Darker than blue: on light-skin privilege

Have you seen that Beyondblue advertisement where the passenger on the bus doesn’t want to sit next to the brown-skinned man? Or the interviewer doesn’t want to hire the brown-skinned woman? These are the sorts of experiences that I have in mind when I refer to skin-colour privilege: ones that people who enjoy light-skin privilege don’t suffer. They are experiences that affect not only mental health but physical health, education, employment, incarceration rates and life expectancy.

Skin-colour privilege is not a particularly neat or simple phenomenon. The concept is an attempt to contrast the disadvantages experienced by people with brown skin with the freedoms enjoyed by those with pale skin. Pale-skinned people don’t have to go about their lives wondering whether the colour of their skin is playing a role in them being given lower marks by a teacher, being randomly frisked by the police, or not being served when waiting at a counter.

People who have light-skin privilege tend to get defensive about the concept, as if naming their light-skin privilege entails that they are privileged per se, or that they have not suffered in their lives. I agree that the concept is less than perfect: fair skin also comes with disadvantages, and people with fair skin may suffer disadvantage unrelated to their skin colour. But it is experiences like those in the Beyondblue advertisement that position me as Black, and skin-colour privilege is the best available concept to capture that. It is important for me to be able to articulate the experiences that constitute me as Black in a white-dominated society, and so those who enjoy the privileges associated with their skin will just have to tolerate being reminded of that privilege.

On past occasions when I’ve said that there are privileges associated with skin colour, even for Aboriginal people, I have been accused of saying that light-skinned Aboriginal people are not Aboriginal, or that they are not Black. But I am neither saying nor implying this. Being more privileged does not make you less Aboriginal or less Black. Also, light skin is not synonymous with the racial category ‘white’. While my skin colour contributes to my racial identity, this is not the case for all Black people. Commenting on skin colour is therefore not necessarily a comment on racial category.

In saying that there is a privilege associated with light skin, I have also been accused of denying that light-skinned Aboriginal people have disadvantage. I am not saying this either (nor am I implying it). Similarly, when I say that light-skinned women enjoy light-skin privilege, I am not denying the disadvantages they suffer for being female. Light-skinned Aboriginal people suffer disadvantages associated with their Aboriginality, such as loss of sovereignty – which include disadvantages that are the direct result of their skin colour. Even fair-skinned non-Indigenous Black people experience race-based disadvantage. There are also individuals who, regardless of their racial identity, have the disadvantages of belonging to a family or community which experiences skin-colour disadvantage. But these disadvantages are not skin-colour disadvantage of the type illustrated in the Beyondblue advertisement. (With one exception: in the advertisement, the scene where a racist joke is told in the pub; although the actor is visibly Black, this is a situation that is likely – possibly more likely – to occur in the presence of light-skinned people.)

Many light brown and pale-skinned Black people have explained the need to have their racial identity recognised and affirmed. I am familiar with their testimony. I acknowledge and empathise with their experience. Because of the colour of my skin, I am accustomed to being interrogated about my identity, and I experience situations in which my racial identity is disputed or denigrated. I know firsthand what it is like to have people fail to recognise my relationship to family members. I have been mocked for not being able to speak ‘my’ (my father’s) language. I have had people (including beloved family) express the wish that my Blackness be bred out in successive generations. These are deeply hurtful experiences. But they are not skin-colour disadvantage of the type illustrated in the Beyondblue advertisement.

Although I am not saying the offensive things that might wrongly be inferred from my discussion of light-skin privilege in Black (including Aboriginal) communities, it could be argued that I should nevertheless recognise the risk of being misunderstood. This outcome-oriented approach works well for addressing offence caused by white people. It removes the cause of the problem at very little cost to the person who gave offence because, after all, they have nothing to lose: it’s not their racial category that is under attack. But I am not white – in fact, it is offensive to treat me as such – and I do have something to lose if I do not speak about skin-colour privilege. What I have to lose is the freedom to acknowledge my racial experience and identity. It is not okay for people with light skin to demand that people with darker skin deny their experience, and important aspects of their racial identity, by insisting that they deny, or downplay, skin-colour privilege.

