Colorism (She Accused Me of Trying to ‘Act White’)


Colorism, or black on black bias, was most notably explored in Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze. What is it? As summarized by The Grio it is when ‘’folks who are of African descent but are visibly fair-skinned are assumed to have a superiority complex, due to their complexion being closer to white.

Inversely, those of a darker pigmentation are looked down on and ridiculed for possessing features that are more African in nature—again a product of white supremacy that subconsciously and consciously suggests that anything ‘dark’ is inferior.’’

It is within the seven-minute musical scene that the light-skin ‘’white wannabees’’ find themselves matching off with the dark skin ‘’Jiggaboos.’’ In this sequence the light-skinned women are targeted for their straight, bleached hair while the darker women are ridiculed for ‘’having nothing better to do than be jealous of the light skin.’’ 

Side note: Although originating from the 18thcentury to describe slaves, ‘jiggaboo’’ was most prominently used throughout the early to late 20thcentury as a way to reference a dark-skinned black person with strong ‘’African’’ features such as big lips or nappy hair. In Spike Lee’s School Daze the light skinned sorority sisters refer to the darker sisters as ugly ‘’jiggaboos.’’ 

View the full scene below:

via YouTube

To view a transcript of the lyrics click here

Although controversial and arguably based on stereotype, black on black bias was something I personally didn’t fully explore until early Middle School. I was told stories from my own relatives, but new experiences, and like some of the characters in this movie, my so-called friend of mine began to point out the fact that I was light skinned. 

For the sake of privacy, my friend’s name was (Karen). We both had known each other since early elementary, and her adopted mom, who was Caucasian, knew my grandmother because they both volunteered at the school rather often. From what my grandmother told me when I was older, my friend’s mom was loving and a very polite person.

But when (my grandmother) eventually realized the reason behind her hesitancy was connected to asking information about the ‘’African-American experience’’ she realized that Karen would likely face problems later in life as far as self-identity and grasp on her cultural heritage. So, as my grandmother recalled that day, she did her best to educate Karen’s mom as per her request. Things would range from the Civil Rights Movement to caring for textured hair, but even then it was evident that her grasp on topics such as racial profiling, stereotype, and discrimination was limited to the height of her ability to understand them—not feel or know them.

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Why is this information relevant? It is important because my friend Karen did, in fact, developed issues with her identity. As far as her own understanding of her heritage, I really don’t know. Maybe she was confused. Maybe she did understand herself but not her situation or why her biological parents left her. I can only guess. But the things I was told throughout the remainder of our friendship revealed plenty of bias misconception.

Before I get into the stories however, I must note that aside from these instances Karen was actually a fun person to hang around. We laughed a lot. We shared our troubles. She was (bluntly) honest with her thoughts and feelings—and even helped me out when times were rough. So with that being said, the timeline of the events are neither explained in chronological order or even complete. These are just brief memories, which, even to this day, have yet to leave my mind. 

The First Incident

The first time I really remember Karen saying something in regards to my ethnicity was just as awkward as it sounds. It was random. I couldn’t tell if it was an ill joke or just uneducated thought. We were just sitting in class (we shared this one class together and were ironically allowed to choose seats every other month) when suddenly the words spilled out of her mouth, along with a strange gesture. Here she placed her arm next to mine and insisted we were both the same complexion. 

‘’We’re like twins!’’ she says. Did this bother me? Not really. I remember being mostly confused about the fact we were nowhere near the same complexion. Given that she was full African-American she had a very dark complexion. On the other hand I am mixed with both Filipino and African-American genes, so my hue generally ranges from the shade of a chestnut to a slightly lighter tint during the winter. So what did I do? I just laughed (awkwardly) and tried changing the subject. 

Childhood memories | Circa early 2000’s

Side note: ALL complexions are beautiful! Whether you are light or dark, it is important for us all to embrace our physical features and call out discrimination when needed. It is NOT ok to think that ‘’light skin is superior’’ or ‘’dark skin is inferior.’’

What IS ok is celebrating our differences and supporting all those in our community—regardless of ethnicity. Does black on black bias exist?

From my personal experiences described here I can only say yes. Has it become more common or less prominent? Honestly, I wouldn’t be the one the answer that because I only know people with similar stories, not the numbers. 

