Thursday, May 14, 2009

What Color Black Are You?

Last week we delved a little, a very little, into the concept of living in a post-racial society. Now that would suppose that up until now we’ve been living in a racial society. Uh, yeah. I just spent an hour earlier today watching The History Channel’s documentary on Nazis in America. This documentary revealed that the most active and violent phase of this racist group was in the mid to late 1990s. That’s 10years ago!

When we think of the racism, bigotry and prejudice that African Americans have suffered we automatically think of it coming at the hands of whites – which it did. But the long arm of racism is truly far-reaching. The habit of equating the color of one’s skin with the worthiness of one’s character still affects us in the black community. Unfortunately many of us have adopted and perpetuated this dysfunctional behavior. So in answer to Kate K's question, yes, we do have intra-racial prejudice in the black community.

One of my favorite radio programs is the Michael Baisden show. In addition to playing adult contemporary music, this syndicated show addresses serious issues that affect us all. In addition to the show, there’s a companion website where there are a myriad of discussion groups that tackle all sorts of topics from the heinous to the hilarious. Last week one of the website members posted a question about beauty and the discussion quickly went to childhood experiences of some members being told family and friends that they weren’t pretty because they were “too black.” It was truly painful to read the hurt that was so evident in that post. If you conduct a Google search on light skinned black people, you'll get a ton of websites dedicated to this color phenomenon.

When I was growing up in the 70s, I had two friends, a brother and sister, who were very fair with straight (what we used to call “good”) hair. Their parents were well-educated, and considering they were parents, they were actually fun. They never got upset when we had water fights inside the house using the kitchen spray nozzle or played Jackson Five records over and over again. What I later discovered was these fabulous people were what I call “colorists.” They did not mind their children having friends who were dark-skinned, but as we grew older it became apparent that they did not want their children romantically involved with anyone darker than a paper bag – the standard test for color conscious black people. My friends’ older sister eloped with a dark-skinned man and for years she was persona non grata. She was eventually let back in the fold.

Now don’t think colorism is a one-sided prejudice. My own experience as a teenager was marked by bullies in junior high school who disliked me because I “talked like a white girl.” Once, when I was about 10-years-old, I was assaulted at a city fair by two teens who didn’t like me because I was light. And I cannot possibly count the number of times I was dismissed on sight because I happened to have a light complexion. The assumption was always that I thought I was cute or better because I was light-skinned.

I was lucky enough to have been raised by parents who taught us to select our friends based on their character and not their color. However, that being said I do have to defend or at least explain the mindset of a colorist. It all goes back to slavery.

Back in the day of forced servitude in this country, slave owners often placed their slaves with lighter complexions in household positions as cooks, personal maids and footmen. These slave owners used their European standards of beauty to select the most appealing slaves to serve the family. Sometimes that service went beyond the kitchen and parlor, and into the bedroom. Those light skinned slaves had to come from somewhere!

Needless to say the dark skinned slaves were relegated to the fields. This divide between house slaves and field slaves, light skinned blacks and their darker brothers and sisters survived slavery. Subsequent generations found that the lighter your skin the more opportunities you might be presented so many African American families sought to keep their hues light and bright as a method of survival. They knew the larger society would be harsher on a darker child. What a sad commentary on our society.

As part of the generation that benefited from the civil rights movement, I can say that I have experienced few cases of OVERT racism from white America. I guess it’s to our credit as a society that at least we’ve instilled in our collective culture that being a racist is not socially acceptable. However my encounters with overt colorism from my own people have been numerous. I still get an occasional sideways glance, but I just smile and keep my mind and heart open.

Note: Be aware that some of my people pronounce the term light (or dark)skinned as "skin-ded."


  1. What about the poor Albinos!

  2. Having worked in the media, I've always noticed that often it is the most "white resembling" african americans who are used in commercials, as news anchors, etc. Our society still has a long way to go.

  3. Living in LA, I have to agree with Jean. I have friends of all colors. Always have, but I do notice there are not a lot "dark skinned" African Americans in the TV and Film industry.

  4. What are your thoughts on whether hip hop culture is slowly swinging the balance in favor of your darker-skinned brethren? I'm white, so I'm making an observation from the outside, granted. But it seems that in the world of hip hop, the darker you are, the more you've suffered, the better.

    It's sort of an underdog story. The truly beat down in society finally make good. How many light-skinned people (besides Kid Rock, Vanilla Ice and the Beastie Boys) are or have been heavies in the hip hop world? Not too many. And as hip hop culture spreads into every facet of American culture, I suspect that the descendants of "house slaves" will see their fortunes wane a bit. Executing perfect hospital corners doesn't make you hard.

  5. Kevin M. BriscoeMay 15, 2009 at 5:30 AM

    Here's the story of two grandmothers: Nana and Mama Libby. Nana told her dark-skinned grandson, "Boy, you better get yourself a light-skinned woman so your kids won't be jet black." Mama Libby said: "You gotta marry a girl with good hair, 'cause yours is so nappy."

    And these are the people who loved me???

    Yet, this has impacted my choices in women. Nearly every woman I've been involved with is indeed light with "good" hair. Nana and Mama Libby did a serious Manchurian Candidate thing on me.

    I recognize that they came from a era in which "passing" was an option for blacks trying to escape the oppression that came with being Negroid, but we--this tail end of the Baby Boom--have a unique opportunity to teach our children and grandchildren that love comes in many shapes, sizes and forms. Without going all Jesus-freak on you, we're all God's children; we can and will find love: light or dark, gay or straight, white or black or yellow or brown or red.

  6. I find it fascinating that the American black community is fractured in this way, I knew Asians, and Middle Eastern folks were very self segregating. And one look at the situation in Africa tells you there is still a lot of ethnic conflict, but i guess i was naive in thinking that here light vs. dark was immaterial, cause segregation and discrimination was being exercised liberally to blacks with no distinction from the "whites" being made. I've often heard the comment, "well we all look a like to you." But this blog/ you tube video says that's not really true - blacks that look more like whites are favored, even within their own community. So which is it? And how did the paper bag become the measuring stick?

  7. Guess I missed this post when I was out of town, but still wanted to add that Lalita Tademy's historical novel, "Cane River," also sheds interesting light on the light-skinned vs. dark-skinned issue. Great book... I believe you recommended it.

    Similar color prejudice sometimes crops up in Mexican communities, too.

    Can't wait for you next post!
    Cara Lopez Lee
    Author of ”They Only Eat Their Husbands”,coming soon