Colorism in the black community

Oct 29, 2012

Have you been told that you're too dark or too light? Has your African American heritage been challenged or laughed at because of your shade of brown? Marita Golden, author of "Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex," will discuss how the black community can overcome color issues.

Read her essay from The Root DC, "The color complex in black communities".

I want to welcome you all to this chat about colorism in the black community. Thanks for your interest, and I look forward to a lively discussion.

Is a color blind society what people of color want? Why when women of color disagree politically with the majority view are they derided as turning their back on their race?

I really don't think that most progressive people want a color-blind society because that would diminsh everything that makes all of us unique. Black people are pretty much like everybody else and we can be narrow minded and we especially tend to view those who disagree with us as race traitors. I think the less secure you are the more you are likely to use that kind of language. I think the beauty of the human experience and the black experience is our diversity. I was very pleased that at the colorism workshop  a married lesbian couple was in attendance, as was an Afro-centric educator, and they were respectful and accepting toward one another. I think that narrow mindedness needs to be and should be challeneged, especially the whole "are you black enough" conversation. We really should be past that  and you should challenge it when you are in the presence of or the victim of what I call racial bullying.

It is a global phenomena. Please discuss it's origins as regards [to] country. Thanks.

Yes, it is a global phenomenon, and actually it is much more pronouned and accepted in Asia and India than in the U.S. where at least we have a discussion critiquing it. The roots in the U.S. are in the slave system which created a division among blacks along lines of color and hair texture and facial features. Blacks who had white blood and looked more like whites were treated better than blacks who did not. They could be freed, get education and access to higher status even within the slave system.

Good morning, Marita. I spent yesterday afternoon with the Ttri-County Maryland Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta in a book club discussion. During the Q & A about writing and books, I mentioned your book, "Don't Play in the Sun", and colorism. I gave them your name. I was happy to see the email about the chat today. Are you still on for today at 12 noon?

The chat is definitely on!

Hi! My name is Ioana and I am Romanian. That's Eastern Europe. I am white. EVERYONE in my family is white. Since forever. Both my parents have curly hair, so my hair is even curlier! I let it grow and hell, it's everywhere. I spent a year as a Fulbright Grantee in Los Angeles. I was acknowledged there as black, light toned. I was amazed. People told me my hair was too curly to be a white person. I was soo proud and happy! Growing up, I considered beautiful women only women of color: Whitney Houston, Naomi Campbell, Barbara Feltus Becker (the first wife of tennis ace Boris Becker). How is this? I assure you I am white! Mum had a crush on Sidney Poitier and she told me she used to sleep with dad next to her in bed and SP's photo under her pillow :) Wish I could send you a photo to even make our conversation even more interesting.

I have met numerous whites who are able to see and appreciate the distinct beauty of black people and I think that is a good thing . Because of the fact that there is really not as much interaction between blacks and whites as people assume, it is quite possible that you would meet many African Americans unfamiliar with the range of ways that white people can look, just as there are whites who are unfamiliar with the wide range of ways that blacks can look and still be black.  We tend to think in this country very, very narrowly about race, mch more than in other countries and so we tend to think you can only either be black or white and disregard other possibilities.

Please explain the "Paper Bag Test". In 2012, is the paper bag test still being used?

The paper bag test was an actual "test" that people would be submitted to if they wanted to join a particualr church, club, fraternity, sorority. If their skin was darker than a brown paper bag they would not be admitted.  This test flourished in the 1920's through the 1940's. That kind of test is no longer used but I think it is embedded in our thought process, and we use it mentally by default in a lot of interactions.

Why don't we discuss this? I had not discussed this, just hadn't thought much about tit in the past. But, after reading your essay, I broached the topic with close friends, and it seems everyone's got a story, an incident they could recall where this was an issue. Do you think the subject is too sensitive? Or we've been simply pre-occupied with the business of living to deal with this?

I think this is an issue that we all need to be concerned about even if we feel we have not been victimized by colorism. Even if we feel we have not been victimized by the beleif system, which is highly unlikely because of its pervasiveness and subtlety and overtness, we have probably witnessed others made victims. Just as we would talk back to or not tolerate racism we should feel the same way about colorism. I feel that there is so much shame and anguish about the topic we have given ourselves as a race a pass on discussing it because we feel it is just too hard to deal with. But today there are many in the black community willing to discuss it. Many people feel it is too big and can't be solved, but it can be challenged and changed. Many  people do not know how to talk about it and since they don't see others talking aout it they feel it does not need to be addressed.