The Second Incident

The second incident I recall occurred sometime in P.E. class. We had just finished our laps around the track, and because Karen and I had finished earlier than the rest we hung around in the meantime. We talked, but eventually got quiet. Not an awkward kind of quiet—just the kind when you run out of things to say and want to do nothing but enjoy the silence.

So we did this, and at some point, Karen came over and started playing with my braids, which were long at the time. She does this for a few more seconds and suddenly says something along the lines of ‘’I want to cut your hair and make it into a weave.’’

I look at her and say ‘’What?’’ She gestures her index and middle finger into scissors and places it against the preferred spot of cutting. I shake my head and laugh again—trying to veer away from another awkward conversation. Suddenly she gets (really) irritated and says ‘’Why you gotta act like that?’’

Very little was said after this. I didn’t know where this frustration came from. I managed to turn the conversation around (again) but distinctly remember her being short of words. She also continued to pat the frizz on her head a few times before we headed inside the locker rooms to change, and finally parted ways. 

So how is this rooted in colorism? Safe to say this entirely wasn’t—but the incident that followed a few days later, in connection to these actions, made me believe it was.

Myself, photo taken recently

The Third & Fourth Incidents

It was lunchtime again and I decided to head to the bathroom to spray a bit of moisturizer in my hair. This was when I had just begun to get back into growing out my curls, so keeping them kept on a humid day was important. Karen decided to join me too, and while we were standing in front of the mirror she asks to look at the bottle. She stares at it and stares at it and eventually says ‘’This is for white people.’’

As I’m handed the bottle I say ‘’It’s for curly hair.’’ She sighs and proceeds to explain ‘joke’ around, explaining how my intentions of wanting to look ‘nice’ was an attempt of ‘’trying to act white.’’ She then proceeds to reference the previous day and says how I thought I was better than her and showing off.

Once again, I was left confused. 

The fourth instance with Karen was the time when she insisted I only ‘’half understood the African-American experience because I was only half black.’’ On that day I believe it was lunchtime and her and I were hanging around the stairs. I remember it being hot and people already being irritated because of that. Where exactly did this comment come from? I really don’t remember. I just know we were talking about an incident in the news that led to the topic.

After this Karen suddenly explained how ‘’guys never looked at her’’ because they apparently liked the ‘’white and lighter skinned girls.’’ This was something I knew very well, as even before this event my aunt recalled these very thoughts one afternoon as she described her experiences in high school. So did I doubt her? No. I just found her using me as a punching bag (this, as opposed to sitting down and sharing her troubles) inappropriate and terribly misjudged. 

My Childhood years were emotionally challenging!

Read my story here…

The Final Event

The final event with Karen, which eventually led to us parting ways, happened in our sophomore year of high school. Yet again we had one class together, so we talked a lot between assignments. To be honest I don’t remember what led to this particular conversation. I just know we landed on the subject of race. Here we were discussing my family when it was suddenly said that I was a ‘’black person.’’ I corrected her and say ‘’I’m mixed. My Mom’s full Filipino.’’

In return, she gets slightly irritated and accuses me of being ‘’ashamed of being black.’’ To this I explained that I was proud, and not identifying as mixed or simply a ‘’black person’’ would be like pretending one of my parents doesn’t exist. From here our bickering continued until she finally got tired with me. ‘’Whatever,’’ she says. It got quiet.

Weeks passed and things weren’t the same. We still talked and all, but it wasn’t like before.

At some point I reestablished a previous relationship with an old friend and started hanging out with that person and eventually their own friend group. One day, however, Karen approached me at lunch and asked if we could talk. Apparently she was feeling down that I was hanging with new people. When I explained that I didn’t appreciate her comments the other day, she gets upset, again, and wonders why it even bothered me. She even started to repeat her previous comments on me trying to ‘’act white.’’ This time I was the one to say ‘’Whatever,’’ and turned the other direction. 

As of today I will admit that I wish I could have done something more to understand her side of the story—why and how her comments came about. As said before, her upbringing, I assume, was one of the main reasons for why she had lacked confidence with her own history and self. But with this aside my only hope is that my story has raised awareness of how much these issues impact our perception of other people, and why it is important to be apart of uncomfortable conversations.

Whether it’s colorism or the colorblind theory, I can only assume that such theories are based on one’s perception of reality. Therefore, if something was at least noticed, it is time for us to consider the fact that the scenario was not watered and sprouted by the imagination but events in life itself. 


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