The Face of Colorism (Black is beautiful....only if you're light-skinned)
Jigaboos: Don’t you know my hair is so strong
It can break the teeth out of a comb
I don’t have to put it up at night
What you have to keep up at night
What you have to keep out of sight
Wannabees: Your hair ain’t no longer than (finger snap)
So you’ll never fling it all back
And you ‘friad to walk in the rain
Oh what a shame who’s to blame
Jigs: Don’t you ever worry ‘bout that
‘cause I don’t mind being BLACK
go on with your mixed-up head
I ain’t gonna never be ‘fraid
Wannabees: Well you got nappy hair
Jigs: Nappy is all right with me
Wannabees: My hair is straight you see
Jigs: But your soul’s crooked as can be.
The above lyrics were taken from Spike Lee’s movie, “School Daze,” which highlights the social divisions among blacks. Although the above musical number between the wannabees (light-skin straight-haired, sorority girls) and the jigaboos (dark-skinned, non-Greek, kinky-haired girls) can be seen as a satirical spoof, the context of the above picture is much larger than the situation at hand. Lee underlines the basic principles of social-consciousness, which seems to be lacking in a large majority of the black community. Black=Brown=Tan=Mulatto=Light-Skinned=White= Superiority is, in my opinion, the mindset that is stigmatized within the African-American community, the next shade of lightness is next to ‘Godliness’ is what is droned into the minds of young black children.
In the land, which bears the motto, “All are created equal” comes one of the most heated arguments within the black community, intra-racial discrimination or in laymen’s terms, colorism. It seems that this issue has affected every hue or shade of blackness within the African-American community. In “The Color Complex” by Midge Wilson, Wilson ddresses the issue by tracing the origin of colorism, “To trace the origins of the color complex, we must return to the year 1607 when three ships sailed in Chesapeake Bay, stopping at Jamestown, Virginia, to establish the first English colony in the New World…..It was a new land and a new era filled with possibilities. What might have been unthinkable in Europe and Africa was an everyday occurrence in the wilderness. Miscegenation, or race mixing, became widespread as Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans mixed their seed and substance to produce a kaleidoscope of skin tones and features. But these primary race groupings differed sharply in their civil liberties and political freedoms. Subtle variations in appearance took on enormous consequences in meaning, especially among Negros,” (Wilson, pg. 9). With the emphasis of color being placed in the forefront of the black community, blacks have let this issue set the stage for ignorance for over four hundred years. The effects of these actions have trickled down into some of the most prominent organizations that define our community and our blackness, such as the NAACP, Jack and Jill, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and etc.
It is no secret that organizations were created in order to supplement and provident a safe haven for the wealth of the light-skinned mulattos. In Larry Koger’s essay, “The Denmark Vesey Conspiracy” he highlights one such organization, the Brown Fellowship, whose primary focus was to assimilate into while culture, while benefiting from the ownership of slaves. They used their money to further distinguish themselves from dark-skinned blacks, even those who had equal wealth status. By using their former masters as mentors, they were successful at capturing the essence of the upper crust by emulating white culture.
Deirdre Mullane writes of another organization, “The Blue Vein Society,” in her book “Crossing the Danger Water: Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing.” The Blue Vein Society thrived on this type of behavior, “The original Blue Veins were a little society of colored persons organized in a certain Northern city <Nashville, TN> shortly after the war. Its purpose was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement. By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black. Some envious outsider made the suggestions that no one was eligible for member who was not white enough to show blue veins. The suggestion was readily adopted by those who were not of the favored few…..The Blue Veins did not allow that any such requirement existed for admission to their circle, but on the contrary, declared that character and culture were the only things considered; and that if most of their members were light-colored, it was because such persons, as a rule, had better opportunities to quality themselves for membership,” (Mullane, pg. 12).
To understand the root of this deviant behavior, we have to go back to when slavery was in full effect. Fair-skinned slaves automatically were selected for the better jobs, which were located in the master's house. After gaining the trust of their masters, many of these fair-skinned slaves traveled throughout the nation and abroad with their masters and their families, therefore affording them the opportunity to be exposed to the finer things, and many became educated as a result. Their darker-tone peers labored relentlessly in the fields. They were the ones who were beaten, burned and hanged, the ones permanently condemned to be the lowest of the low in U.S. society. For them, even the three “R’s,” reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic were illegal. Consequently these actions resulted in a caste system. It seems the closer you were to your master, the better off you were, good hair, good clothes, good jobs, and an education was an inevitable result from these actions.
With the paper bag and the vein test in full swing other prominent organizations such as the NAACP was the new forefront to combat slavery and racism, but within this organization, it seems the NAACP was no escape to the cycle of intra-racism. In Tony Martin’s essay, “Of NAACP and the Integrationists and Garvey and the Separatists,” Marcus Garvey describes members and the then leader, W.E.B. DuBois racial attitude as “for the blacking processes and the hair straightening escapades of some of the people who are identified with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in their mad desire of approach to the white reason.” Garvey, an advocate against colorism, was so dead-set against this movement, that he would not allow advertisements for hair-straighters and skin-bleaching creams to appear in his publication, The UNIA. It seems that colorism was starting to gain heavy momentum within the U.S.