Hi Marita. I'm a black woman on the lighter end of our spectrum. I'm wondering if one of the unintended outcomes of colorism discussions is for lighter complexion folks to develop a sense of "light guilt." Those of us who are descendants of slaves (as opposed to those who are descendants of voluntary interracial relationships) already recognize the unfortunate origins of this complexion. I embrace my blackness as much as anyone and have had my share of negative racial experiences in the world. Is there space in this discussion to figure out how we, as people with a rainbow of hues, can come together and celebrate our ancestry together?

Oh definitely. One of the most important things I realized when writing my book "Don't Play in the Sun" was the depth of pain that my light-skinned sisters have experienced around colorism. The ways in which they are both lusted after and loathed and marginalized and told they are not really black and can't be trusted. It has been very helpful for light-skinned women to share these stories with brown to black women because we are actually ALL victims in this and yes, your voice should definitely be heard. When light-skinned women shared their experiences in the workshop their stories were honored and appreciated.

Last school year, I suggested to my high school students that, in describing people, we try beginning with a characteristic other than skin color. Instead of starting with, "He's light skin" or "She's dark skin," we try starting with something else: "He has a big smile." "She's talks real fast." "He has a mohawk." "She always wears purple sneakers." The idea was not to eliminate or discount race, but to eliminate using race as some sort of tool for judgment. My students tried it, and it was enlightening for them and me. Might this kind of effort begin to shift our thinking on race? (It reminds me of what the retailer United Colors of Benetton attempted to do in its ad campaigns some years ago.)

I think that is one way to  enable people to enlarge and expand the ways we think about people visually, because I agree with you that we do need to move beyond skin color and race as the primary markers of who people are. However, we also need to strip these terms -- dark skinned and light skinned, etc. -- of their toxic meanings.  We CAN  train ourselves to use these words as what they are simply -- a description NOT a judgement. I have no problem with people calling me brownskinned or even dark skinned, but there is so much emotion about this topic that most people hear the words as judgement and mostly negative judgement if they are dark or positive or negative depending onwhat is being said about the person being described if they are light. I think that is a good exericse that would go hand in hand with demystifying and detoxifying words that  are just words but words that we impose charged meanings on.

I come from a rather diverse background and family that consists of more recent admixture and mixed race offspring. I'm one generation removed from African tribal identity, and about three to four generations removed from 100 percent sub-Saharan African ancestry. I state that because it's bothersome to me, not so much the diversity within society and my family, but the growing rejection of certain physical traits relative to my 100 percent sub Saharan ancestors. I've seen it in my family like in instances of total and unexplained abandonment of black or African fathers of their black or African wives for white wives, or in my community and society at large like in the colorism, physical trait and blood quantum preferences that, again, lean away from 100 percent sub-Saharan ancestry. I grew up embracing everyone, but have noticed a constant trend, in the course of my life, in social and breeding practices where someone like me is excluded. The height of this I experience in attending an all white university which had a big impact on me -- a negative impact. I'd experience skin tone, blood quantum, discrimination and degradation growing up, but never in the way I experienced it in college. I want to be colorblind, but to me, that also means being blind to this perceived trend, bias, against the darker and broader spectrum of humanity. It would mean that I be blind to all the ways this bias and trend is continuously perpetuated EVERYWHERE in society, even by those within my own so called race -- in my own family. Like, if all of my grand parents were dark skinned black people, but all of their grand children hardly, or don't, look black at all, and if that's called being progressive and colorblind, I have a serious problem with that.

I hear in your words a lot of justified anger and resentment and pain. Most of what you shared is about what others in your family have done, have thought, have said or have chosen around color and race. My advice to you is to begin the journey of looking inside yourself and healing yourself. You simply will not be able to alter the colorist choices in your family. You can however work to grow your own pride and self love and self acceptance. I urge you to look more inside than outside, read books that will help you on this journey, like mine,  "Don't Play in the Sun," and even seek counseling to work through these feelings. I hate to think of you carrying this emotional baggage. Look in the mirror at the beautiful woman you are and work on her! This is a lifetime and life long journey that begins with the first step

Thanks a lot for joining me today. Great conversation. Marita

In This Chat
Marita Golden
Marita Golden is the author of "Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex," "It's All Love: Black Writers on Soul Mates, Family and Friends" and many other award-winning works of fiction and nonfiction.
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