Colorism In Indigenous Communities

The above image illustrates how colorism works in America. There is a strong rhetoric, even among communities of color, that women with lighter skin are more conventionally attractive, more low key and easier to be around, while the darker your shade of skin, the more you are perceived as difficult, petty and unattractive. Light-skinned women are girlfriend and wife material, while dark-skinned women are cast as trap-queens and one-night stands. Even Snapchat filters lighten our skin. It’s no wonder that Lil Kim, experiencing this insidious internalized racism, transformed from a dark-skinned black woman to a light-skinned black woman. 

Monissia Roberts, a junior in college, and a nursing student, describes the battles she has faced with colorism and the way lighter-skinned POC can ally with those whose who face colorism, like this, “Colorism is a discrimination against people who are dark skinned. It’s something that is big in the Black community. There was Team Light Skin and Team Dark Skin, but Team Dark Skin was created due to Team Light Skin being praised and putting down dark-skinned people, specifically dark-skinned black women. Colorism has basically been affecting my life for twenty years. Growing up, people would always refer to me as ugly and dirty due to my dark skin tone. When the movie Precious came out, I was called Precious. Precious was a fat and dark-skinned black woman who was perceived as very ugly by our current society. My mom even made fun of me for being dark-skinned because she was a lighter skin tone. She never supported me being dark. Due to the vicious colorism I faced from POC and the racism I faced from white people, I started to bleach my skin at a young age. I wanted to be lighter – not even lighter, I wanted to be white. There’s privilege that lighter skinned POC have, but they usually deny it because they’re still a minority that is affected by white supremacy and racism. Denying that privilege is only making it worse for dark-skinned POC because we face more challenges. What lighter-skinned POC can do is listen to dark-skinned people when we talk about colorism and how it affects our daily lives. Advocate for dark skin representation in the media, be an ally and support everything that we do because that makes us feel better about our deep melanin.”

In reaction to memes that stigmatize and dehumanize dark-skinned women, new memes are being created to push back against the stereotypes and celebrate women of all skin tones. 

Of course, no meme can be perfect. While such memes begin to address colorism, particularly against dark-skinned black women, how do we begin addressing colorism in Native American communities, where so many Indigenous women are white-passing? Passing for white doesn’t stop a Native woman from being affected by colonialism. It doesn’t erase historical trauma. It doesn’t cause a woman to forget the legacy of boarding schools, or recall her language to her. But let us take this one step further. Having light skin when you are American Indian doesn’t change the statistics of rape – one in three – or the likelihood of your being raped or assaulted – twelve times the national average. And keep in mind, Indigenous women weren’t protected by law, and Native communities weren’t able to prosecute rapists, all the way up until 2015, when the VAWA, with increased protections for Indigenous women, finally came into effect.

In addition, the missing and murdered Indigenous women of North America have skin tones that range on a spectrum. It seems that they are being murdered on the basis of their nationality, not their color. In every way, white-passing privilege aids Native American women only on the outside, and only as long as they keep up the ruse. So the question is: are Native American women being forgotten in conversations about who is respected and disrespected because they present-white?

My argument here is not that Native American women who present white don’t benefit from white-passing privilege, because they certainly can and do in measurable external ways. They are less likely, in communities where they are not known, to be stopped by police officers. It may be easier for them to get jobs, to obtain promotions, to be viewed with more respect by their colleagues and peers. 

White-passing privilege is useful and terrifying. It separates us from those we love. It is no respecter of persons. Two siblings from the same parents could have green and brown eyes, respectively. I’ve given presentations where light-skinned Natives in the audience have told me how guilty they felt when they were let through customs and their parents were stopped. There’s a confusion and a dysphoria that you experience when you know yourself to be nationally and culturally and familially Indigenous but your skin screams, “white,” and your community, and even communities of color eschew you and make you feel less-than. They often don’t do this intentionally. It’s done as a means of self-preservation. And we don’t mean to continually center the conversation around ourselves. But the question of who we are, and what our identity is, and how we fit, is so important to us as Native people.

I’ve often made white jokes about myself so that other people won’t. I joke about my Starbucks modifiers and my Uggs, my Netflix and my Chill. But none of this erases the smallpox blankets and the boarding schools. And that is only the traumatic history of being American Indian, which we sometimes get so caught up in we forget about the beautiful things about Indigenous community, the sweetgrass gathering, totem-pole carving, powwows, beadwork and canoe journey. And there is also intentional community created in inner-cities, and on Facebook community pages, in group chats, through poetry circles and writing clubs, through websites like Sovereign Bodies. 

Native women and their struggles need to be considered fully, and on the basis of more than their skin tone alone. And as this happens, we need to support our Black sisters and magnify their voices and create spaces for them, so that as women of color everywhere we lift each other up.