When Black Teens Get Real About America’s Love of Light Skin

Seniors at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia interviewed their peers about colorism.
From left: Joie Nearn, Imani Weeks, and Sydne Hopkins. (Photo: Robert Block)
Feb 11, 2016· 6 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

I grew up being called “white sugar” by my grandmother, while my darker, 11-day-older cousin was called “brown sugar.” My grandma loved us both, but she would sometimes kiss me on the forehead in front of my cousin and say, “White sugar always tastes sweeter.”

My grandmother passed away nearly 20 years ago, but colorism—the belief that darker-skinned black folks are less beautiful or intelligent—is alive and well. That’s why Joie Nearn, Imani Weeks, and Sydne Hopkins, three 17-year-old seniors at Science Leadership Academy, a public magnet high school in Philadelphia, are turning the spotlight on the effect of bias against darker-skinned black girls.

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The teens spent three months working on “For the Love of Brown Girls,” a project that explores the perspectives and experiences of black teens at the racially and economically diverse school. Along with creating a website and blog, Nearn, Weeks, and Hopkins scripted, filmed, and edited a mini-documentary about colorism.

“I know a lot of times if we discuss stuff like this, people get into hard-core debates, so it can be scary to bring it up,” Weeks told TakePart. “It’s the same way that people are afraid to talk about police brutality. But it’s still something that has to be fixed, and in order for it to be fixed, it has to be talked about.”

There is plenty to talk about in regard to colorism. Black people around the world spend $10 billion a year on toxic skin lighteners—and for good reason: Studies show that darker-skinned black people are less likely than their lighter-skinned peers to be hired for the same job, get tougher prison sentences, and may be seen as less electable. In 2010, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid apologized for saying in 2008 that Barack Obama had a better chance of winning the presidency than other African American candidates might because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

The “For the Love of Brown Girls” video and blog reveal the often painful and confusing experiences black teenage boys and girls at Science Leadership Academy have had with colorism. “Some of the things I heard in some of the interviews I took to heart and found disheartening,” said Nearn. “It’s crazy how people don’t understand or realize that the things they say about skin color are horrible.”

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It’s gut-wrenching to watch a teen boy stare into the camera and say, “I’ma keep it 100. I only like light-skinned girls.” It’s equally heartbreaking to see a girl describe a summer camp counselor who lined campers up light to dark, with darker kids in the back.

On the project’s blog, Nearn described how colorism has damaged her self-esteem. “As a young African American woman of a deeper skin tone, I constantly battle with the way I look on the outside,” she wrote. “I always have been judged by the opposite sex because my hair is not a certain length and my skin is not close to white.”

Joshua Block, a veteran educator who has taught English and humanities at Science Leadership Academy for nine years, said the empowerment the group experienced as a result of the project wouldn’t have happened “if I’d shut down the topic early on or told them they should have done the project on something else.”

Block’s class isn’t the typical high school English class. He “teaches kids the power of the written word and social justice,” according to the project’s website. Science Leadership Academy is also an “inquiry-driven” school, which means it educates its racially and economically diverse student body by engaging youths in active problem solving—a skill, surveys have revealed, that employers value.

Block avoids the memorization and grammar exercises of traditional English courses and pushes students to develop their academic skills in the context of issues that are significant in their lives. “When students have learning experiences that are based on real-world experiences about topics that matter to them, it completely shifts what the meaning of school is,” he said. Such project-based, child-directed learning has been a bulwark of progressive education since the days of John Dewey and is increasingly finding its way into the mainstream.

Camika Royal, an assistant professor of urban education at Loyola University Maryland, is an advocate for inquiry-based assignments like “For the Love of Brown Girls.” Such projects give “educators a way to assess students’ learning and growth beyond standardized measures” and “allow educators to see what they would have missed from multiple-choice assessments and writing about topics students don’t care about,” she said. “What’s even more significant here, though, is that this teacher allowed the students’ ideas and concerns about their lives and their community [to] drive their inquiry.”

