This past weekend, CNN’s Soledad O’ Brien took a deeper approach with the In America series by exploring the complex ideologies behind colorism within the African-American community for “Black in America 5”. Among the many individuals she spoke to – posing the question ‘who is black America?’ – commentary about the difficulties that blacks still face, no matter how light or dark their skin is, seemed to surface in several conversations.

Slam poets Hiwot Adilow, Telia Allmond, and Kai Davis explored the theme of color and identity through artistic expression for CNN. The young women from the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement performed “Team Lightskinned”, a poem that explores both the negative and positive experiences that light-skinned black women face growing up in America.

The poem opens with the lines, “Your worth a little more if your golden, yellow enough to remind them of precious metals.”

Imbued with deep reflections and colorful language, the poem recalls the historic struggle of colorism within the black race– for light skin women can “past the paper bag test in the dark…can dodge handcuffs without paying a fine”, unlike their darker brothers and sisters.

It also expresses their desire for darker beauties to accept themselves, despite how society may currently demean them: “black might be beautiful but right skin might be the light skin.”

Speaking of society, the poets negate popular belief: “it doesn’t occur to them that them that some of the most gorgeous stones are obsidian, opal, onyx.”

What are your thoughts on the poem? Can you relate?

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  • Yb

    I could’ve sworn that the black community has identified what having light skin looks like, that ain’t it.

    But I must say it was a great poem. A poem that recognising the realities of what having light skin affords one in this society. At first glance I thought it would be one of those “mean darkies pick on me, cause I’m lighter and better” spiels but thankfully it was not.

    • simplyme

      Thats why I think the whole concept is kind of funny. If you had a room full of Black people and you were told to split them down the middle into “light skinned” and “dark skinned” no two Black people would do it the same. Everyone has a different concept of what that means. Add to that depending on the seasons…the lighting…. how long they’ve been in the sun etc. etc. many of us take on different shades. We’re like a bell curve of brown shades…. the majority just hovering between some middle brown colors…

    • nona

      Yep, this is true. I am dark skin, and my mother is that middle of the road color that sunburns easily. Yet when talking about dark skin, my mother held up a PAPER BAG to prove to me I was not chocolate and that’s a title left to her man, Tyreese.

      I also commented on a friend’s facebook status when he was going on about how “dark people” shouldn’t wear bright colors. After I stood up for dark skin people and my love of the color orange and pink, he simply responded with, “you aren’t that dark though.” Overall, people look at me and see a dark skinned woman, but yeah, people love to justify who and what isn’t dark or light based on their own arbitrary reasons.

    • Tallulah Belle

      Right. I don’t understand. Are the poets supposed to be “lightskinned?” Because, they just plain and simply are not. Or were the poets just reciting a hypothetical? How strange.. I think that Soledad O’Brien, Mariah Carey, Vanessa Williams, Evelyn Lozado, and Shakira are “lightskinned.” The three women on the stage are beautiful, intelligent brown -skinned girls, each with lovely natural hair.

    • PJ

      Ya’ll seemed to miss the point. This wasn’t really about starting a competition conversation about whether the girls would actually pass a paper bag test. Distractions like that have held our community back for decades. Focus on the words.

  • lol

    to all the lighter-skinned ladies who understand and fight colorism thanks a lot! really appreciated! hopefully darker-skinned ladies can learn to appreciate the fact that life isn’t a walk in the park for you guys either.

    • Santi

      Please stick to the post. Your comment has nothing to do with nothing.

    • lol

      i thought it would be obvious that my comment was meant for the ladies who comment on colorism articles. it has a lot to do with everything.

      and i can comment how i please.


    • LMO85

      Appreciated, much respect.

  • After watching the special on CNN, I saw some tweets on twitter that said the “paper bag test” was an urban legend, and never actually happened. Has anyone else heard this before?

    I am not saying colorism isn’t real and doesn’t have real consequences, I’m just trying to get my facts straight.

    • Yb

      It exists. Who ever said that it is a myth on Twitter just wants to hide our ugly past.

      In various communities in the south (especially Lousiana) paper bag tests would be enacted to determine the “desirables” and higher ups in society based on whether they are lighter than the paper bag. HBCU’s sororities and fraternities are especially known for doing this to determine who could be admitted into their organization.

    • Kay

      Wow. It’s horrible how popular revisionist history is. The paper bag test existed, as did the comb test, as well as social clubs for lighter skinned people such as the “Blue Vein Society.” What people don’t get is that this practice originated during slavery, when mixed race slaves were considered, “gentler,” and “easier,” to control. This mentality became ingrained in how people thought of Black people as a group. The “tragic mulatto,” is all about that “poor” mixed race person who has the supposed “intelligence of the White race,” and the “insufferable savagery of the Black race.” It was basically a way to justify the rape of Black women. It’s like saying, “It doesn’t really hurt them. I mean, look, their children are better off for it.” Some really good books to check out:

      The Paper Bag Principle: Class, Complexion, and Community in Black Washington, D.C.-Audrey Elisa Kerr

      The Blacker the Berry-Wallace Thurman

      Hope this helps, as I believe that obscuring history doesn’t help, it only hurts. If we can’t take a hard, cold look at where we’ve been we can’t possibly move forward.

