Who's dat lighty: deconstructing the word 'lighty'


For British millennials ‘lighty’ is a familiar term used in popular culture and everyday conversation but what does the word really mean and is it an offensive term?

As a young mixed-race woman who has grown up in London I discovered that I was classified as a ‘lighty’ in my early teenage years. Up until this point it was not a term that I was familiar with or had ever had applied to me.

It was probably one of the secondary school boys, whose manner of approaching me (a girl they were attracted to) would generally involve shouting something like “Yo, lighty!” across the street, that first introduced me to the term and made me realise that I was identified by others as being a ‘lighty.’

It was normally groups of school boys who could be heard bandying around the term in reference to girls: ‘yeah the lighty’; ‘you know that lighty from…’; ‘did you see that sexy lighty?’

So what exactly does ‘lighty’ mean and who makes up the group referred to as ‘lighties’?

Urban dictionary provides a couple of definitions:

Then there is the plural:

And last but certainly not least:

There is no official definition for this slang term but I do recall there being debates on who ‘qualifies’ as being a ‘lighty’ and whether or not it was the same thing a ‘light-skinned,’ some will say the two terms essentially amount to the same thing and that whether you are mixed-race (black and white mixed) or a fairer-skinned black person you are considered a ‘lighty’; others insist that the term is reserved for mixed-race people and that being light-skinned (black) is different. As with any racial term it is impossible to pinpoint a definition because such terms are contrived and try to reduce to a simple category or word something which is so complex and diverse. Even ‘black’ – who is ‘black’ and what does being ‘black’ mean – is a matter of constant, ongoing discussion and debate despite such common, everyday use over such a long period of time.

The definitions above and examples of the words used in context are very revealing when it comes to really getting to grips with the loaded meaning behind these words and the ways in which they are used.

On the one hand, ‘lighty’ is a purely descriptive term; along with labels like ‘brownin’ (which I also learned through remarks made by guys who were trying to get my attention, this time Jamaican men), quite literally referring to the lightness of colour in the skin of mixed-race people. However, we must then question why that fairness of skin is being highlighted or used as a distinguishing feature? No one says ‘curly hair,’ for example, to refer to me or other mixed-race people.

By a similar token, you do not have people referring to white people as ‘whities’ or ‘paly’ and although black people used to be called ‘darky’ or ‘darkies’ those terms are now recognised as racist slurs. The horrible term ‘blick’ does spring to mind here though, which along with ‘lighty’ circulated whilst I was going through school to refer to dark-skinned black people. Unlike, ‘lighty’ there was no doubt that ‘blick’ was a term intended to cause offence and this is essential to understanding the deeper connotations behind ‘lighty’.

But then there are the undertones of flattery, such as when a guy tells you that they ‘love light skin girls,’ as if to make you feel privileged to be part of this supposedly more beautiful ethnic group and honoured to therefore have caught their eye. (By the way, this it is literally the biggest turn-off and translates in my mind as: You like me (and do not like certain other women) purely because of the shade of my/their skin? Not because of anything else?)

Inevitably we must now turn this analysis towards colourism.

‘Colourism refers to discrimination based on skin colour. Colourism disadvantages dark-skinned people, while privileging those with lighter skin.’ It is not uncommon to hear men talk about their preference for lighter-skinned black women, who they believe to be more attractive than women with other skin tones: ‘I love lighties,’ ‘I only date lighties.’ These men (although it is not just men to blame) aggrandise light-skinned women and as such reinforce centuries old racist beauty ideals which have their roots in slavery and colonialism whereby the fairer a person’s skin, the more beautiful they are deemed to be. Of course, the harm caused by propagating such ideas is massive; from self-hate and skin-bleaching to having words like ‘blick’ being used, idealising mixed-race and light-skinned black women is destructive.

Should people take offence to being called ‘lighty’?

