Lighty: What’s in a Word?

By Bilal Khan

“Who’s that lighty?”

“You’re such a bait lighty”

“She’s one of those lighties

Lighty. The girl Grime artists had you believing you needed. The girl the UK urban scene both idolises and has its reservations about. Lighty. The girl whose shade of skin MUST mean there are certain characteristics about her that separate her from all others. But what does this word actually mean in the UK? Why do some people think this word is a compliment? What is this “lightskinned behaviour” Twitstagram will have you believing exists?

Growing up the word lighty was, and at times still is, a word I find myself casually using – a word often thrown out there by guys in desperate – we’ve all seen Kidulthood/teenage and sadly sometimes my aged men – attempts to draw girls. That there are stereotypical things that lighties do. That they’re somewhat better. That they don’t know how to cook?! All of which, like any stereotype, are simply just not true in all cases. But recently I’ve found myself questioning my own use of the word. That perhaps this word is not as complimentary as people think.

I thought I’d get the opinion from a few girls who’ve grown up with the word attributed to them on what it even means and it’s their thoughts that I hope will guide our own understanding. Here’s what I heard:

“I’ve never, ever referred to myself as a lighty. I find it really cringe to be honest and whenever I’ve been called a lighty it’s just made me squirm a little bit.”

“It has always irritated me, but I have always wanted to be darker skinned so I have just never seen it is a compliment. It was only when I started speaking to my grandma about it I realized how weird it was, to just shout ‘oi lighty’ at someone on the road, because you would NEVER say to a darker skinned girl ‘hey darky’.”

Interesting. So being a Lighty is considered (by some) as a compliment – to refer to someone’s shade of skin as lighter is seen as complimentary so the inverse must also be true? That to be dark is a negative. I am struck by the fact that this word is in no way complimentary at all. That to be a lighty is by definition, a word that comes with all sorts of negative connotations:

“It’s not offensive to me but I don’t like the ‘type of girl’ it suggests. I don’t refer to myself as a lighty… an egotistic, self-centered, ostentatious stereotype. I think that type of woman definitely exists, but to refer to that type of person by a complexion is unfair. We don’t choose our shade.”

“It’s paired with colonized ideas of race and I think most people use it as a means of claiming or giving superiority to lighter skinned “black” people. I just think it should be rid of entirely”

On the one hand we have the idea that to be a lighty is to be full of oneself and perhaps in the UK we have appropriated much of this from colonial ideas of race and the lighter complexions as being ‘better’. (Nonsense by the way, if for some uneducated reason you really do believe that). Yet by throwing this word around, we continue to allow stereotypical notions of shadism to cloud our judgement and therefore we assume that because of a girl’s complexion, she must act a certain way. Now I don’t claim any moral high ground here, I’m just making a statement. I’ll be the first person to put my hand up and admit to using the word and I’m sure you might be sitting there thinking about the times you’ve heard it out of your own mouth or those around you and maybe, just maybe, you’re questioning it that little bit more. If you weren’t you should be now.

Yet on the flipside, we have these ideas of lighter skinned girls exhibiting certain negative behavioural characteristics but still in Britain will persist with the idea that these same lighties are also somewhat more favourable:

“In regards to me not reacting how people want me to (not finding someone funny or attractive when they’re trying to flirt etc.) or in a really reductionist way – ‘yeah well you’re a lighty you don’t have to worry’ / ‘she’s a lighty so all the boys will want her’.”

“He’s only drawing you because you’re mixed race”

So having this complexion means you are more favourable to a certain type of man and that in a way it means you don’t have to worry? These are questions the communities we find ourselves in need to address, though arguably it could take years to re-address the imbalance in our understandings of race given how deeply embedded in society these shadist ideals are since the Transatlantic Slave Trade. But I question – why? Why must it take so long to simply question what we mean when we use this word?

The idea that a girl acts a certain way as a result of her complexion is to me, simply a bit of a stretch of the imagination. Maybe there’s more of a symbiotic relationship you may argue? Well then, if this is the case in the smallest of circumstances, who is the onus on to change that? The person who perpetuates a label or the one who begins to embody that as a self-fulfilling prophecy? To label someone’s behaviour because of their shade, or whatever else, is simply to ignore that apart from their skin tone they have a personality, they have feelings, they have thoughts and they too, like you, may have other reasons for their behaviour:

“I’m aware this sounds like I’m being touchy or petty but it’s like, no. don’t just assume things about my character or my experience because of what, the shade of my skin? Come on man!”

“I’ve often been told I think I’m too nice because I’m a ‘lighty’, because I’m an introvert, and people misconstrue this aspect of my personality as regarding myself way too highly.”

That perhaps there are other reasons for a girl’s behaviour other than her skin complexion doesn’t seem like much of a huge claim from where I’m sitting. Yet, I think that much of the use of this word centres around drawing a connotation between a physical characteristic and a behavioural pattern (as do most stereotypes). But here, perhaps the difference is that we often think of ‘lighty’ as an acceptable word, as one that is a compliment (at least from those who perpetuate it) and haven’t often enough paused to evaluate what can be meant by its continued usage in urban society.

So, I’m supposed to take you on some journey right? That’s how good writing works, that I start with a beginning, have some vague middle and I offer you suggestions as to where we go from here? OK. Well sorry to disappoint you. I’m not going to do that. I’m going to allow you to come to your own conclusions, or, at the bare minimum have a conversation with someone about this. But what I will be nice enough to leave you with are some reflections. Here’s what some of the people I’ve spoken to have said:

“I think it’s one of those phrases that in a few generations time, it will be crazy to think people used to say that to each other – like how colored or something is now. I suppose it’s because generally, in black cultures we’re supposed to aspire to having the lightest possible skin and that’s what makes you attractive. So it’s offensive to me to be called that… Basically, we should have evolved past this by now!”

“Due to my experience, being a ‘lighty’ is a derogatory term, and I do not understand anyone who refers to themselves as one. As I’ve often said in reply to this term, I am not a lightbulb.”

“I dislike the word strongly now, but this only came since I started university and tried hard to change these thinking habits. And I think to put it bluntly lighty just means “I’m not the same black as you” which in itself isn’t totally bad”


One thought on “Lighty: What’s in a Word?

  1. I really don’t understand what the purpose of this article is. To make me sympathise with the privileged? There is light skinned privilege that runs rampant across the globe not only in Britain, this article suggests that a light skinned girls go through a lot which I don’t dispute but where is this article for dark skinned girls who are told they are worst than death, who are told they have AIDs/ ebola, where is this article when men are calling dark skinned girls monkeys? When dark skinned girls are bleaching their skin or even killing themselves because of the abuse they receive especially from black men where the f*** are the articles saying “they have a personality, they have feelings, they have thoughts and they too, like you, may have other reasons for their behaviour:” This is bunch of BS man always shining the spotlight on the people who don’t even need it.

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