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The Racialization and Identity Construction of Light Skinned Black Womanhood


Much of the common discourse around skin color politics in the United States of America and the African Diaspora more broadly focuses on the ways in which light skinned Black people are privileged by the patriarchal white supremacist system of racial hierarchy. This discourse often highlights the ways in which dark skinned Black people have systematically been disenfranchised by these institutional models of access that limit understandings of Black humanity. The histories of global colonization, both physical and mental, have evidently left behind remnants of internalized beliefs that linger within Black communal spaces, especially when considering the ways in which the intersection of race and gender complicate the discussion. While the prevalent scholarship on colorism highlights the dichotomy between dark and light skinned people by highlighting dark skinned people's exclusion from a privileged positionality within Blackness, this project is interested in expanding the conversation to reveal the nuanced challenges faced by those seen as most privileged within Black communities.

The Racialization & Identity Construction of Light Skinned Black Womanhood is a project that looks at the ways in which light skinned Black women understand, negotiate, embrace, and/or reject notions of their gendered, racialized identity across borders. This project is grounded in theories from African American Studies, African Diaspora Studies, Anthropology, and Women and Gender Studies. It is anthropological in methodology utilizes qualitative research tools within the ethnographic tradition to broadly engage the following questions - How have light skinned Black women in the United States of America experienced their Black womanhood within the context of Black communal spaces? How have their childhood experiences with skin color politics shaped their understanding of self? How does light skinned women's understanding of racial identity and ingroup membership change as they move across international and racial borders from the United States to South Africa? How does the South African racial project of dividing Coloured and Black people inform light skinned African American women's negotiation of South Africa? In what ways do light skinned women experience racial privileging and alienation in South Africa, and how does this differ from their experiences in the Unites States of America? Each of these questions speak to larger questions about the complex intersection of gendered colorism, privilege, and alienation.

Using both Dr. Yaba Blay's and Dr. Margaret Hunter's work to frame my understanding of light skinned women's racial experiences within the Black community, my research will combine existing theories of colorism within the African American community with Diasporic scholarship on racial identity across borders. I utilize Dr. Jemima Pierre's The Predicament of Blackness: Postcolonial Ghana and the Politics of Race to engage international racial construction through a nuanced lens. My framing of South African racial categorization is based on Omi and Winant's Racial Formation, and my historical context is based upon Burdened by Race : Coloured Identities in Southern Africa and Not White Enough, Not Black Enough: Racial Identity in the South African by Mohamed Adhikari. Using these texts as the foundation to my work, I conducted a series of person-centered interviews with one light skinned African American woman who had traveled to South Africa in order to capture her story. While I recognize that this story is not generalizable to the larger population of light skinned African American women, it does provide great insight into this phenomenon, making room for a larger range of experiences to be interpreted in future research to come. This project seeks to expand the conversation of African American skin color politics to an international level to better gage the impact skin complexion may have on racial identity across international borders.

From placing the series of interviews conducted in conversation with the scholarship I engaged, I found that the complex histories of gendered racialization have had lasting impacts on the ways in which light skinned Black women understanding their Black womanhood today. The shameful histories of the brown paper bag test, familial passing, miscegenation, and rape all tend to influence how some light skinned women understand their own place within Blackness today. I also found that international travel does in fact complicate how one's racial identity is understood and negotiated across borders.

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