How colorism impacts the response to dark-skinned Black women victims of violence
May 1, 2018
By Nailah A. Roberts*, AFROPUNK Contributor
When living in your own skin can be akin to walking with a neon target on your back, deciding to go out in public always feels like an exercise in arming and weathering.
On April 22, 25-year-old Chikesia Clemons entered a Saraland, AL Waffle House with her daughter and friend Canita Adams. When Clemmons was told the flatware she requested would cost extra, she protested. Her daughter and friend along with all of the other patrons witnessed as a single armed white police officer turn into three who snatched Clemmons from a chair onto the floor and proceeded to rip her dress, exposing her breasts and pinning her with their arms and legs to the cold – presumably dirty – establishment floor. In the video taken by Adams you can hear them both crying and pleading that the officers are “breaking her arm”.
In the aftermath, pictures of Clemons from social media have replaced blurry stills from her harrowing experience. She is beautiful and is dark skinned. In certain publications the stills and her bright “smize” are placed side-by-side, unconsciously illuminating how fast a normal day out can turn into life or death for some of us. The image burned into my mind is of two of the three officers standing over Clemmons, arms held behind her back by the third, and her dress pulled down to her navel.
All too similarly in 2015, ex-officer Eric Casebolt resigned after being caught on video picking up 14-year-old Dajerria Becton and slamming her on the ground outside of a McKinney, TX community pool. The image of his white fully clothed and armed body on top of her dark skinned bikini-clad child’s body is etched into my mind.
Unfortunately, these are not limited to our experiences with the police state, but in intimate and platonic relationships as well.
I can’t help but notice parallels in my own life as a dark skinned Black woman. One month ago, during a night out with friends a few of us split off to try another bar. Twenty minutes into our adventure the tone shifted; I had been talking with one new male acquaintance most of the night when the way his hands gripped my wrist tightened, the flirtatious banter we had showed signs of escalation and he threatened to leave. I said “Yea right!” and he did. I’ve played that game so many times as the witching hour – that too late at night, but not yet early morning – part of the night approaches. As I turned the corner outside the bar there he was, arms crossed and smiling. We laughed and I reached out to lightly smack him on the cheek. In my head, I’d already rehearsed “I knew you weren’t going to leave; let’s go get everyone”, but before I could start my knees buckled from the pain of his hands around my throat. Instinctively, I hit back until he let go and I ran. As he followed me I turned around to hit him and once more his hands around my throat stunned me, this time pressing my head to the brick-laid ground. It hurt more because he looked like me, a Black man who hours prior was laughing and joking. My tears stung and I kept my head down as I passed scores of bar-goers who did nothing.
It is difficult to deny that physically or otherwise harming dark skinned Black women has been an excusable offense at best or a rite of passage at worst. If we are truly interested in disrupting anti-black violence, we must confront the ways each kaleidoscopic combination of the identities around and inside of our blackness alter how we move through the world.
In an essay on Paule Marshall’s Caribbean classic Brown Girls, Brownstones, Gavin Jones coins the term “triple invisibility”. The main character’s identity exists at the intersection of blackness, womanhood, and Caribbean-ness because of that her suffering is shrouded from the public consciousness and compassion. That invisibility is parallel to those carrying dark skin, blackness, and woman-/girlhood as they are victimized and humiliated even in the school system.
Several celebrities have been forced to atone for their misogynoir and colorism of late. A tweet from comedian, Kevin Hart in 2010 said that dark skinned Black women can “take a punch” better than light skinned women. British TV personality Maya Jama faced similar backlash after colorist and anti-black tweets from 2012 resurfaced. In both incidences much of the response was that they were young and/or had grown, but we must ask ourselves why so many people are permitted to receive their education from the humiliation of dark skinned women.
The sexist and Eurocentric beauty standards that constrain lighter women also protect them. Often, the responses to their victimhood are that of sympathy or the public galvanized to “do something about the violence.” Last month, former Minneapolis, MN officer Mohamed Noor who fatally shot Justine Damond, a white woman, was charged with third degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
Since that experience last month, I’ve stopped wearing heels and dresses unless necessary. When I enter the world I must be ready to defend myself against the whims of men and the state. Clemons’ violent ordeal happened on the same day that a domestic terrorist murdered four people of color in a Waffle House in Nashville, TN. In response protests have erupted all over the country. I find myself wondering how many of these are lifting the name of the woman who looks so much like me who must live with the trauma.
* Nailah is an Afro Caribbean-American budding essayist and poet based in Iowa City, IA. Her essays intertwine personal narrative with social criticism to expose the ways that oppression manifests differently at each level of society. In addition to writing she enjoys learning about photography, collecting plants, and thrifting.