Let me see a show of hands. If you are a Caucasian living anywhere in North America, how many of you have ever been told you are not white enough? Yes, white – as in the shade of your skin. Nobody? Anybody? How about “you are too white?” If you have, it was probably said in connection with a suntan or lack thereof.
Perhaps you thought Barack Obama is the first American of African descent who has been questioned about his relative blackness...or whiteness, for that matter. Think again.
While members of the U. S. Tea Party are running around stirring up bogus concerns about the whereabouts of one Stanley Ann Dunham Obama at the moment she gave birth to our 44th president; and while American liberals and progressives continue to wring their collective hands while struggling to find a way to combat the blatant attempts by conservatives to scatter racially-tinged accusations around like so many IEDs (improvised explosive devices), there is another, strictly intramural battle going on within our black communities.
Colorism is a little-discussed phenomenon that every person who identifies as African American – make that African Anything—understands and wishes s/he didn’t. Colorism is one of the dubious “gifts” that slavery in the Americas – make that in the western world -- keeps on giving.
Colorism describes a concept to which the Reverend Joseph Lowery made a not-so-veiled reference at Obama’s inauguration when he said:
"Lord, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.”
I remember with clarity hearing my stepfather recite the real verse: If you’re white, you’re alright. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re black, get back. And every other black kid growing up in the 1950s heard it, too. Thus was the established and sadly shameful pecking order within black communities. Director Spike Lee discussed colorism loudly in his movies “Jungle Fever” and "School Daze.”
Colorism is the basic premise that a black person’s probability of success in life is a direct function of how close to white his or her skin is.
Now I know you will all want to tell me about the very dark-skinned people you know or know about who have become all manner of successful. And others of you will want to scream at me for “bringing up” a subject that is close to taboo in the black community; nobody expects me, a black woman with light skin, to bring it up in “mixed company.” It’s like one of those family secrets I’ve written about – what happens in the family is supposed to stay in the family.
It should not be difficult for any reader to understand how this unfortunate “ism” came about. Slave women were frequently raped by their white masters or their masters’ friends. Many, many children resulted from those attacks.
As is human nature, some of those white fathers took a liking to their bastard progeny and treated them better (relatively) than they did the children of two slaves. Over time, these mulatto offspring were allowed to take jobs inside the Big House. They became known as house n****rs.
Human nature was also at work in the slave quarters. If you were required to work from dawn until sunset in the blazing sun; if you were beaten within an inch of your life for allowing your eyeballs to wander in the wrong direction; if you were required to eat barely enough to keep you alive day after day; you just might develop a little resentment toward those accidents of birth that enjoyed (again, relative) a better existence.
Guess what? Not too much has changed. Slavery is long gone, but the racial self-hatred that has plagued the descendants of those slaves is alive and kicking. It’s kicking our asses.
In the 1940s, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, married psychologists, conducted a study with black children who were asked to choose, among other things, which doll was most like the child, which was nicer, which was smarter, which was prettier, etc. The majority of those children correctly identified the “colored” doll as being most like him/herself. The majority also identified the white doll as being nicer, smarter and prettier than the black doll. When asked why they chose that doll, most answered “because it's white.”
But that was then. This is now, you say?Kiri Davis, an 18-year-old student filmmaker in 2005, recreated that Clark experiment with 21 African American children at a daycare center in New York. The result? Identical. As in the original test, Kiri found that most of the black children preferred the white dolls and identified the black dolls as "bad." ( Photo from Oprah.com)
Colorism is also at work today when the probability for a black woman in America ever marrying in her lifetime is directly related to how close to white she looks. Why? Because there is such a shortage of available black men due to premature death and incarceration that those who are looking for wives tend to gravitate toward what could be thought of as the trophy wife; i.e., black women with lighter skin, sharper noses and longer, straighter hair.
Have I personally witnessed and/or felt colorism at work? Oh, yeah. Every day of my freakin’ life.
· I hated my textured hair. I used to ask my mother over and over why she had “good hair,” meaning straight, and mine was “nappy.” It drove her crazy enough to have my hair chemically straightened when that service was still in experimental stages. Except for a period in the 70s when I felt the need to make my Black Power statement and wear an afro, my hair is always straightened.
· I was despised by the African American girls in my hometown and sought after by the African American boys. That came in handy in high school when the girls kept promising to kick my “yella ass” in the park after school. I would just assemble “my boys” to walk me home, and all was well.
· I developed a preference for darker-skinned boys, probably as much to irritate my family members as anything else. Once in college, I accepted a date with a guy who was the color of Taye Diggs, but “uglier than homemade sin” according to my mother. I thought he was the nicest boy I’d ever dated.
· Once I walked into a high school basketball game with my little posse of friends. Out of the stands came a shout: “Hey, Lezlie. Come over here a minute.” It was a group of those who wished to rearrange my butt. Afraid of being thought afraid (hah!) I went. The head bully said “Let me see your wrist. No, turn it over.” I did. “See,” she said to anyone in listening range, “I told you she was a half-white bitch.” She could see my blue veins through the pale skin on the underside of my wrist.· To this day, one of my favorite neighbors, who grew up on a farm in North Carolina and who is a natural beauty that turns heads with her fabulous bone structure and flawless figure, enjoys putting her chocolaty arm next to my suntanned (!) legs, and laughing. “God, your legs are pale, Lezlie!” If I didn’t love her so much, I’d probably slug her.
· My son, Stephen, went to a predominately white high school in northern California. There was a girl in his class whose mother was black and her father white. Given my background, and the fact that my second husband, his adoptive father, is white, Steve felt a kinship to her and asked her on a date. She declined, saying she didn’t want to marry a black man because she didn’t want to have black children!
· Interestingly enough, even African nationals are not immune to colorism. When I had a big house I had a cleaning crew. The Nigerian crew leader often mentioned how beautiful she thinks my skin is. One day I asked why she remarks about it so often. “The color,” she answered. I have read reports that colorism exists in India, Japan and other Asian countries. I had a Filipina secretary in California who bragged endlessly about her lighter-than-usual color. Again it is attributable to those countries’ colonization by European countries.
Will Americans of African descent ever truly “get over” the effects of slavery? There was a time I thought we would. It seems to me if we are ever going to see anything even resembling an end to white racism, we are going to have to deal with our own self-loathing.* A redbone is a light-skinned black person who is usually mixed with another race
This is a complicated and far-reaching issue with too many facets to discuss in one post. For more information regarding the studies supporting my assertions, please follow the links below.Kiri Davis Recreation of Famous Doll Study