The Power of Light Skinned Privilege
“I aim to do what I can with what I have. And I have my [looks] - you know, European beauty standards give me access to things .”
When I first moved to New York I stumbled into a yoga studio in my small, suburban community that happened to be Black owned. It’s a gem of a place, really. I was having a friendly chat with one of the teachers after class, and after I expressed that I’d be interested in teaching yoga at the studio, she delivered a response that I was not expecting. She encouraged me to look elsewhere for teaching positions, but not for the reasons you’d think, like being unhappy with her employment there. “Let me tell you something,” she said, “With your looks, and your body type, you can go anywhere. Don’t just settle for here.” She went on to list the names of studios in the area and shared her struggles being accepted in those spaces as a dark skinned Black woman. I listened intently as she pointed out my physical attributes that would thrive in the White Westernized World of yoga, not really knowing whether to nod in agreement or challenge her opinions. I’d never had a conversation like this, and it honestly made me uncomfortable. I’d just taken a beautiful class led by this goddess of a yogi, and here she was describing herself and her skills as less desirable to the rest of the world in comparison to mine simply because of our notable differences in skin tone.
That conversation sat with me throughout the rest of the day, and in my head I blamed this woman for her own feelings of inadequacy and self-imposed limits. Several months later, that conversation still sits with me. I’m grateful that I had the sense to bite my tongue and let her share, because the worst thing that I could have done as a light skinned Black woman in that moment was to invalidate her experiences. Furthermore, I’ve realized that she was right. As a Black woman in America I’ve had my roadblocks and opportunities not afforded to me, but I’ve also had certain privileges available to me because I fit European beauty standards. I was aware from a young age that passing the paper bag test offered a “good outlook” for my future, so this conversation was certainly not my first introduction to light skinned privilege. It was, however, my first time realizing that my vanilla-caramel skin tone would contribute to my professional success and image within the wellness industry.
“It’s all based on Eurocentric beauty ideals: For example; Straight, blonde hair, blue eyes, aquiline nose, thin limbs, lighter skin…for many this is just considered ‘beauty.’ Why? Because Eurocentric aesthetics are seen as the standard, and therefore are more palatable and desirable by the world as a whole.”
As challenging as it can be to recognize and admit privilege, what’s more difficult is people of color going to standard spaces for wellness, in an attempt to heal themselves, where the healers end up being culturally incompetent. The current wellness industry loves to offer a “one-diet/workout/cure fits-all-approach” to wellness. But in reality, the experience in achieving one’s best health is totally individualized and should be approached as such. A guided meditation to help a White woman experiencing anxiety about her career outlook should not be expected to also heal the emotional wounds of a Black woman who has spent her lifetime hating her natural curves. With the current lack of culturally competent practitioners in the wellness industry, disparities in healing have been created that cannot be repaired without the inclusion of more ethnic minority practitioners.
Colorism (or shadeism): a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color
In looking on the “bright” side of this unfortunate issue of colorism, I realized that I have a unique ability to navigate between both worlds. That is, to be universally accepted as a face capable of coaching people of all ethnic backgrounds into blissful states of health, and while doing so, bring attention and equality to wellness for people of color. As my physiological features come with privilege, they also come with the responsibility to use the advantages and opportunities I am afforded to uplift and assist others. Despite the allure to replicate the strategies that have made many health and fitness bloggers popular, I’ve chosen to set the tone of this wellness brand as one that recognizes and repairs trauma that women of color have felt while seeking a seat at the wellness roundtable.
“Acting like [colorism] doesn’t exist doesn't’ heal…America, as a family, this is our taboo issue that brings up so much. It triggers a lot of black girl pain. It triggers a lot of secrets. It triggers a lot of bias. It triggers a lot of emotional things…But this is the road to healing, right. This is the only way we’re going to feel whole: is we talk about where we’re fractured.”
-Michaela Angela Davis
In recognizing my own privilege as a light skinned Black woman, I’ve decided to create this space where anyone, especially women of color can come to find wellness resources that are shared especially with them in mind. If reading this post is your first introduction to colorism within the wellness industry, drop a comment below on your thoughts. If you’ve personally experienced disparities in wellness due to your skin tone, drop a comment or send a private email and share your story. Share this post with your friends of all ethnic backgrounds and let’s start a much needed conversation about redefining wellness to be inclusive for all!