As Beyoncé predicted, her formation is definitely causing a lot of conversation. Conversations among black people about gender, race, police brutality, BLM, class, heritage, sexism, capitalism, racism, colorism—just so many damn conversations that definitely need to be had. So lets talk, let us talk about black people and our many isms, especially the internalized ones. The ism I am particularly interested in addressing today is colorism and how it features in the creole identity.
Now even thoughBeyoncé’s Creole pride inspired this blog post on colorism, I would like to preface the rest of this post by letting ya’ll know that I realize colorism is not a uniquely Louisiana Creole invention. I am not blaming folks that identify as Creole for colorism. I know that Colorism exists in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and amongst non-white people just about everywhere on planet earth. Everywhere white people have wielded power and exerted influence, they have legitimized their right to be in control by convincing and even forcing others to believe in their superiority as a race.
Colorism like the very concept of ‘race’ is not a black creation. People with dark skin did not create racial categories to separate themselves from other people with paler skin. The division of human beings into racial categories is rooted in white supremacist ideas that that were devised, developed and disseminated by Europeans. So when we talk about race, we are really measuring the visible and imagined features of white European people versus those of everyone else. Colorism is undisputedly an extension of this very idea, the idea that on a graduated scale from superior whiteness to inferior blackness, black skin and the features of dark skinned people are undesirable whereas whiter skin and features are preferable. Based on this idea, people with more white European features- hair texture, hair color, eye color, skin tone, width of nose etc. are considered more attractive and indeed, superior to those with more stereotypically black African features.
Black people are a people with so many diverse cultures and geographical homes and because of our experiences as oppressed and racialized people— all our histories carry their own baggage. The history of Creole people in the U.S. is no exception.
So when Beyoncé uses formation as a vehicle to express pride in her Creole lineage as she has done before, or when she embraces the ‘yellow bone’ label as she has also done in the past, the very identity markers that she sings about with pride will undoubtedly make people that have been excluded, marginalized and oppressed by those same identity markers uncomfortable.
“Creoleness” is an ancestry that is rich, complex, diverse but undeniably problematic as articulated oh so poignantly by people like Dr. Yaba Blay. And if we are really dealing with our shit as black people, then we have to admit that the fact that Creole folks can claim a black identity when it swerves them and embrace their blackness when being Creole is not relevant makes many black folks uncomfortable. The fact that some Creole folks can and often passed for white in order to excel, an option that remains closed to many dark skinned black people continues to fester grudge, distrust and resentment.
Passing, Race and Colorism
I need us as black people to collectively confront colorism—and by us, I mean all black people from the Bayou’s of Louisiana, through Atlanta-USA, Kingston-Jamaica, Lagos-Nigeria to Harare-Zimbabwe. All of us need to stand up and remain standing till we address colorism. If you cannot see how colorism is obviously a product of white supremacist logic then we gats wake you up from your silly slumber. If you are ‘creole,’lightskinned, yellow, red bone, yellow bone, mulatto and all the other racial and cultural categories that have been created to reflect how appealing it is that you have trace amounts of something-other-than-blackness in you.
As I was researching perspectives on colorism and creole culture I came across this post where the writer expressed her frustrations with feeling as if she is expected to be ashamed of her Creole ancestry because of the troubling history of colorism in Creole identity. In the article, she pushes back on these expectations and demands respect for creole culture and people as she asks her readers not to categorize all ‘creoles’ as “careless, colorist, racist people who exist for no reason other than to find a way to not be black.”
Her sentiment is common amongst many people of mixed race backgrounds. I have heard people ask questions along the lines of “but I am German and French on my father’s side, why can’t I be proud of that history and that heritage? why do I have to pick and choose? Why can’t I talk about how proud I am of my entrepreneurial great uncle Donaldo Da Silva who happens to be white? Why am I only ‘allowed’ to be proud of my black side?” Similarly, I have heard light-skinned women of African ancestry complain about how hard it is to be a light skinned woman and how much hate light-skinned and mixed race women get from mostly other black women with darker complexions.
The truth is that I am not asking that you be ashamed of your heritage, your natural ability to pass for white or the fact that your closer-to-white-than-black features has people fetishizing you. You cannot help what you are born as, or born into. I realize that how black people self-identify is constantly policed in a way that it wouldn’t be if it were a white person and I am not trynna be the identity police. Having said that, I think we should always be careful to make sure we know exactly what we are celebrating.
In the case of the creole identity we would do good to move away from the tired and superficial ‘food, dance, dress and beautiful women’ model of multiculturalism where we focus on Mardi Gras, Jambalaya and jazz. We must interrogate this identity and in doing so, it is not necessary to discount or ignore the various contributions of ‘creole’ people to arts, entertainment, science etc. We can appreciate the beauty of this identity while also acknowledging that colorism and by extension racism, is an inherent part of the very category of ‘creole’.
And yes I said inherent, as in ‘creoleness does not exist without racism.’ I know that people who identify as Creoles come in all hues and I have heard the argument that being creole is about ‘culture’, language, music, food etc. and NOT about color. Except that I don’t buy it and you shouldn’t either. The fact that there are dark skinned people who self-identify as creole does not erase the strong anti-black sentiments that permeate the entire Creole identity. As with many instances of racial self-identification, the spaces you are allowed to freely walk in and out of and the resources you are permitted to access are determined more by what others have labeled you as than how you really do see yourself. This is why many of those dark and creole people that are constantly referenced in these conversations can relate a story or two about the shame they were made to feel for looking black or the relationships that they were forbidden to have because of how relatively dark they were.
If you are interested in the fight against all forms of oppression, you must be vigilant about labels, boundaries and borders, especially those that created to ensure that certain people enjoy some benefits that other people are simultaneously denied or at the very expense of others. You see, Creole like the Mulatto, half-caste and other ‘mixed race’ identities is an an identity that was created to separate and oppress along both class and racial lines. It is precisely the kind of oppression that black feminist socialists like me are fighting to obliterate.
There’s no doubt that mulatto, creole and many other ‘not-all-black’ and ‘a-bit-closer-to-white’ identities come with their own set of cultures, values, norms and cultural heritage. They do, and in fact they must in order to maintain the boundaries they have drawn to mark themselves as a distinct, sophisticated and respectable group of people— as compared to the brute blacks.
I have learned that creoles as a people were also marginalized by white society, I know that creole culture was largely developed on the margins because creoles as non-white peoples also struggled to have their language, cultural heritage and racial category respected. But we know that not all suffering is oppression. Knowing that the suffering that was and that is endured by Creoles is in service of white supremacy and the continued oppression of blacks solidifies the claim that while Creoles might have suffered, as a relatively privileged class, their suffering does not necessarily constitute oppression.