The Legacy of Colorism Reflects Wounds of Racism That Are More Than Skin-Deep

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 2009

Colorism is the crazy aunt in the attic of racism.

It's best not to mention her in polite company. Or if you find it necessary to talk about her at all, do it in whispers among relatives and people who already know about her.

On June 25, when Michael Jackson died, there she was again: colorism, that sub-category of racism and prejudice based on skin color, staring us right in the face.

By the time Jackson died, he was perhaps whiter than any white man that you know. Those who looked at the constant stream of replayed televised interviews, at the pale skin, the thin lips painted red, the straight hair, saw in his face the psychological wound that has scarred so many in the black community.

You line up his album covers, from "Got to Be There" when he was 13 and brown with a big-tooth grin, to "Off the Wall," when he still had a beautiful nose and a big Afro, to "Thriller," when his skin was still beautiful brown, but his nose was smaller, to "Bad," when his nose was even thinner and his skin was white. You trace your finger over the transformation, looking for a clue as to why the lips changed, the nose became more upturned, the brown skin faded until it was bleached beyond recognition.

"He is an over-the-top manifestation of that undercurrent in the black community," says Alice M. Thomas, associate professor of law at Howard University. "If you are light, you are all right. If you are brown, you can stick around. If you are black, get back."

Jackson has insisted that his skin faded as the result of vitiligo, a condition that damages the skin's pigment. But experts say that condition leaves the skin spotted and blotchy. To the outer world, Jackson's skin appeared consistently white. And before-and-after photos of Jackson tell a deeper story about color discrimination, also known as colorism -- an intra-racial discrimination among African Americans.

Colorism began during slavery when darker-skinned blacks were relegated to field work and lighter-skinned blacks, often the children of slave masters, were given housework. For years after, many blacks, some say, internalized the declaration that the lighter one was the better one.

Nobody wants to talk about colorism. And yet everybody talks about it.

"Colorism was venomous because it did so much damage to the psyche," says Alvin F. Poussaint, media director at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "There was nothing like walking around feeling you are a rejected person, a wretched person, as Frantz Fanon put it in 'The Wretched of the Earth.' "

The attitudes toward dark skin have progressed as a result of discussion and the civil rights movement. But those attitudes have not been completely corrected. They linger in the recesses of human culture. Though circumstances differ, colorism is an issue in countries all around the world: Vietnam, Brazil, India, Japan and Mexico, for instance.

"It's still here, but I think we are moving forward," says Poussaint. "A big ingredient in this was the black-consciousness movement, when we stepped back and said, 'We are not taking this stuff anymore.' 'Black is beautiful! I'm black and I'm proud!' made a huge difference. The black-consciousness people wanted to make 'black' a positive term.

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