Looking back to the third Urban Dictionary definition of ‘lighties’ we find a conflict in whether this term is meant to be complimentary or insulting, indeed it seems it is both: 'A boy/girl who thinks they're prestige. They also tend to reply in their own time and they get gassed quite easily. They are normally light skinned but you can get 'lighties' who aren't light skin. Oh, and they're normally good looking too (or think they are).'

This definition suggests that to be a ‘lighty’ is to occupy a certain mindset and behave in a certain way (with an air of superiority and entitlement), perhaps even more so than it is to do with skin colour. If you look across the internet on social media there are tonnes of memes which support this idea that 'lighties' are people who are not only light-skinned but who, based on their skin tone, believe that they are highly attractive and generally act as if they are more attention-worthy than others.

This sounds a lot like racial stereotyping…

It is. One of my biggest problems with the term, when used directly in reference to myself, is not only that I am shoved into a category against my will but that it is not a desirable one given the negative stereotypes attributed to ‘lighties’ (they’re stoosh, think they’re too nice, looks-obsessed, only like other lighties etc.) I do not tick the boxes of the criteria supposedly required to be ‘awarded’ the title and even at school some of my friends (i.e people who knew me beyond the colour of my skin) let me know that they did not see me as being a ‘lighty’ despite my complexion or the fact that boys trying to make advances would sometimes call me one.

Being judged to be a high maintenance woman, a woman who thinks that I have my choice of guys because I am attractive and similar kinds of relatively superficial stereotypes which are openly expressed to me on a fairly regular basis sometimes bother me, probably because I couldn’t be further from that type of person and also because it makes me wonder if that is what the majority of men, or people generally, have as their initial thoughts when they encounter me? However, I have been taken aback at times by stereotyping which goes deeper and reveals just how entrenched some of these generalisations have become. For me personally this has included it being assumed that my mother is a white, single mum and I have an absent black father and also having my intelligence questioned.

What part has popular culture played in establishing and perpetuating our perceptions and stereotypes of ‘lighties’?

It would be wrong to say that popular culture created colourism which, as discussed above, came into existence long ago through colonialism and slavery. Colourism – from India’s caste system to colourism in the United States – is what has been left behind by white colonists who gave preferential treatment to the fairer-skinned of the suppressed communities. Nonetheless, predominantly having light-skinned black women taking lead roles or being cast as the attractive woman that men desire in films, TV roles and music lyrics and videos certainly contributes to the problem of colourism.

If we take a look at British music and concentrate specifically on the term ‘lighty,’ then we can see clearly how popular culture can influence and sustain the stereotypes and colourism that surround the word. Ramzee’s 2010 UK funky hit ‘Who’s Dat Lighty,’ although undoubtedly intended to be humorous, showcases exactly this:

See dem lighties givin’ man looks

See dem brownins givin' man looks

[…]

I’m like who’s dat lighty

Over there, yeah who’s dat lighty

[…]

She looks stoosh doe like she warn fight me

Type a gyal you warn make as a wifey

The song then moves onto ‘who’s dat darkskin’ and there is no negative stereotype before coming to ‘who’s dat brownin’ where the stereotypes for lighter-skinned re-enter the lyrics: ‘Don’t think you’re too nice // Look, why you frowning? […] So what you don’t wanna chat to me doe.’

Time and time again, now in grime music, we find references to ‘lightys’ which idealise lighter-skinned women as attractive:

She a sexy, nice likkle lighty

Causing a Heatwave live Wiley

I nearly passed out like Tinie

Straight from the south, she a Southide Barbie

Run This - (Angel) ft. Sneakbo

I like hot girls cause I'm extra. Thought about my lighty then I text her

Look Out - Skepta ft. Giggs

Peng lighty, that's mine

Fire in the booth part 2 - Chip

I got my mind on a yatti, (thats right) Skin colour yellow like patty

On My Mind - Sneakbo

‘Might see me with a lighty on the block’ in Wiley's song From The Outside turns ‘a lighty’ into something of an accessory; completely objectified. Ghetts’ Karma also does this with the line: ‘Pretty little lighty on his arm.’

