Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

How the Trauma of Colorism Can Keep #LightGirls from Seeing the Bigger Picture

OWN to Air World Premiere of 'Light Girls' Monday, Jan. 19The very nature of trauma is to make a person feel forever stuck in a moment or a connected set of experiences, whether the trauma is pain, or terror, or loss, or violation, or a combination of the above. For the traumatized person, the moment or set of moments lives on, looping over and over in their mind, or triggered to replay with certain experiences in the present. Sometimes even when it is not acutely triggered, there is an underlying lesson recorded from the trauma that is always playing:

I am not loveable

bad things will always happen

I can’t trust anyone.

Until a person heals, they can’t really see beyond the moment of trauma. They are often projecting it onto current situations. They can’t fully be present. They are unable to integrate the experience into the fuller context of their life. They are unable to make sense of the experience as part of the larger world and other people.

This is one of the problems with conversations among lighter skinned African American women, such as the ones that took place in the documentary Light Girls by Bill Duke which premiered this week on OWN amidst much controversy. Lightskinned women are certainly ridiculed, shunned, threatened and targeted with violence explicitly because they are light. This is particularly impactful for young children and teens. These experiences can heavily impact a person’s whole life, her sense of herself and her connection to her black community and others. However, these traumas exist in a context of white supremacy that tells light women (and everyone else) that light is superior. Without a chance to heal from the trauma, lighter skinned women will fail to understand that while their individual and usually early experiences include being targets, their overall trajectory is of privilege in comparison to darker women.

Much private healing needs to take place. And perhaps the first round of this work would need to be done among lightskinned women, because darker women who have been targeted with the other end of colorism may not want to listen to a whole lot of “they threatened to kick my ass because they said I thought I was cute,” or even about the sexual violence that lightskinned women experience. I don’t know that I would ever have decided that lightskinned women needed to be singled out to talk about their pain for the length of a documentary in the same way it made sense for darkskinned women. Colorism is really a particular strand of racism, and maybe the next doc on colorism should have women of different shades testifying about how the different and overlapping ways that racism has affected them. Everyone’s pain matters. And yet, to be sexually objectified as a valuable object (like a lamp) is a form of mistreatment and an affront to one’s humanity. But it is generally preferable to being sexually objectified as a non-valuable object, which is the mistreatment that racism and sexism prescribes for darker skinned women. I have not seen the Light Girls documentary, and with the start of classes this week, I won’t get a chance to do so anytime soon. But I’m not going to let the pressures of my life as a working artist mom keep me out of the conversation, since I certainly know something about the dynamics of colorism, and that’s what I’m speaking to here.

I grew up as the only AfroLatina is a white-looking family. So I know what it’s like to feel dark and conspicuous. But in the African American community I am considered to be on the lighter end of the spectrum, and know what it’s like to be excluded and targeted with violence—both verbal and physical—by darker skinned girls. The healing I did in my 20s to reclaim my place in the black community helped me see that racism, not darkskinned black girls, is truly to blame for every ounce of pain I experienced. I think Kirsten West Savali’s article in The Root summed it up perfectly when she suggested to Bill Duke that his next documentary should be “How White Supremacy, Anti-Black Racism and Misogyny Conspire to Pit Black Women Against Each Other.” I would add a request for a sequel called “How Black Women Across the Color Spectrum Got the Healing They Needed to Escape the Colorism Trap and Worked Together Effectively to Fight Racism.” I’d like to see black women’s experience explored beyond our appearance. I mean, if I’m giving titles to the documentaries of my dreams, I might as well really go for it, right?


I usually blog on Fridays, but I wanted to get my two cents in early this week.

One comment on “How the Trauma of Colorism Can Keep #LightGirls from Seeing the Bigger Picture

  1. michaelwatsonvt
    January 23, 2015

    Thank you! A beautiful, courageous post. Resonates across Indian country as well.

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2015 by in Ending Racism, Ending Sexsim.

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Aya wins first place Independent Publisher Awards for UPTOWN THIEF, THE BOSS, THE ACCIDENTAL MISTRESS

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