Wanting to be recognised and respected for who you are and suffering the disadvantages of light skin, or suffering disadvantages unrelated to skin colour, are not experiences to be included in or equated with the social and structural reality of having darker skin. I walk through the world every day of my life being seen as the brown-skinned person that I am. The Beyondblue advertisement captures a little of what that means.

Natasha Guantai

Natasha Guantai is a teacher of English, History and Philosophy at a secondary college in northern Melbourne. She blogs on issues of race, identity and colonialism at guantai5.wordpress.com.

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  1. Obviously questions of power are at issue when reducing cultural differences to such biological or hereditary terms as black and white, dark and fair skinned etc. What is Beyondblue’s investment in this unequal power relationship, I wonder. Is there some sort of equation being drawn between depression and ethnicity, and why?

  2. I’m also struggling to see how Aboriginal people are being lectured to in this piece. It’s a powerful piece about how the downplaying/dismissal of skin colour privilege by ANYONE (therefore including Aboriginal ppl) results in a destructive denial of certain Black identities.

  3. ur attempting to dismiss the author and her piece by identifying her as a settler? right…cos all non-Aborignal people are an undifferentiated mass that don’t experience racialisation by white supremacy in varying ways.

  4. If it ‘offensive’ to treat you as white, and offensive to treat you with ‘light skin privilege’ and illegal to treat you as black – yet you demand the freedom to acknowledge your racial identity – you may be indulgent or perverse and might spend your life consumed by offence. Certainly, multiculturalism is doomed.

    1. It’s not illegal to treat her as Black. It’s illegal but happens anyway to discriminate against someone because of how they have been racialised – and re: the author, that involves Blackness.

    2. Also one’s expression of their subordinated racial and marginalised cultural identity does not give licence to others to treat that Black person according to racial stereotypes or to dehumanise her/him/them.

    3. Was wondering when the forever offended, forever angry Black woman trope would get trotted out with no analysis of the complexity of the author’s points! And here it is.

  5. No one has said that skin colour doesn’t affect Aboriginal people. But I’m not sure why you continue to insist that skin colour affects Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Black people in the -same- way when several Aboriginal writers have told you it’s different.

    It’s completely possible to talk about skin colour privilege and your own experiences without appropriating a Beyondblue ad that was specifically produced to address racism and its role in the high rates of depression and anxiety in Indigenous Australians (and which deliberately features Aboriginal actors of varying skin colour).

    For anyone who wasn’t aware of the context of this article, Celeste Liddle and Eugenia Flynn have responded to earlier pieces by Natasha Guantai here:

  6. Skin colour does not affect Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the same way; I would never claim that it does. Skin colour doesn’t affect men and women in the same way either. But it affects both. And on some occasions, in some respects, skin colour affects people with different identities in similar, perhaps identical, ways.

    That there are affinities in experience is borne out by many considerations. Here are some: there are Aboriginal readers who have praised this essay; there are the personal stories of non-Aboriginal Australian anti-racism activists such as Roberta Sykes; there is the use in the Aboriginal Black Power movement of ideas and methods first developed in the context of the African American Black Power movement.

    Celeste Liddle says that she refers to herself as ‘Black’ because of “the ‘Black Power’ and ‘Black is Beautiful’ movements”. Black Power and Black is Beautiful are political movements created by African Americans. Would you say that Celeste is ‘appropriating’ African diaspora experience in applying these slogans to herself? Or, rather, is she recognising commonalities of experience that flow from skin colour?

    When writing the above essay, I looked for media about non-Indigenous Black skin-colour discrimination in Australia and I found none. Please let me know when you find an advertisement, or any media for that matter, that addresses skin-colour discrimination against non-Indigenous Blacks in Australia and I will be happy to use it.