Yungen’s Ain’t on Nuttin demonstrates the artist playing on the stereotypes of male lighty’s as the pretty-faced guys who women are attracted to and who don’t have difficulty ‘getting girls’:

Talking 'bout you runs this strip

Like this lighty didn't fuck his bitch

Met her in July, flew her out

‘Lighty’ and misogynoir

Misogynoir is a relatively new term given to misogyny directed towards black women which combines sexism and racism. The way that the term ‘lighty’ is used by men to not only shove certain women into a category loaded with stereotypes but also to promote the idea that fairer-skinned black women differ significantly from darker-skinned black women and that it is an either/or preference when it comes to the matter of beauty exposes misogynoir at work.

Light skin versus Dark skin

What really gets to me about words like ‘lighty’ is that, like anything, they exist through relation to something else; through negation. Therefore, when you have ‘lighties’ you must also have non-lighties – enter the ridiculous ‘light skin vs. dark skin’ discussions you find both online and in real conversation, whereby women especially are pitted against each other in some kind of perverse competition of skin tones. What does ‘dark skin’ even mean, dark compared to what? Scroll through Instagram and Twitter and you will come across photos #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin tags. If there are ‘teams’ then the implication is that one group must be triumphant over the other and so there is yet further fresh ground for colourism to thrive.

How is ‘lighty’ different to comparable terms now deemed outdated and offensive such as ‘half-caste’ or ‘mulatto’?

In the United States there has long been a large vocabulary designed to refer specifically to fairer-skinned black people and those who are mixed race (or ‘biracial’). Terms like ‘quadroon,’ ‘mulatto,’ ‘redbone,’ ‘high yellow’ were used to identify a person’s racial makeup and also to indicate their social standing in a society where racial hierarchy was everything. Mixed and lighter-skinned slaves would more likely than darker-skinned slaves to be ‘house slaves,’ who primarily worked indoors and did not have to do such physically testing labour.

When I was in Los Angeles a few years ago and had a guy holler ‘bright light’ at me from his car (which I have since Googled and found to be another term for a ‘lighty’) I once again found a label imposed on me by a man making an advance; another nationality, so a slightly different phrase but meaning the same thing.

In Britain there has long-existed a lexicon of racial terms used to indicate the racial mix of those who do not fall somewhere in-between the categories ‘white’ and ‘black.’ ‘Half-caste’ and ‘quarter-caste’ have in the past (the latter was still used as a non-offensive term when I was at school and perhaps still is) been used in place of ‘mixed-race’ or ‘dual heritage.’

I have been called ‘coloured’ by one of my elderly relatives in the past; they certainly did not mean to offend me and in fact that was probably the ‘polite’ term for non-white people that they had been taught when growing up.

‘Lighty’ is different from these words in that it is slang and has not been incorporated into the larger English language. Unlike half- or quarter-caste, ‘lighty’ does not indicate a specific racial mix. That said, ‘lighty’ is very much the latest word to stem from these earlier, largely obsolete terms and is both the product of and plays into the same racism, colourism, stereotyping and divisiveness which all these words sustain. Having such words – even if people do not take offence, some even choosing to self-identify with them – can only further encourage racism, colourism and racial privilege.

It’s time to ditch ‘lighty’.

I am certainly not the only so-called ‘lighty’ who involuntarily has the label imposed on me time and time again and wishes to distance myself from the word and its demeaning associations. I do not want anyone to think that they know things about me or even be attracted to me based purely on the shade of my skin.

Although I am sure ‘lighty’ will continue to be commonly used by British youngsters, or if it does die out will probably be replaced by an equivalent word, I hope that it does become phased out. Whilst it seems harmless enough when compared to words that are commonly recognised as racist slurs or epithets, any word which differentiates and defines someone based purely on their skin colour, and which (albeit indirectly) carries a load of racist history, is not one that should be casually used every day.

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