Lists, Race & Politics, Theory & Essay

The Black People’s Color Spectrum To End All Color Spectrums

***A version of this entry was originally posted three years ago, but an argument I had with a friend who swears she’s not light-skinned prompted me to repost***

Despite our preoccupation with color, skin tone, and shade, our definitions of exactly what makes someone light or dark-skinned remain somewhat arbitrary, and completely confusing.

Don’t believe me?

Ask 20 black people tomorrow to name a light-skinned black celebrity, and your answers will run the gamut from Tracie Ellis Ross to Jay-Z, two people who resemble even-toed ungulates more than they do each other.

As long as our definitions remain so variable, we’ll continue to have 60 year old black men (ie: my dad) who need to be told by their wives and sons that they’re not the same complexion as Courtney B. Vance.

Today, I’ve decided to put an end to this confusion with the VSB Spectrum, an all-encompassing and omniscient ledger letting us all know exactly where we all stand, once and for all.

***Pics added for clarity***





Tragically passing



***I’ve found that hair and features determine a huge role in the perception of where a person should be placed in this part of the list. For instance, if you look at their pics side-by-side, Keyshia Cole is at least a shade lighter than Beyonce. Yet, most people probably assume the thundergoat is lighter because of her weave hair and creole
hybrid features.***



Obama 2008

***This is where the paper-bag test officially ends. This also represents the end of light-skinned points, and light-skinned guilt (where light-skinned people get so self-conscious about their lack of melanin that they try extra hard to be extra black. I call this the Micheal Eric Dyson Corollary)***

Lloyd Banks


***Although this word isn’t gender-specific in theory, a straight man usually shouldn’t be described as caramel. ***




Pauley Pavilion

***The easiest place on the list, brown-skinned bastards can live their entire life without the hyper color-consciousness plaguing the rest of the spectrum. They can date whoever they want without being labeled as colorstruck or an overcompensator, and they are typically free of the color-centric insults (high-yellow b*tch, african booty scracther, etc) thrown towards other ends of the spectrum. If it sounds like i’m hating, good. Mission accomplished.***




***This is the point where it’s officially taboo for a black person to openly profess a preference for a person with lighter skin. Also, there are more black professional athletes with this complexion than any other shade. I’m sure there’s a connection there somehow***




***A friend of mine said that while a typical light-skinned chick is better looking than a typical dark-skinned chick, a banging dark skinned chick is better looking than a banging light-skinned chick. He’s currently in prison, btw. I have no point here. I just felt like sharing***




***Its funny how the word “black” by itself has a negative connotation. For instance, my dad said that as a youngster, prefacing any insult with “black” (ie, “you black bastard” ) was grounds for an ass-whooping. According to my dad, it also snowed 5 inches everyday back then, so I’ve learned to take everything he says with a grain of salt***



So there you have it. People of VSB, get in where you fit in. Where do you fit on the spectrum?

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)

Damon Young

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB. He is also a columnist for and EBONY Magazine. And a founding editor for 1839. And he's working on a book of essays to be published by Ecco (HarperCollins). Damon is busy. He lives in Pittsburgh, and he really likes pancakes. Reach him at Or don't. Whatever.

  • Iamnotakata

    Can you have the images reinstated so I can get a better visual please? Aside from that I’m indifferent on the whole skin tone thing….I’m so tired of the color struck (i.e the southern black people)…in my opinion if your attractive it really doesn’t have anything to do with skin color. The interesting thing we just discussed the whole skin color issue I my class today.

  • LOL, this convo is always a hilarious one for me. In fact, just recently I had a sisterly argument with L Boogie about who was lighter… (I for one think she yellow. Le tee hee.)

    Against my better judgement, I went to Panama for his opinion:

    Me: So who do you think is lighter, me or L Boogie?
    Panama: I think Prince is the lightest of you three girls.
    Me: *absolutely dead*

    I think I’m caramel, btw. I’m pretty close to Eve’s color, methinks. SOME folks see me as lighter, doe. Those ninjas lookin at the inside of my palm. -_-

  • I can’t see the pictures. :-(

  • *checks watch. checks VSB. checks 2012 calendar for assuring signs of 2012iness. checks pulse. checks calendar again. checks herself before she wrecks herself. chex cereal. checks out what’s going on on the Golden Girls.

    Geriatric bishes be trippin’

  • Ah, Sir Champ, I see that someone is familiar with the works of Toni Morrison. Props to you.

  • Looks at topic… goes back under rock. Wrong day to come back.

  • paige

    Pantie Man …. I can truly sleep knowing you are on the Case …
    Says the “Brown Skinned Chick”

  • rhenewal

    Hmmm. I am unable to view any of these pics.

  • Liz

    smh. what in the sam hill is going on with the photos?

  • Miss A

    Funny, I was having a similar skin tone convo with my sister earlier. It seems like non-blacks would categorize us simply as dark-skinned or fair-skinned. And if you aren’t very obviously one, then you must be the other. But we got all these in between tones because no one wants to be classified simply as dark-skinned. So they will say “I’m dark brown” or “I’m hot chocolate with a slight hint of skim milk.” wth does that mean anyway?? Or those ppl who insist that they are light skin when they aren’t.

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