    A final note: Celeste Liddle’s blog was not a reply to an earlier piece by me. It was a response to an attempt by me, on Twitter, to engage her in a discussion about her use of the word “Black” in a way that appeared to deny the existence and experiences of non-Aboriginal Black Australians. In her blog she compared non-Aboriginal people describing themselves as Black Australians to Andrew Bolt calling himself an “indigenous Australian”. I replied to her essay, and in particular to that comparison, here: http://guantai5.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/who-can-be-black/

  7. My perceptions. My truth.

    From Natasha Guantai’s post that has been linked in response to Lia who said

    ‘But I’m not sure why you continue to insist that skin colour affects Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Black people in the -same- way when several Aboriginal writers have told you it’s different.’

    “There are countless different ways to be Black. Not all of them are visible. Some are. To say that Blackness includes skin colour is not to say that Blackness is limited to skin colour. It is to make the point – what one might have thought is an obvious point – that some people’s experiences are the result of their colour.

    In my own case, for instance, before I knew anything of my father’s history, or of his Meru culture, I knew I was Black because I was treated as such. And I was treated as such because I looked Black.
    To say that my colour makes me Black is not to question anybody else’s Blackness. Nor is it to say that colour is the marker, even the marker, for others. I do not dispute the description of colour as an ‘old fashioned’ marker of Indigenous Blackness.”

    So much black people are all the same in Australia. So much wow.

    Flynn’s linked post misrepresents the situation and the named people.

    “Celeste was then set upon by three women who questioned her on her views and wanted to talk about her “light-skin privilege.”

    None of the women spoke to Celeste’s ‘light-skin privilege’.

    “Instead of understanding this point, the three set about arguing with Celeste and conflating the issue with broader questions of race – completely taking away the context of what happens here in Australia to Indigenous Australians.”

    Misunderstandings happen. Go to Guantai’s post to see how this is incorrect. Guantai spoke within an Australian context.

    The ‘broader issue of race’, if it could be called that, involved blackness in Australia.

    “@angrytamilwoman and @jayani77 who sought to add fuel to the fire in a conversation that, frankly, should not involve them as non-Black people.”

    Eugenia does not name the brown people who were on ‘Celeste’s side’ as interfering in a conversation between black people. Lia, if you link to this post then what is your role? You are not black. Eugenia also does not refer to non-black men who liked Guantai’s tweets and neither angrytamilwoman nor jayani77 added fuel to the fire. They clicked on favourite, RTed and looked supportive of talking about light-skin privilege. From looking at Twitter, they stopped after a little while. This reaction is disproportionate.

    “And in a further move that can only be explained as collective comprehension problems, a whole bunch of Black women from migrant backgrounds have been re-tweeting, sharing and favouriting the responses – as well as writing passive aggressive tweets about not being able to call themselves Black.”

    Instead of seeking to understand why the black women were favouriting, retweeting and if they said that they can’t call themselves black, why so? – remember Eugenia types she knew some of these people, she uses psychologically violent language (more later). “collective comprehension problems” oh right, the ‘black migrants’ are a mass.

    “My hunch tells me that this is just bandwagon-jumping and not any real understanding and comprehension of the issues here, as well as some serious inability to check privilege.”

    This is the first point where Eugenia explicitly types that non-Indigenous black women cannot think for themselves with the ‘bandwagon jumping’.

    “since I’m sure Celeste and Blackfellas everywhere are tired of this keyboard warrior fight that has somehow become “Africans vs Aboriginals” (and, if you think about that point right there, that should tell you how ridiculous and shameful this whole situation is – you are fighting against Aboriginal people in their own country – seriously WTAF?!):”

    It is Eugenia who made it into ‘Africans vs Aboriginals’. People from different cultures fight. We can resolve it. It’s not going to be solved by shutting down conversations, not asking what the other person means and writing blog posts like this.

    No issue with points 1 and 2.

    Point 3

    “Pretty much if you are working on racism and race in Australia you need to defer to Indigenous Australian experiences, history and context.”

