8 Lessons: The blessing and the curse of light privilege

Ishma Alexander-Huet examines colourism's roots in marketing and why Black leaders need to examine their own privilege.


Once a week, Initiative’s Ishma Alexander-Huet will be offering a lesson she has learned after a year of asking questions about how to make the media and advertising industries more equitable. Read her previous lessons here.

By Ishma Alexander-Huet

This will be polarizing, but I’ve never liked my skin colour.

Before judging, let me clarify one point: I wish I was darker. Now let me tell you why.

When I was young, I lived in a predominantly white neighbourhood. I knew what it felt like to be an “other” long before I understood why I was different, but the clues soon followed. At school I was laughed at because of my afro and for being “the same colour as dog poo.” I told my dentist it hurt when he was pulling back my mouth for a cleaning and he responded that it was because my lips were too big. Experiences piled up and, by the time I was eight, the message was received. I looked different and was seen as less than.

After moving to my Black community everything changed. Our beautiful spectrum of black and brown skin tones made room for all of us, even with our vast differences. Dark, brown, red, honey-brown, light – whatever term for our shade, we share culture, roots and similar experiences. We can be strangers and yet we silently acknowledge each other whether we’re on the street or, if we’re lucky enough, in a boardroom together. We’re connected, and when we’re together I feel safe.


I was still being “lovingly” teased, this time by my family: “Get a spray tan,” “stay in the sun longer” and “don’t get lost in the snow.” I was the light sheep of the family, and though included, loved and equal, I yearned to be darker and less different. I was afraid of being seen as “less Black”. I didn’t yet understand the deep roots of the teasing.

So, when people don’t automatically realize I’m Black because I’m light, I’m disarmed. I feel my identity being stripped, vulnerable as I prepare to be exposed, and that my experiences with discrimination are
being diminished.

But in the past year, I had to admit there’s something else. I also feel guilty. It’s a signal that I’ve had light-skin privilege.

We’ve spent a lot of time addressing the first elephant in the room over the past year – systemic racism – but there’s been very little talk about its quiet collaborator, colourism. Referred to by Lupita Nyong’o as the “child of racism,” this form of discriminating against darker skin and favouring lighter skin is widely known in the Black community (and other communities of colour). It’s complex and deeply rooted, but here’s a quick summary if you’re unfamiliar.

Crash course in colourism

Colourism has roots in chattel slavery, but it was the post-slavery beauty industry and its subsequent marketing that fostered its growth and continues to perpetuate it today. The slave trade resulted in a number of mixed race children of slave “owners.” They were property with no human rights who contributed to their master’s wealth, but some were given duties in the house instead of the field and other small privileges. A class system had begun favouring those closer to the white standard of beauty.

Post-slavery, marketing and political messages fueled debate and divisive positioning of the Black community by shade.

  • Films like “Birth of a Nation” warned that we were all dangerous but in different ways. Dark-skinned people were positioned as criminals, predatory, and uncouth. A warning was sounded to steer clear of light-skinned people who were deceptively attractive and intelligent “because of their white ancestry,” but dangerous because they also held all the Black stereotypes above.
  • The beauty industry exploded with whitening creams promising increased opportunities to be seen as beautiful and intelligent by being closer to whiteness. This global industry is expected to reach $8.9 billion by 2024 according to the World Economic Forum.
  • Segregation and “One Drop” rules established barriers to opportunities based on your percentage of Black ancestry. These barriers increased in restrictiveness over the decades until “one drop” of Black ancestry legally classified you as Black, supporting a psychology that the less Black you have in you, the more worthy you are.

It was a stellar marketing job – these stereotypes are now deeply engrained.

How have I potentially benefited from light-skin privilege?

I had to be honest with myself and admit that although I despised at times being racially ambiguous, I’ve leveraged my lighter complexion in the corporate world when first meeting people. With my hair straightened, some struggled to classify me. It bought me time, if even an hour, to prove myself as intelligent, assertive and diplomatic before declaring my identity and absorbing the unconscious bias that inevitably came with it. It’s also allowed me to hear what some people really think about my community before they realize. The more senior I became, the more I pulled this tool out from my kit.

Accepting this was very difficult, but I’ve been asking everyone who isn’t Black to admit they’ve had privileges they didn’t ask for, so I had to do the same. It also made me take pause. Did I have the right to lead conversations about systemic racism when I’ve had light-skin privilege?

I spoke to friends of all shades and consulted with my family while arriving at my answer: yes, and for two reasons.

I’m Black, and I’ve faced discrimination my entire life. If my voice has been heard more than my darker brothers and sisters, then I have a responsibility to use that same voice to raise awareness and create more spaces for all of us. To not speak up is to entertain that same segregation caused by colourism in the first place. We are one people, with a spectrum of experiences.

What can we do to fight colourism?

On a personal level:

  • Develop your awareness. Once you recognize and acknowledge your own unconscious bias, you’ll be able to challenge any automatic thoughts and assumptions and help other people challenge their bias. Start with They Gotta Have Us on Netflix, read this report from the World Economic Forum and research “The Tragic Mulatto.”
  • If you have light-skin privilege, be honest with yourself and consider how you can use it for good and help to diminish it. It’s scary, and in some cases risky, but I’ve checked my reflex to “blend in” as a safety behaviour. I wear my natural hair declaratively and present my authentic self no matter the audience.

At the organizational level:

  • Minimize the opportunity for unconscious bias in hiring through awareness training. Ensure topics such as skin tone or beauty bias are included.
  • In addition to evaluating your pay equity on a racial basis, review by skin tone. Studies show a large pay gap between light and dark-skinned people (see World Economic Forum link above).
  • Audit your marketing. Every piece of content you produce sends a powerful message about what diversity really looks like and who’s included. To fight colourism, we must be very intentional about how to fill the void of dark-skinned people in the media. Can’t find a stock photo of Black dark-skinned woman looking natural in the C-suite for your next corporate brochure? Create one. We have to see it to be it.

ISH_HS_2021-7545Ishma Alexander-Huet is VP, client advice and management, head of learning and culture at Initiative.