Another catalyst in which light-skinned blacks furthered distinguish themselves from their darker peers was “brown bag parties,” which were very fashionable in the 1960s and early 1970s. In Henry Louis Gates Jr’s books, “The Future of Race,” he describes this ordeal as, “Not long after I arrived at Yale, some of the brothers who came from private schools in New Orleans held a ‘bag party.’ As a classmate explained it to me, a bag party was a New Orleans custom when a brown paper bag was stuck on the door and anyone darker than it was denied entrance,” (Gates, pg. 18). Even before then, in the 1920s, “color-tax” parties were another means for alienating blacks. At these parties, men would have to pay a tax on the scale of how dark their dates were, the darker the date, the higher the tax.
With sororities and fraternities becoming the prime outlet for college and social life, these organizations were no stranger to such antics. One such organization, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., was at one time, notorious for implementing such tests as the ruler test (hair had to be as straight as a ruler) and the brown bag test. It seems that the more elite the fraternity or the sorority, the lighter the members were. After analyzing the previous data, you start asking yourself, is this behavior learned, or regrettably inherited from the previous generation?
Although we know the social ramifications and consequences of colorism, but what about the legal aspect and the damages resulting from this behavior, according to the Equal Employment Office of Commission, “Color discrimination occurs when individuals are treated differently from others who are similarly situated because of the color of their skin. This is a separately identifiable type of discrimination, which can also occur in conjunction with race discrimination. Color discrimination can also occur in the absence of race discrimination when members of the same race are treated differently because of their skin colors. Color discrimination also exists when all brown skinned persons are treated differently from persons of other color regardless of either's race. Example: The employer does not hire anyone darker than cafe au lait (coffee with cream), but does hire light-skinned and/or White persons of all races.” (Race Discrimination, 2003).”
One such instance of this is the most recent case of a similar occurrence making news in the black press involves two employees of an Applebee's restaurant in Jonesboro, Ga. There, Dwight Burch, a dark-skinned waiter, who has left the restaurant, filed a lawsuit against Applebee's and his light-skinned African-American manager. In the suit, Burch alleged that during his three-month stint, the manager repeatedly referred to him as a "black monkey" and a "tar baby." The manager also told Burch to bleach his skin, and Burch was fired after he refused to do so, the suit states. Unfortunately instances such as these are nothing new. According to the Equal Employment Office of Commission, “The number of cases involving allegations of skin-tone discrimination jumped from 413 in fiscal year 1994 to 1,382 in 2002.” Colorism is a real problem in which the EEOC has been forced to recognize and deal with.
Now back to the question; is this behavior learned, or regrettably inherited from the previous generation? In Marguerite Wright’s “I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World,” preschoolers cannot comprehend the basis for putting people into different groups by race. “To determine which people being in what racial groups, adults use a complex set of cues, including physical characteristics (skin color, hair color and texture, nose and lip shapes, and the like) and social cues. Preschoolers usually put all light-complexion children (whites, Chinese, and light-complexion blacks) into the “white” group,” (Wright, pg. 15), which poses another question. At what age are children being exposed to this type of behavior? It seems that when the previous information is taken into account, children are being taught to separate the different hues of black peoples into different categories. Growing up terms such as “light, bright, damn near white,” “tar baby,” “you’re cute for being so dark,” and such, are expressions that are synonymous with other terms as of endearment such as “redbone” and “dark chocolate,” but in reality, these expressions are tearing down one dichotomy to uplift another.
It seems that the media images of what warrants black identity is somewhat, if not, completely jaded, and in my opinion is contributing to this problem. Picking up any catalogue, whether it may be the current Sears, JC Penny’s, etc., and you will notice the ‘type’ of black identity, which is being represented. Light-skinned babies with curly hair and green eyes, light-skinned females with long straight hair, or the effervescent light-skinned female with a dark-skinned male with beautiful bi-racial kids seems to take center-stage when it comes to representing the ideal African-American family. The propaganda of black culture does not stop there, in a recent issue of Essence, the light-skinned vs. dark-skinned ratio is practically 4:1. A multitude of skin-cream bleachers, hair strengtheners, and weave products flood the back of the magazine.
Not only do we, as black people, do a good job at exploiting our weaknesses. For example, not only looking at the magazines, which are targeted towards a black audience but also our mainstream media, Black Entertainment Television. Turn on your TV set to this channel and I can almost guarantee you the images of light-skinned people, ads and products geared towards hair-straightening, etc, will overwhelm the average person. What can we do try to alleviate this problem, in my opinion, I think this problem is too deep-rooted, although the EEOC is handling the legal aspect of the problem, the social aspect, which is up to the black community, needs to accept the fact that blacks can come in all shapes, hues, and colors.
Wilson, Midge, Russell Kathy. The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color
. New York: Harcourt Publishers, 1992.
Mullane, Deirdre. Crossing the Danger Water : Three Hundred Years of African-American Writing. New York: Anchor, 1993.
Gates Jr. Henry Louis, West Cornel. The Future of Race. New York: Vintage, 1997.
Wright, Marquerite. I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World. New York: Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Equal Employment Office of Commission. “What is Race Discrimination.” (access electronically on December 13, 2003). < http://das.ohio.gov/Eod/Discrimination Definitions.htm>.