Throwing Shadism

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader in New Orleans responds to the reader who started this whole conversation:

I feel that Allene is conflating two things I’d consider separate. One thing she describes is shadism/colorism, where Black people will judge other Black people based on their relative skin tone, hair texture, nose and lip shape. As a lighter-skinned, loose-curled, Creole Black person, I once met a Black woman who was genuinely astounded that I not only found women darker than me attractive, but that I’d be comfortable introducing a dark-skinned girlfriend to my family. And there are some dark-skinned Black people who reactively resent lighter Black people in return (as you might too, if people who were themselves brown skinned refused to date you because you were only a few shades darker). This same colorist mentality is what leads some Black people to be called “Oreos” for “acting White” (although you also see festivals like Afropunk celebrating “alternative” Black styles.)

AFRO OF THE DAY #1260 pictured: @kiki_kyanamarie #afro #natural #black #hair

A photo posted by AFROPUNK (@afropunk) on

The other thing Allene describe is activists demanding that Black people put Blackness at the forefront of their identity and a very specific interpretation of Blackness at that.

Like Allene, I think it’s empowering, especially for young Black people, to know the richness of their culture and history, but empowerment (in my opinion) comes from seeing the ways Black people were able to achieve, to innovate, and to shape America despite/because of the obstacles and restrictions placed on us. Activists who put oppression at the forefront of Black identity are, to me, only focusing on half the story, and the uninspiring half at that. Maybe Allene would be more willing to embrace a Black identity defined in terms of its positives—its empowering victories—than one that is pessimistic and defeatist.

Lastly, regarding Allene’s comment on White privilege that “poor is poor and being poor isn’t easier just because your skin is white.” “White privilege,” as I see it, is less an individual trait than a description of the environment. Like how I can turn the TV to almost any channel and see stories by/about White people, but might watch for a few hours before I find a Black person in a lead role (in front of or behind the camera). That’s just the way things are.

No doubt, being poor is hard no matter your color, but there are still some aspects of America that White people and Black people inevitably experience very differently, regardless of socioeconomic status. (That being said, poor and working-class White people feeling overlooked by liberal activists only makes them more open to demagogues like Trump.)

Do you have any personal experiences with shadism you want to share? Or thoughts about the topic in general? Please drop us a note.