The word “privilege” is so often used as a catch-all to describe preferential racial treatment that it loses its meaning. When something is used to describe everything, it tends not to describe anything. That said, although darker-skinned Black males don’t possess the type of privilege most commonly associated with certain social, political, and economic advantages given to Whites (White privilege) and men in general (male privilege), there is a definitive intra-racial privilege. As difficult as it might be to imagine or accept, it does exist.
It’s one of the dozens — hundreds, even — of peculiar ways our, um, “unique” racial history in this country has impacted us. And, while it might not provide any conspicuously tangible benefits, when listening to other Black people share stories about their experiences, I have no doubt my complexion allowed for a less hazardous intra-racial navigation. I have no stories about the time some woman I was interested in said she “usually doesn’t date dark-brown skinned men” but made an exception for me. No instances of other Black people assuming I was soft or couldn’t fight or couldn’t fuck just because of my complexion. No examples of people wondering if my strong opinions about race and culture are a result of some racial identity-based overcompensation. No entering a room and having other Black people see my shade and assume I was shady. And, I have to reach back over 20 years for an example of a Black person making a negative complexion-based comment about me.
I’ve been complicit in this as well, using the shield it provides to take advantage of it when it suits me. I often joke in jest about light-skinned Black people because I know I can joke in jest about light-skinned Black people and not receive any real pushback. It’s an act that adheres to one of the first rules of comedy. You can joke about people, but you have much more leeway joking “up” — joking about people assumed to have more privilege and/or social capital than you — than joking “down.” The presumption here being that since lighter-skinned Black people are generally thought to be the most privileged Blacks, it’s more okay to say insensitive things about them than it is for them to return the favor. But — and this is where it gets tricky — within the Black community, brown to dark brown-skinned Black men are perhaps the single most privileged subset of Black people. So while I’m able to get away with saying certain things because I — and other darker-skinned Black men who do the same — am perceived to be joking up, I’m actually joking down; making fun of people who possess less intra-racial privileges than I do. I am, effectively, having my cake and eating it too. (And yes, the cake is chocolate.)
At its worse, this ambiguous but amorphous level of privilege creates a dynamic where (some) darker-skinned Black men feel comfortable openly shading darker-skinned Black women, an act that ultimately shows how tenuous this idea of intra-racial privilege is. It’s a cognitive dissonance that allows these men to recognize that their dark skin gives them a status that dark skinned women don’t often possess. But, by considering lighter skinned women the optimal reproductive partner, they’re subconsciously admitting they would prefer not to create children who look like them. Which, well, fuck America.
I realize this is all anecdotal. My experience as a darker-skinned Black man isn’t every darker-skinned Black man’s, and there are men — perhaps even some reading this — whose relationship with their complexion has been less positive. But, while we often act as if these experiences are the rule, they’re the exception, regardless of how loathe we are to admit it. It’s why any Dark Boys documentary would likely be about how darker-skinned men treat other Black people instead of how other Black people treat us. And it’s why any pre-teen Black male could have the perfect comeback to someone teasing him about his color.
“Yeah, well…just wait till we’re 20.“