Nina Simone, Zoe Saldana, And Light-Skinned Fragility

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FEATURE

March 3, 2016

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The Internet was abuzz yesterday with Nina Simone’s family’s quick and brutal takedown of Zoe Saldana. It was a perfect encapsulation of the pain and frustration so many of us have felt at the insulting abuse and exploitation of Simone’s legacy by the filmmakers of the upcoming biopic Nina.

The choice of the light-skinned, conventionally attractive Saldana who says she was raised to not see color to play a woman who unapologetically lived in her color and Afrocentric features has been a slap in the face to Simone, her family, and dark-skinned black women everywhere. The insistence by Saldana that she has every right to play this role has added insult to injury.

“It doesn’t matter how much backlash I will get for it, I will honor and respect my black community because that’s who I am.” Saldana told Allure about her decision to portray Simone.

As a light-skinned black woman, those words make me cringe. Not just because it’s impossible to honor and respect your black community by playing a role that your black community has begged you not to play, but because of how familiar Saldana’s words sound. I, like many light-skinned black women, have been there.

Being a light-skinned black woman is lonely. You are black—white people will make sure you know that, but you aren’t black enough—black people will make sure you know that. It is isolating and invalidating to have your own racial identity constantly rewritten by outsiders, to know that you have no community that will ever fully accept you. To be constantly made to apologize for being born with a lighter skin tone. I know so many fellow light-skinned black people who are tortured by this complicated identity. For light-skinned black women this can be even more complicated, as we often find ourselves fetishized and exploited for that same light skin that has our darker counterparts giving us side-eye.

But as one light-skinned black woman to another, I have a message:

We need to check our privilege.

I know right? You are probably rolling your eyes right now, but stick with me here. Being light-skinned isn’t a problem and it is not something that we ever have to apologize for, just as white people don’t have to apologize for being born white.

I’ve never been looking for white people to apologize for being white. I’m looking for white people to dismantle the system of White Supremacy that builds them up on the backs of people of color. And dark-skinned black people aren’t looking for us to apologize for having light skin, they are looking for us to help dismantle the system that places us above darker-skinned black people in society.

The same system that holds us above and separate from our darker-skinned brothers and sisters is the same system that holds whiteness above and separate from us. And we are a part of this system the moment that we benefit from it. And we do benefit. As a light-skinned black woman, I’m viewed as more desirable, more intelligent, less threatening. I’m treated better by bosses, I have better odds in job interviews. People don’t cross the street when they encounter me on the sidewalk. Yes, there is a large price to pay for all of that—I am fetishized by many in the white community and ostracized by many in the black community—but when placed on a scale, I benefit.

Defeating White Supremacy requires that we battle it wherever we encounter it, even when we find it in ourselves. And that is often a painful process.

In acknowledging how I benefit from White Supremacy, I immediately identify myself as separate from the darker-skinned black community. It is human nature to want to belong—to want a home—and acknowledging this privilege often feels like self-eviction.

But it’s not the acknowledgement of this privilege that separates me—I have been separated by the privilege itself, whether I want to acknowledge it or not.

I am black—proudly and lovingly so. I absolutely refuse to let anybody tell me otherwise. But because I love my blackness, I acknowledge and respect the fact that it was the pain and sacrifice of dark-skinned black women like Simone—whose love of her blackness when the rest of the world despised it cost her both her career and her mental health—that afford me the privilege to do so. In a world where I could “pass” as some vaguely ethnic and nonthreatening character, I choose to be black, not only because the work of unapologetically black activists like Simone gave me the freedom to do so, but because my lighter skin makes it safer to do so. The fact that I can choose to embrace my blackness, or choose to say that I “don’t see color” and float around in some vaguely brown middle-ground is a privilege that many other black people will never know.

And because of this, not all that is black is mine. The struggles that Nina Simone faced with her dark skin, wide nose, and thick lips, is not mine. The triumph of her spirit is not mine. And while I glory in her strength and beauty and every day benefit from the love she had for her blackness, this is not my story. I would love it to be, but in order for it to be, I would have had to take the extreme bigotry that dark-skinned black women are subjected to along with it—and that’s just not possible.

You cannot love your blackness and uphold a system that values your proximity to whiteness. That is what the casting of Saldana as Simone does. This does not mean that there is no place for us; in fact, the small piece of real estate that we have in White Supremacy is incredibly powerful and useful—it’s a little piece of the structure that we can actually destroy. And we destroy it by setting aside our desire to always belong, our desire to make it about us. We destroy it by keeping our eyes open to the privilege that, while may momentarily place us above our darker brothers and sisters, forever keeps us locked below whiteness and apart from our blackness.

This is what loving your blackness looks like.

***

Lead image credit: Wikipedia

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  • Ijeoma Oluo

    Ijeoma is the Editor-At-Large of The Establishment. A Seattle-based Writer, Speaker, and Internet Yeller, her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Stranger, New York Magazine, Huffington Post, and more. She was named one of the Most Influential People in Seattle by Seattle Magazine. She's also a columnist at The Seattle Globalist.

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