Sitting in one of the new swank restaurants in downtown Washington one evening, I mentioned the subject of colorism to the two African American women dining with me, both successful women of note in their fields, and the memories poured forth, shared with looking-back laughter, regret and sadness that they still see evidence of colorism’s hold on the thinking of young people.
“When I was in high school a girl told me I acted like I didn’t know I was dark-skinned, and wondered where I got my pride and dignity from,” one said. The other told us about her daughter, who has been mistaken for every nationality from Greek to Spanish: “My daughter hears all the time from black boys that they would never marry a girl darker than she is.” My friend’s daughter also attends a respected HBCU and has shared with her mother stories of female classmates physically assaulting one another in the wake of verbal colorist insults.
And long before our dinner other sisters shared similar stories with me:
“I was shocked to learn, the day after my grandson was born, that my daughter had been, as she said ‘praying that he’d come out light, like his father, not dark like me.’ ”
“As a light-skinned woman, brown-skinned women tell me all the time that I’m not a ‘real sister,’ and sometimes even that I can’t be trusted because I’m light.”
The first comment is a heartfelt revelation shared by a participant in a colorism workshop I led. The second was made by a writer working on an essay about the impact of colorism in her life. Maybe you’ve said or thought in similar ways. I’m sure you’ve heard people talk like that. That is the sound of colorism and the color complex. Back in the day there were paper bag tests, blue vein societies and the orthodoxy that AKAs are light, Deltas are brown, Zetas are black. Fast forward to today and on Twitter there is a #teamlightskinned hashtag and complexion competitions in urban nightclubs, as reported by the St. Louis American via the St. Louis-Post Dispatch. The color complex — or, put simply, the belief in the superiority of light skin and European-like hair and facial features — is, among African Americans, a legacy of slavery. Once practiced and adhered to with nearly unquestioned fidelity, today, despite its persistence, colorism is increasingly being questioned, and in some quarters dismantled.
I grew up in Washington, and as I was playing with friends one summer day outside our house on Harvard Street NW, my mother called me indoors with the admonition, “Come on inside out of that sun — you’re already gonna have to get a light-skinned husband for the sake of your children.” I saw colorism everywhere — in my family, on TV, in magazines and books. By the time a young male classmate in my fifth-grade class at Harrison Elementary School brushed my hand away when I reached for his after we were assigned to be partners to learn how to square dance, I knew instinctively that he didn’t want to touch me not just because I was a Negro (as we were called back then), but also because I was the wrong color Negro.
During the tumult and triumph of the activism of the 1960s, as a student on the campus of American University, I got black and loud and proud, and overcame my color complex. More recently, several years ago when I wrote “Don’t Play in the Sun One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex” (Doubleday), a book about colorism and its global impact, I became a color complex activist. I have spoken on college campuses all over the country and before diverse groups about the color complex.
This is a watershed moment in the social history of this scourge and the African American community’s attitudes about it. Actor and producer Bill Duke released an important and must-see documentary called “Dark Girls” earlier this year that is sparking conversation. Black and white scholars around the country and the world are studying and writing papers and books about the societal consequences of this largely accepted, even encouraged, form of discrimination. Their findings, such as the results of a study from Villanova University published in January of 2011 on lighter-skinned black female prison offenders, are bringing together evidence from psychological, economic, political and cultural studies that reveal the insidious and long-term impact of the color complex on an individual’s emotional well-being and life chances. Research conducted by Verna M. Keith of Arizona State University and Cedric Henry of the University of Illinois at Chicago confirms the truth, hidden in plain sight, that in the black community there is a direct correlation between higher levels of wealth, health, education, and status and lighter complexion.
I have begun more and more to conclude that colorism is the most unacknowledged and unaddressed mental-health crisis in communities of color around the world. We speak of the color complex as a problem, as an issue, but it’s negative emotional impact on people of all hues is so serious that it needs to be called what it is — a disease. Google “color complex” and you will see impressive evidence of the vigorous Internet debates and discussions on this topic, such as the July essay from Vibe Vixen about a light-skinned girl whose blackness is questioned and an Allvoices.com essay from 2010 about the color complex crippling African Americans.
The ACLU and the EEOC have recognized hiring, firing or promotion based on the shade of one’s skin as a form of discrimination that is eligible for legal redress or compensation.
My friends from dinner agreed with my assertion that we have to take the vital and healing conversation now taking place around us, out of the hallowed halls of the academy, cyberspace and the circles of the cultural elite and into our kitchens, bedrooms, churches and schools. In my family, when our now-grown children were young, my husband and I wove discussions of colorism into conversations about media presentations of African Americans, African American history, race and life in general, so that our children developed the ability to comfortably talk about colorism, recognize it and reject it. People of all races and hues and across the generational divide are now creating a space where the real costs of colorism can be addressed. It’s time for more of us to step into that magic circle and begin the long overdue process of healing colorist thought and action in ourselves, our families and communities.
Marita Golden is the author of “Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex” and many other award-winning works of fiction and nonfiction. She will present a workshop, “Sisters Under the Skin: Healing the Wounds of the Color Complex,” on Oct. 26 and 27 at the Thurgood Marshall Center. For information visit www.maritagolden.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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