensibly are seen as the opposite. I get that light-skinned women are often centered and seen as the so-called epitome of beauty. That is a fact. Always stuck up? That is a stereotype. I will never forget that in one of my first jobs, one of the best jobs of my life, one of my co-workers told me, “You don't act light-skinned.” Thaaaaanks. I think.
Steph Curry’s wife, Ayesha Curry, was seen as getting more attention than LeBron James’ wife, Savannah Brinson, because of her complexion. But I would submit that Ayesha Curry worked hard (and in a smart way) for that attention: She gave interviews; she and Steph are a constant presence on social media; and she started her own cooking show with their free black girl Riley running around the set.
And what about the brothers? Although colorism most often focuses on women, the recent NBA quips have mostly been centered around the bright bros. Light-skinned men? They’re typecast as soft, unathletic and effeminate. Just ask Kobe Bryant. As Dave Schilling remarks in The Guardian, “Kobe’s words reinforced a very potent notion in basketball circles—dark guys play the game harder and light-skinned guys are soft.”
So what if Curry, Thompson and LaVine dominated this year? Well, the sky is apparently falling in black America. And though most of the jokes about yellow folk are tongue-in-cheek, there is still something unsettling about them. These men are still black. I just find it funny that the same people who despise terms like “being pretty for a dark-skinned girl” have no problem saying “soft light-skinned folks.”
So let’s talk about colorism. Let’s critique it, root it out, actively fight against it. Sometimes we will be on point, sometimes not. Sometimes we will come out of our own thing when taking it on. I recognize that as a tall, married, able-bodied, light-skinned woman with a college degree or two, I have privilege. And in many ways, as a black woman in America, I do not. Maybe my sensitivity slip is showing, too, but all the light-skinned riffs just serve to divide us. So just stop it, like LeBron and the Cavs did to the Warriors on Sunday.