Block’s students appreciate the approach. “It feels good when a teacher supports you about what you’re passionate about instead of just saying, ‘Follow my rules. Answer my questions,’ ” said Nearn.

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Block planted the seeds of “For the Love of Brown Girls” last October when he had his seniors read sociologist Alice Goffman’s 2014 book On the Run. The controversial urban ethnographic account explores the impact of violence and the criminal justice system on an unnamed low-income black neighborhood in West Philly.

“The way the course is structured, the students have to create projects. So as they were reading the book, I kept pushing them and asking, ‘What might you create after you read this book?’ I started talking about them doing their own ethnographic project,” Block said.

The teens discussed several ideas but settled on tackling colorism after Hopkins watched the 2011 documentary Dark Girls, filmmaker Bill Duke’s groundbreaking look at bias against darker-skinned black women. “It inspired us to make our own documentary because we realized that that’s actually a problem we have too,” Hopkins said. “We asked Mr. Block about making our own movie, and he suggested we also do a blog or a website where we could document the process.”

They spent two months interviewing their peers at Science Leadership Academy, choosing students “who we felt we could get different answers from and who we knew could give us detailed answers,” said Hopkins. “It was a good result because some people were like, ‘I believe that we should fix this,’ while others said, ‘I didn’t know that was a problem.’ ”

The girls also observed conversations on Twitter. “Especially on social media, a lot of people think that light skin is better than dark skin,” said Weeks, who said it disturbed her to see how common the hashtags #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin are on the platform.

As the teenagers conducted their research, Block consulted with them and steered them toward academic resources that explained how colorism has roots in the pathological privilege lighter-skinned black people were shown by white people during slavery: Darker-skinned slaves were consigned to toil in the fields, while lighter-skinned slaves—many of whom were the product of owners’ sexual violence against their human property—often worked in homes.

By the early 20th century, colorism could be found in the hurtful comments of relatives and in the skin-color tests that barred those who were darker than a paper bag from certain black organizations. Last June, Oscar winner Viola Davis told The Wrap, “the paper-bag test is still very much alive and kicking” in Hollywood. “That’s the whole racial aspect of colorism: If you are darker than a paper bag, then you are not sexy, you are not a woman, you shouldn’t be in the realm of anything that men should desire,” she said.

Indeed, a casting call notice for the blockbuster film Straight Outta Compton gained notoriety in 2014—and again last summer with the film’s release—as a prime example of colorism in Tinseltown. The notice described “fine girls” as “light-skinned. Beyoncé is a prototype here.” For other roles, the casting agency asked for “African American girls. Poor, not in good shape. Medium to dark skin tone.”

Although Hollywood stumbles mightily when dealing with racial issues, teachers are often no different. Block, who is white, acknowledged that educators have plenty of fears about engaging with kids about race. Respect and “classroom community, not conformity,” he said, are the keys to exploring the issue. Educators also have to be secure in their own identity, and they have to be humble.

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“I’m not an authority on [colorism], so I could never come to them and act like that. It would not work for me to tell them, ‘This is how it is in the African American community,’ ” Block said. “Figuring out a way as a teacher from a different background to really ask questions, improve their work, and expand their thinking is possible, but it has to be rooted in humility.”

The teens hope people who watch the “For the Love of Brown Girls” video or explore the project’s website will recognize that colorism is a genuine problem with legitimate consequences. They’re also reflecting on whether they themselves benefit from skin-color bias—or if they perpetuate it. “After doing this project, I take into consideration everything that I say and everything that my peers say,” said Nearn. She’s now considering studying colorism and doing more research on the issue when she heads to college in the fall.

Royal applauded the teenagers for taking on the issue in such a meaningful way. “This project represents social justice education: giving students the skills and tools to question the world around them, to analyze what is so they can work toward what can be,” she said.