I don't like to make predictions. There's a degree of hubris involved in any effort at prognostication; the future is an unknowable thing, mysterious and hazy and prone to rapid shifts, evident in the way the last half-decade utterly upended the conventional view of where America and the world were heading. But it's not just a new year; it's an entirely new decade, which is a cause for reflection not on the past, but on the future. What kind of world do we want to build?
And the fact is that there's a lot that needs doing. We're entering the twenties faced with massive problems confronting feminism and the human project, problems that we need to keep squarely in focus as feminist issues. It can be easy to think of the work of feminism centering on legal equality, workplace equality, the ERA, and electing a woman president. Most of my own writing on the subject has focused on that top-level view, prioritizing the practical realities women face in the business world. But that's just one facet of a much larger world that feminism, with its insistence on equality and justice for women, must confront in the coming years. Poverty issues are feminist issues exactly as much as bodily autonomy and equal pay.
Take climate change. At the heart of it, women are the ones who will be most adversely affected by climate change in ways that may surprise you if you haven't stopped to consider it. Here in the US, we can be reasonably confident that we have the resources to shield ourselves from our changing planet's most debilitating impacts, but women live outside this country, too. Women are most likely to live in poverty with dependents, and the crumbling of traditional productive economies as the seas rise, the fish die, and food grows more expensive are only going to exacerbate that problem. Dwindling resources will increase the caregiving burden women across the world are subject to and destroy many opportunities to get out of poverty. Over the last twenty-five years, global poverty has declined to the lowest it's ever been, and that reduction is the key factor in the global advancement of women: increased resources means increased opportunities for women. But what happens when that goes away?
Like women's reproductive rights, it's the sort of decision that gets made by the people who are going to be the least affected; human history, to borrow a phrase, is "a rich man's war but a poor man's fight." As the powerful work to shield themselves from consequences, the hammer has only one place to fall.
Poverty is also a key factor in the fight for reproductive rights. There are consequences to the loss of bodily autonomy that rarely get discussed in our grand public debates that mirror those of climate change: reducing the opportunities for women and girls to advance economically and socially, tying us to our uteruses in perpetuity and leading to more women staying in the home. That has the further knock-on effect of forcing dependence on a breadwinner, which can mean that a woman is unable to leave an abusive situation. And as the present administration has been remaking the American judiciary in the image of Mike Pence, a man who calls his wife "mother" and wants abortion outlawed, the threat of regression is very real, especially considering the growing movement of radicalized white women eager to embrace the destruction of hard-won rights, idealizing domesticity and submission to their husbands.
And it's something I suspect we'll see more of as economic forces make it harder for women in the service economy of the West to make a living. The gig economy that was supposed to put control over labor in the hands of individual workers has been revealed as little more than another engine of exploitation, and one that keeps its workers dangling from a hook. The gig economy has been promoted as something women especially should embrace, but it hasn't panned out; women are left uninsured, uncertain, more and more likely to be shunted into "women's work" by individual contracts, and less able to negotiate their own wages.
Uber drivers, famously, are barely scraping by, and the rise of contract labor has hollowed out decades of gains in labor rights. As big companies increasingly rely on contract labor, women especially are in the weakest position to secure the stability they need, especially considering that women are more likely to both work outside of the home and serve as their household's primary caregiver.
Over and over, we see a massive intersection between poverty and the subjugation of women. If we fail to keep that in mind over the next decade, the end result – woman president or not – will be millions and millions of women left behind.
Poverty isn't a problem with an easy answer, and its complicated effects touch every aspect of human life. But action is desperately needed, and that has to start with us. Now is the time to put our focus squarely on this, the number one issue affecting women across the globe, while we still have time. That extends beyond government action, although your votes are still sorely needed, and it extends beyond our discourse. All of us involved, however tangentially, in the goal of the advancement of women need to make poverty a priority in our activism, in our advocacy, and in our lives.
"You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl." That was the comment that defined my early life, to which I would typically reply, "Thank you."
I continued to offer up the reply of "Thank you," quite generously, until my mid-twenties.
Growing up, every image depicted around me gave the message that most dark girls were ugly. So, when people would say, "You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl," I took it as a compliment. Why? Because I felt that most people didn't expect to find beauty in dark-skinned black girls, so when they claimed to find beauty in me, I actually felt flattered.
All was well in my little bubble. "I was a prize," I thought, despite being born with dark skin. After all the derogatory comments I heard about my complexion throughout childhood, it felt like a step up from being told by my darker-skinned grandfather that I was "nothing but a black bitch." So, I thought, I'll take it.
One day, for what seemed like the umpteenth time, someone granted me the usual back-handed compliment, telling me I was pretty despite being dark-skinned girl, only this time my mom was there to witness it. As I smiled and said, "Thank you," my mother became incensed. "Don't you disrespect my child. If you can't simply tell her she is pretty, don't say anything at all."
Boy was she furious. Though, at the time, I didn't understand why. My mother immediately questioned my decision to say thank you to such a comment. When I explained that I saw it as a compliment, she instantly and quite bluntly corrected me. "No!" She asserted. "That's like saying you're pretty for a monkey, or, that despite your blackness, you're pretty. Do you understand me?" Her corrections landed on me with a hard thud and then continued to sink in like a dull stomachache. My response was a sheepish "I guess so."