    • nona

      Thanks for this comment, adding those books to my to read list.

    • Tallulah Belle

      Yes, there are paper bag tests. I belonged to a very affluent, black folk, social group growing up in the Northeast and I actually failed one of these tests and could not attend an official soiree they were having. The men, however, did not have to take one of these tests, only the women. Failing one of these tests was par for the course, however none of the black men at these events even dare look atm let alone dance with or speak to a black woman without sandy brown hair and blue eyes. Black people have so many problems, truly.

    • yumm

      Wow (in not a good way). I do not been to be rude of pry, so feel free to leave this unanswered – but when did this happen?

  • Yb

    This is just a random thought but I find it so rare to hear a light skinned black MAN speak about his experiences on being light skinned and Colorism. I find that when the Colorism debates arises it most centers around women of various hues, with input from dark skinned black males, but I rarely hear a peep from light skinned black men.

    I also rarely see light skinned black men portrayed on TV at the same magnitude as their women counterparts. I can name Jessie Williams and Will Smith, but I also don’t watch much TV so my findings may not represent the majority.

    I don’t know maybe I’m the only one who noticed these things. :/ *shrugs*

    • &&&&

      Will Smith is light??

    • Yb

      IKR I used to think the same thing but according to some people he is. Look at some of his old Fresh Prince episodes. At times he’s the same color as Uncle Phil.

    • I think it has to do with the intersection of racism and sexism. Black women always had to measure of to the white women. It’s reinforced by society that white women are the most valuable. So most black men seek yellow bone girls or white girls, becasue that’s what we’ve all been taught.

    • Chillyroad


      Your response didn’t even address the issue. You could have very well brought up the fact that light skinned men are viewed as less masculine when compared to their darker skinned counterparts or how it helps them better integrate into society a la Obama’s electability. Also, as I understand it, light skin men suffer greater sexual assault in prison because of the view of them being more “feminine” looking and weak compared to other men.

    • EST. 1986

      Can I just say that as a very fair-skinned Black woman, the terms ‘yellow bone’ and ‘red bone’ are highly offensive to me?

    • Billy Paul

      “So most black men seek yellow bone girls or white girls[.]”

      If at all possible, please define “yellow bone” for me, it appears not be listed in contemporary dictionaries.

    • Billy Paul

      Contrary to popular belief, life is good for Billy not because he’s a light-skinned Colored male.

      Be not mislead, Billy’s life is good he is 6’3″, 205 lbs., highly articulant, and was trained at the finest universities that this country has to offer. However, such blessings are not unique to Billy alone as Billy’s articulant friends (both so-called light- and dark-skinned) are also currently enjoying the similar fruits.

      Further, what most of these learned commentors forget is that one’s credentials and tax bracket trump most if not all of their misconceptions. In particular, said person may arguably only obtain the “acceptance” that they seek only after they have addressed the deplorable state of their credentials (or lack thereof).

      Carry on, Family.

    • Idiot Basher

      @ Billy, define articulant….your comment defies itself…lol

    • niksmit

      I’d venture that that is because because colorism is also a gendered issue. Externally it’s more of an acceptability thing. Internally it’s more of a beauty thing. Beauty is more important for women than men in the heterosexual context, thus being the “wrong” color is going to wound women more than men.

    • ChillyRoad


      But fair skin also denotes femininity while dark skin denotes masculinity and in that case it certainly does affect light skinned men negatively.

    • Santi

      @chillyroad you are a nuisance. Plain and simple. How does dark skin denote masculinity? Have a seat. I can find one for you. Troll.

    • Kay

      I remember mentioning this to a visiting professor who was a researcher of African American and Caribbean studies, and he was saying that it’s because the dynamics of rape, sex and beauty are often intertwined with a certain value. For instance, women are by far, defined as “valuable,” by virtue of their aesthetics, these aesthetics are often racialized, thus lending pressure for Black women to conform to a standard that is not only unrealistic, even for non-Black women, but places a low premium on us as women. I think that dark skinned men being able to have more roles, especially in things like action films may have something to do with the stereotype of how hyper-masculine (tough, aggressive, sexual, etc.) darker Black men have often been considered to be.

    • yumm

      Also this culture looks up to athletes, associates them with masculinity- which painted as desirable by traditional social structures for men but not women.

