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Colorism: Is Kanye’s ‘multiracial women only’ code for only light-skinned black women?

Skin color matters more than ethnicity when your skin is dark

As Kanye West reminded us a few days ago, colorism is alive and well. Race matters, even within communities of color.

Black Twitter blew up a few days ago after West tweeted a casting call for his Yeezy Season 4 fashion show, asking for “multiracial women only.” This was largely interpreted as a call for light-skinned women of color, the café con leche kind that he favors, despite once referring to them as “mutts.” It is not surprising then that some of the most powerful tweets in response were from black women. As @WickedBeaute pointedly asked, “Does that include the dark skinned multi-racial women or just the light skinned ones?”

While West has since tried to walk back his tweet, this most recent controversy has reignited debates about skin tone, blackness and bias in communities of color. For those of us whose skin color is closer to a double shot cappuccino or darker, the latest indignity from Kanye West – himself a dark-skinned black man — is a painful reminder of the continuing degradation directed at dark-skinned black women and the rejection of black beauty.

Because the truth of it is, skin color still matters, even within our communities. And colorism – the bias or prejudice that exists within a particular racial or ethnic group against those with a darker skin – is still pervasive – both in the African-American and Latino communities. We don’t like to talk about it. But it’s there.

I know whereof I speak. I am a black Latina married to an African-American man.

I don’t recall ever not being aware of my blackness. Growing up in Puerto Rico, I was the darkest of four siblings. From a very early age, I remember being referred to as “la negrita” (the little black one) and being singled out because of my skin color. Other than baseball legend Roberto Clemente, there were no celebrated black Latino s/heroes when I was growing up. The only black characters in the beloved telenovelas that the island tuned in to every evening were maids or cooks. Whiteness and western standards of beauty were celebrated, blackness and Afrocentrism were not.

New York Fashion Show Yeezy Season 4

New York Fashion Show Yeezy Season 4.

TPG/Getty Images

Even when Latinos are black, they may still deny their blackness. Within my large extended family (some of whom are as black as I am), blackness was not something to be acknowledged, let alone embraced. Still today, anti-blackness permeates Puerto Rican culture, with the majority of Puerto Ricans on the island (75.8 percent) self-identifying as white on the last census. Only 12.4 percent self-identified as black or African-American.

We see similar trends nationwide among the country’s 50 million Latinos. Slightly more than half, 53 percent, identify as white only, while 2.5 percent identify as black, according to Census data. The remainder identify as “other.” These self-identifications go a long way to explaining why in countries such as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Brazil, all with significant black populations, everyone, and I mean, everyone is “trigueño,” an all-encompassing phrase for anyone not white. Brazilians, for example, describe themselves in 136 different skin tones, including amarela-queimada (burnt yellow), canela (cinnamon) and morena-bem-chegada (very nearly brown).

Since moving to the U.S. mainland, I have confronted questions of race and blackness but in a slightly different way. Oftentimes, Puerto Ricans reject my blackness and black Latina pride (“You’re not really black; you’re Puerto Rican!”). African-Americans, meanwhile acknowledge my skin color, but have at times questioned whether I am really black, given my Puerto Rican heritage – as though the two are mutually exclusive.

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Colorism has been with us for a long time, and is part of the legacy of slavery and white supremacy that has infected black and Latino communities. The only way we will ever eradicate it is if we confront it, talk about it and advance strategies to combat it.

My husband and I have worked hard to make sure that our young son embraces and is proud of his African-American and Latino roots and that he is grounded in the history of race and colorism – both here and in Puerto Rico. As painful as it is at times to talk about the racism that we sometimes encounter, we, like many black and brown parents, feel the added burden of preparing our son to meet life’s challenges – including those brought about by bias and discrimination.

It is impossible to combat white racism and fight against white supremacy while ignoring the ways that we perpetuate our own systems of racial stratification. And we must remind the Kanye Wests of this world that yes, Black IS Beautiful!

I for one, am Black and I’m PROUD.

Kica Matos is the Director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change. She has spent her career working as an advocate, community organizer and lawyer.