    Most racism issues happen to Indigenous Australians first and often in greater proportions. Indigenous Australian experience should be at least considered or centred or communities should work side by side. But what does Eugenia really mean when she types ‘to defer’. When she types this vitriol when black african women simply speak, when one woman questions intersecting issues around blackness in this country. There are also a few racism issues in Australia where the racial issue in the first instance doesn’t target Indigenous Australians. Communities that are being targeted should be able to organise, write and raise awareness. What is so unreasonable about this?

    “have an AUSTRALIAN understanding of race and racism in Australia, not just conveniently applying an American/Canadian/British/whatever analysis.”

    Eugenia fails to realise, even though she says she is also a first-generation migrant, that for many of us who are black, we organise according to analyses within Australia and overseas. She cannot police this and every non-white person uses analyses from the U.S. especially so why single those women out?

    “have not only NOT been working in reciprocal solidarity with me as an Aboriginal woman, but have now shown their cards: they do not understand how a critical analysis of race and racism needs to be applied in Australia, in deference to the history and experience of Indigenous Australians.”

    Remember this is over a short twitter conversation, RTs and favourites and blog posts by Guantai. Black african women cannot speak about their experience as people in Australia or try to have a conversation about intersectionality as well as acknowledge distinct black experiences in this country. To do so is seen as overpowering Indigenous Australian experience.

    “I myself felt set up on, attacked and bullied (I can only begin to imagine how Celeste felt) by the shameful actions of this lynch mob. It has felt like a school-clique of bullies who are attacking me as a blackfella with passive aggressive statements (as Tweets and Facebook statuses), sharing notes about me (as blog posts)”

    So Eugenia ‘felt set up on, attacked and bullied’ over a few tweets, RTs and favourites and posts. No-one spoke to her. Disagreement is not bullying. It is insulting and emotionally manipulative to insinuate so. Did she ask the people about ‘sharing notes as blog posts’ whether the posts were about her?

    What is shameful is that Flynn called mostly black women a lynch mob and got away with it. People with no stake and not black, linking to it and ignoring Guantai’s points. People who possibly think that it’s okay to call black women a lynch mob. When I feel safe, I’ll ask them to make sure.

  8. Thank you Respondent and Natasha Guantai for the insightful responses. Upon reading Eugenia Flynn’s post, I am shocked that the post not only misstated facts but wrote a post that, among other things, is condescending to non-indigenous black women and belittles them. The lynch mob comment was completely out of line – how could one say that to a group of black women of African background?

  9. I think Eugenia Flynn is “conveniently applying” an analysis of racism that has no room for the historical origins of lynching in the US and its horrific (and continuing) impact on Black Americans.

  10. I very much appreciate Natasha Guantai’s piece exploring a salient nuance around race and racialisation. Also reflecting that part of the reactive responses from some other writers, in particular Celeste and Eugenia, is that this issue of skin colour privilege is a sort of “dirty laundry” within Aboriginal communities that it feels somewhat painful to have aired by people who are not themselves Aboriginal.

    That said, there is a difference between naming an issue that cuts across community lines, and “lecturing”. It seems foolhardy to pretend that these issues DON’T exist in our communities, or that it is only my unique right as an in-group person (e.g. an Aboriginal person) to mention these topics ever, if at all. Part of the reason they are dirty laundry is because they are unresolved.

    I like to remain in contact with people who are sincerely committed to being part of the solution, whether they are my “in-group” or not. All the power to Natasha for especially naming this in the context of sharing her own lived experiences with this phenomenon.

    Holding one another accountable for our complicities should not involve then re-appropriating the terms of the abuse of power (e.g. “lynch mob”) in order to do so. My hope is that this conversation will bring out healing for our communities who have been scarred by racism and colonisation, for too many centuries.

  11. As a native Indian woman, living in India, with skin colour that is considered “fair”, I relate to Natasha’a analyses. Surely, this dialogue and experience then goes beyond a restricted, specific cultural context.

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