I identified as an American-Cuban African, and colorism has played an intricate role in the process of my sociocultural development. In a cultural context, colorism has a profound impact on standards of beauty. Unfortunately, that impact had influenced my family’s perception of beauty. Growing up, I was socialized to believe that people with fairer complexions, la clara or mulatta, would escape the harsh (if not entirely certain) criticisms that awaits darker complexions, la morena or negrita. I was socialized to pity darker complexions, but without much conversation about my own complexion, I took notice that I was the “morena.” Was I taught to pity the possible reality of harsh criticisms that await me? Games like “make believe” which easily taught me that I was the “morena,” and helped to socialize color. In the game’s own sorted and twisted blend, it demonstrated that I could deflect the negativisms and criticisms that should arise from colorism by seeing women of all shades attain a level of success.
I was fortune to have younger siblings to play with. I was the oldest of my mother’s four children. Blanca and I are sixteen months apart. Growing up, we played childhood antics, like “make believe.” We pretended to be just about anyone in our “Harlem” world apartment. Our favorite “act” was pretending to be Salt –n – Peppa. My sister was Salt and I was Peppa. I don’t exactly remember how we pick the characters. All I remember was that I never really like being Peppa, but felt somewhat obligated in portraying her because she was darker and my sister was lighter. She was the dark skin rapper with a raunchy personality who was known to date even raunchier rappers. She was seemingly the least attractive person in the group, but just as successful. Nevertheless, someone had to play Peppa in order for our pretend world to work. Looking back on this “fond” childhood memory, I realized that not only did I despise that game, but that it shaped my perspective on color, and introduced an awkward self-awareness to my complexion. Games like this, although fashioned in the “spirit of fun,” fed into my lifelong struggle of identifying issues of color (colorism) within my family and community. My sister, whose name literally means white or pale in Spanish, was named after my grandmother. However, her name also represents the pale complexion she was born with. Something like life’s cruel joke on us both as a constant reminder of her fair complexion, and my misfortune of having a dark complexion.
As a community, we are taught that whites are racists. However, we exhibit prejudicial practices in color complexions. As I was considered la morenita or negrita, constantly reminded of my darker complexion, particularly from my family members, I use to think, What is it with people and color? I realized that my family had as many issues and criticisms about color as I received from my community. Over time, I learned to embrace every inch of my complexion. I even learned to appreciate the character I emulated as a child. It was a process, and it began with rejecting Eurocentric ideals of beauty and reclaiming/owning my body. I learned to embrace and love all of me. I learned to embrace the essence of my color.
General cultural beliefs were la clara or mulatta has noticeably refined attractive features: hair, eyes, an inherent or preferred sex appeal; whereas, la morena or negrita’s features are arguably more pronounced (nose and lips) and hypersexualized (ass, thighs, and hips). Within this very culture, religiosity is the dominant force that demonstrates the line of demarcation with color. It is the most significant example of colorism. Fairer complexion saints are revered as holy, beautiful, and altruistic; whereas, darker complexions are perceived as demonic, evil forces that can, if not careful, overtake the human soul.
Images like Queens Tiye, Nefetari, Neith, and Pharaoh Hapshetsut, drastically altered my interpretation and perceptions of beauty when I learned of them as a graduate student. I wondered, How did I not know about these real life personalities who were successful? Why didn’t we “make believe” to be these figures? Regardless of what never happened, I was aware now.
BRIDGING THE GAP: Contemporary Realities, Our Ancestral Past, & Our Liberated Future
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