At the time I thought she simply didn't understand because she had been born with the privilege of light skin and never had to face these types of problems. For as long as I could remember since I was a young girl, everyone has always told my mother how pretty she is. My grandparents' only light-skinned child, she was the golden girl in her community.
As time progressed, I built up complexes that I was unaware of on a conscious level. I would never color my hair blonde, for fear that I was too dark and would be laughed at for lightening my hair. I was also convinced that I was too dark to rock some red lipstick and red nails. I had created so many beauty blockers for myself.
"Dark-skinned girls can't wear this." Or, "Dark-skinned girls can't have that."
Back in my time, we had phone chatrooms that most Generation-X kids will probably remember. You would dial in and speak to people all over the world. You couldn't see each other, so it was just a bunch of voices on the other end of the line, with people flirting and repping where they were from. I remember when I would describe myself, and I would tell people, "I'm really dark."
My close friend at the time heard me and questioned why that was one of the first things I defined myself by. "Well, I'm a lot darker than a paper bag, so I must be really dark," I replied. A few months later I was with this same friend and we met a boy through some mutual connections. We were all hanging out, and he really vibed with me. At the end of the evening, he said to me, "I really like you. I think you're gorgeous, but I can't date you. I prefer light skin." To add insult to injury, he went on… "I'm going to holla at your homegirl, not because I think she's prettier or nicer, but because she has light skin."
At this point in my story, you may have already done a dozen or so eye rolls, facepalms, and winces on my behalf, marveling at the absurdity and cruelty of it all. If it helps, I've come a long way since then, and I've grown to truly love myself. But I digress…
Flashing forward to my first job after earning my Bachelor's degree, I was working in the field of social services which I felt good about because, although my workload was intense, I was doing my part to help my community. I was working on cases to determine people's benefits. One day an older gentleman in his mid-seventies came in to see me. He laughed with me and was very charming. And then… he said it! It was that phrase that had followed me throughout my life. "You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl." My boss happened to walk into my workspace and overheard the gentleman (who was much darker than me), say those insidious words. And just like my mom, my boss lost it.
"Shame on you," my boss said. "You should know better than that. You're too old to be saying ignorant things like that. Just tell her she's beautiful because she is." The older gentleman apologized to me and told me he meant no harm. He then explained to me that in his time, it was rare to see that kind of beauty paired with dark skin. That experience was my first inkling that all the people who had ever told me I was pretty for a dark-skinned girl were not consciously trying to hurt or insult me.
They were, themselves, victims of colorism.
Suddenly, I understood why my mother had been so upset and hurt when she heard her baby girl being subjected to colorism in front of her.
Before I could continue to gather my own thoughts, my boss (who really looked out for his team) called me into his office to apologize to me for having to go through that kind of backward thinking and the subsequent comments. He explained to me that this ignorance was deeply rooted in the minds of ignorant people. It was an aha moment — a real turning point in my life. That's when I began my journey of self-love. I learned to love everything about my beautiful brown skin and love my complexion unapologetically. Since then, I have pushed every limit and tore down those beauty boundaries I had saddled myself within my twenties.
Although my signature look remains cropped black hair, I now boldly experiment with every hair color including platinum blonde, and yes, I have fun with red lips and red nails. And guess what? It looks good on me. I love a blonde wig and a red lip, and I define my beauty parameters now, not society. It wasn't easy to transcend, but these days, I do not accept the backhanded compliments and micro-aggressions born out of other people's ignorance and colorism.
Fast forward to the present day, my husband, whom I love and adore, was himself a victim of colorism and admittedly didn't date dark-skinned women in his younger years. I'm glad his values and sensibilities changed before we met. If a man ever loved a woman, my husband loves me from the crown of my head to the sole of my feet. My husband is one of my biggest influencers when it comes to my current style and beauty image, and he's been a champion of me expressing my style and beauty as I wish.
My husband and I are intent on flipping the script of that old colorist narrative with our own children. We call our three-year-old son our little chocolate drop. We let him know he is perfect in his beautiful medium brown-toned skin, and I wouldn't change him for the world.
I am now pregnant with our second child, and should I have a girl, I am ready to support her in any way needed to face this world and all its societal complexities. Whether she is dark, light or in between, I will convey to her that she is perfect just as she is.
I love that I've come into my worth as a woman of color, and some of the adversity I faced early on drove me to succeed as an entrepreneur and philanthropist. These experiences fueled my passion for uplifting all women, inclusive of all ethnicities, cultures and, yes, skin tones. I went on to co-own one of New York City's most celebrated recording studios and music production companies, Brook Brovaz. I run Cloe's Corner, a storefront co-working community in Brooklyn, New York, and I chair a thriving non-profit organization, Women With Voices, providing community support, practical resources and education for women from all walks of life. My online platform, including a soon-to-be-launched mobile app called WUW (We Uplift Women) will provide these services to women digitally. The best part is, I am just getting started
I am Cloé Luv, and I am unapologetically a dark-skinned black woman.