    • Val

      Lol! @ “Billy” referring to himself in the third person. So funny. Reminds me of a Seinfeld episode.

      And the first time I read his comment I was like, who the hell is Billy? Lol.

  • LadyP

    I’ll be honest here. I don’t know how to fight this ongoing senseless battle any longer. When I watched the CNN special, I became so hopeless when the little “dark skinned” girl with the pink shirt said she wasn’t pretty because she was dark. I have a niece with a very dark complexion and very pretty. Regardless of the people telling her this, she doesn’t believe it anymore. She says she is not pretty because she is not light. When it comes to colorism, by our race accepting “light complexion” as automatically beautiful and “black might be beautiful but right skin might be the light skin” – Im not sure if it will ever go away completely. It is sad to see beautiful people not accepting their beauty because of their complexion and what other people think. I wish as a race we could arrive to a space of accepting ALL of our rainbows of beauty. I just think it’s embedded in too many of our minds now that light is better. This same problem has not changed since the arrival of the first indentured servants. It doesn’t seem as if it is becoming better even with the special televised programming. Look how ridiculous this statement is targeted towards Nona: “I also commented on a friend’s facebook status when he was going on about how “dark people” shouldn’t wear bright colors.”

    And I must add even for the darker complexion, there is a debate. For as long as can remember, I would here…but P – – you’re not really dark. You’re more of a caramel-brown complexion or soft –light brown. I would always, say, “huh?” Since, I consider by self as a brown-skinned girl, I would ask does it really make a difference?! The response is always YES. Beauty is beauty…and it shouldn’t be a fight to convince these young girls otherwise. My niece is only 10 so I’m trying to intervene the best way I know how.

    • Sasha

      Typically I do not comment on articles of this subject matter anymore but your comment resonated with me. This topic is exhausting. Half the time I read these comments and the ensuing comments and feel this sense of hopelessness for the “community” and the generations of kids who will have to deal with this but shouldn’t have to. I know the implications of colorism and intraracism are very real but I find it to just be so exhausting. Especially when there are so many areas of concern- violence, drug abuse, sexual abuse, underperforming schools, the unemployment rate, the fiscal cliff, I could go on. If I ever hear/ read about this specific topic again it would be way way too soon. How do people still operate with such a limited, ignorant and senseless mentality?

    • P


      I don’t have all the answers, but I do like to engage with others to search for more meaningful solutions. The conversations can become tiresome, but maybe with the programs and discussions, we can see a better day. That’s my heart hoping for change, but my mind says something totally different. For certain, the new generation shouldn’t have to deal with this issue.

    • GlowBelle

      “It is sad to see beautiful people not accepting their beauty because of their complexion and what other people think.”

      You said it!

      I feel as you do. I wish I knew what was the *best* way to heal, but I think the only thing we can do is like what P said and pass on the positive and teach the babies to celebrate beauty in all forms. Even when there are those out there who continue to hate and divide, we shouldn’t engage in doing that and set a better example for the future generation, like your niece.

      Even though I’m light-skinned I have darker-skinned relatives, in fact, my whole family is all different shades — that’s what being Black in America is…being of variant of persons, ideas, and colors, and it’s such a simple concept, that it is just disappointing to me that we STILL have to bring this up, that we still argue in comment sections about this, and that people still feel ostracized and can’t feel comfortable celebrating being themselves because of someone else’s definition of what type of Black skin color is “better” or what type of Black experience is the most “authentic”. I get exhausted about the colorism issue, I don’t want to say it, but I am and I’m like Sasha, I wish we could talk about more pressing matters, but I still feel that if we don’t talk about it or dust it under the rug and act like it doesn’t exist, we pretty much fail ourselves — so it HAS to be discussed.

      P.S. Loved your comment!

    • P

      I loved your comment as well! *best* way to heal – – Ms. GlowBelle, you’re holding the master lock key here. I’m not sensitive about a lot of things, but when it came to my baby niece saying that. I cried – it tore at my heart. I want the *best* solution b/c if is not the best, it will resurface once she start dating, enters high school, and college. Even though I feel as if it’s an endless battle, if I give up, I’ll fail her and myself. Can’t dust it under the rug …

    • PJ

      I think it’s a societal issue more than anything. I believe that if your niece had grown up in an African country or another place where black skin is considered beautiful she probably wouldn’t have that opinion. Look at all of the darker skinned actresses and models who are upheld as a standard of beauty in Nigeria (Nollywood) and other African countries. America (both North and South) is hopelessly entrenched in skin color issues — believing that dark skin is less attractive — due to our messed up history.

    • Nollywood actors are all weaves and wigs.that’s right I stop watching

    • Danda

      Please tell me you are joking skin lightening is most common in the Ivory Coast my country and it is highly unlikely any of the actresses are on screen without a weave on