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'Light skinned rage?'

MILITANT: Malcolm X

HAVING MIXED parentage or being light skinned can be precarious at times. There is a lot of pressure when you are mixed race, especially if you are mixed black and white.

As someone who is mixed of Jamaican, Irish and Nigerian heritage, there have been two occasions cemented in my mind that represent the difficulties that some light skinned people face.

In the first instance, I was in Jamaica and a young cousin of mine said that she couldn’t play with me because she wasn’t allowed to play with white people. I replied, ‘but I’m not white’, to which she retorted, ‘you’re not black’.

Years later, I was talking to my best friend, whose oldest child is deaf. As she was signing colours with her daughter, my friend pointed at my skin and her daughter signed the word for ‘pink’. To my friend’s daughter, I didn’t have the same skin as a white person, but she was adamant that I was not black like the rest of the family. To her, I was pink.


'REJECTED': Bob Marley

Both occasions involved children, and it’s difficult to describe to a child the differences between races because for them, everything is usually yes or no, black or white.

Over the years, there have been many terms used to describe mixed race people: mulatto, zambo, half breed, pardo, miscegenation, mestizo, coloured, amalgamation, half caste, metis, biracial and more recently, multi-racial. Most of the words are different variations of the Latin word, miscere (to mix) and genus (kind), but all have the same connotation – a different kind.

For years, mixed race people and sometimes, light skinned black people have either been considered too white to be black or too dark to be white – and for the most part, people are not really sure what we are. We actually do not fit in anywhere and that has led to many prominent light-skinned people having to constantly prove themselves to be one race or another.

The effects of miscegenation, namely, mixed race people with a lighter or darker skin tone, still plays a big part in our lives, and has done for centuries. Around the world, different cultures have their preferences and aversions to various shades of skin colour. The nomadic Massai tribe of East Africa associate pale skin with being cursed and evil spirits, whereas Japanese and some European cultures have preferred pale skin, opting for lead and arsenic-based products to achieve the ‘pure white’ colour.


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But it was not until, of course, colonial times, that relations between different races really became a problem for the establishment, and by extension, the offending parties were people who married and copulated outside their race.

It was difficult for people who had children out of their race, but contrary to popular belief, it was even more difficult for the mixed child. In America, home to some of the worst racial oppression in history, it is widely known that during slavery, the darker skinned slaves worked in the fields, while the lighter skinned slaves would be allowed to work as domesticated slaves; a fact that many darker skinned people threw at lighter skinned people as something they should be ashamed of.

The ability for some lighter skinned people to be able to ‘pass’ in society after slavery and get preferential jobs and social status, has also been a constant cause of tension between lighter and darker skinned black people. Instead of looking at the irrational racial hatred of some of the white people in positions of power doing the recruiting, a lot of the anger and hatred from darker skinned black people was fixed on their light skinned counterparts.

With this in mind, I wonder if some mixed race and light skinned people feel it necessary to fiercely align themselves with one ‘side’ or the other, in order to prove themselves.

Light skinned people like Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton defined themselves with radical rhetoric, often disassociating themselves with their white heritage and opting to promote only their black parentage.

Malcolm X – the product of a dark-skinned father and a mixed race mother – inherited his mother’s fair complexion. His paternal grandfather was white and Malcolm even had ginger hair. And yet, in the year’s that followed, he famously said he “hated every drop of that white rapist’s blood that is in me” and in another quote, referred to white people as the “devil.”


MIXED: Malcolm X is the product of a dark-skinned father and a mixed race mother

Well known for his militant approach to securing equal rights for black people – a stark contrast to the ethos of peace demonstrated by fellow Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr – Malcolm X is widely regarded as a radical leader. Could it be that it was his own unease with his light skin and the white blood that flowed through his veins, which made him feel he had something to prove to black America?

The Nation of Islam leader is by no means the only prominent light skinned person to seek refuge in a movement that allowed black people to know and value their power and greatness. The late great Bob Marley also became a powerful mouthpiece for equal rights, whether he was delivering a call to arms to black Zimbabweans, urging them to overthrow their British colonisers in his song Zimbabwe, or encouraging black people to “emancipate yourself from mental slavery” in his hit Redemption Song.

Born to a white father and black mother, Marley – despite once famously saying “I don’t stand for black man’s side, I don’t stand for white man’s side, I stand for God’s side” – appeared to make a choice to align himself with black culture through his gravitation to Rastafarianism. In fact, in the upcoming film Marley, a documentary about the reggae legend, Bunny Wailer reveals that Marley was “rejected” in his early years because he was mixed race.

Despite a widely held perception that light skinned people have an easier time in society, Marley is a clear example of a man who, in his earlier years, didn’t ‘fit in’ with either ‘side.’ In the film, Marley’s widow Rita also recalls that Marley’s mixed heritage made him an “outcast” and admits that she never imagined herself marrying a mixed race man, because at that time, it was every Jamaican girl’s dream to be with a man who was “tall, dark and handsome.”

Similarly, though Marley was the frontman of The Wailers, it was the late Peter Tosh that Bunny described as the group’s eye candy, mirroring Rita’s sentiments that a tall, dark-skinned man was favoured amongst the ladies.

The film also discusses an occasion where Marley was rejected by his father’s family, and how he subsequently penned the track Cornerstone, complete with the lyrics, “the stone that the builder refuse/will always be the head cornerstone.”

It also addresses how Marley, even when he’d achieved huge stardom, failed to connect with black audiences in America – and how desperate he was to do so.
Perhaps it was the rejection from the white side of his family and his feeling of not quite fitting in with black people that made him want to prove himself within the black community.

The sometimes ambiguous appearance of some mixed race and light skinned people has led many of them to overcompensate for what they believe is a shortcoming; the fact that they can’t be identified as black or white. As a result, many of them ‘pick a side’ and become the fiercest ambassadors of the ‘side’ they choose.

One common action of some of those who align themselves with the ‘black side’ is to staunchly oppose interracial relationships. Case in point: US rapper Common.

Well-known for his conscious rap music, the Chicago-born MC who frequently concerns himself with issues concerning black people in his music, sparked controversy with his track Real People. In the song, he expresses his disapproval of interracial relationships, rhyming: “Black men walking with white girls on their arms/ I be mad at ‘em/ as if I know their mums.”

Whenever I hear sentiments like that, specifically from mixed race or light skinned black people, I find it interesting that they should have such an aversion to mixed relationships. But I believe it is because when a mixed race or light skinned person opts to represent the black ‘side’, they believe that it’s not good enough just to identify themselves as black; they have to be the blackest light person around.

For me, although I grew up with my black side of the family and, like Bob Marley, was rejected by my white side, I never deny that side of my family. It is far easier to say that I am black and admittedly, I always do. But in reality, I am mixed race and happy, because I would not be me without my white heritage.

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