Page 3 of 4   <       >

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

A little boy picks up the white doll.

"Why is that the nice doll?" Davis asks.

"Because she's white," the boy says.

* * *

Toni Morrison's novel "The Bluest Eye" has a character, Pecola, who is told often that she is ugly -- comments that unleash a disturbing desire within Pecola to become a white girl with blue eyes. Black schoolboys taunt darker-skinned girls in the book and worship Maureen, who is prized because of her "high-yellow" skin. She is called the "high-yellow dream child with sloe green eyes."

Older blacks who grew up in an era of thick colorism thought nothing of saying: "You have that good, pretty hair," meaning it was straight or easy to comb.

Colorism was complicated by a wider society that perpetuated a white standard of beauty. Then came the "black is beautiful" movement of the '60s and '70s. The rise of Pan-Africanism helped shift the standard. The Afro hairstyle became fashionable. Full lips and dark skin were celebrated. (This is what Jackson looked like before he changed.)

A James Brown line became the soundtrack of the movement: "Say it loud! I'm black and I'm proud!"

Many black people have pushed beyond it. They know it's there. They just prefer not to talk about it. You see a spectrum of colors in positions of power. Although Hollywood persists in promoting light-skinned actresses, there have been breakthroughs. In television, movies and music there is a celebration of brown skin. India.Arie sings: "Brown skin, you know I love your brown skin." Italian Vogue just released an entire issue dedicated to black models, an intentional celebration of dark skin. You see beautiful brown-skinned women with natural hair in prominent positions. And brown-skinned men -- Denzel Washington, Seal, Taye Diggs, Blair Underwood -- are heartthrobs.

Now, there is a spectrum of colors in positions of power. There are African Americans of all hues in the White House. Even black sororities and fraternities, known for their "brown-bag" tests for lightness, have changed. In his films "Jungle Fever" and "School Daze," Spike Lee outed colorism as if that would vanquish it. And yet colorism has persisted.

Look at Michael.

"All political movements get to a point where they exhaust themselves or people want to move to something different," says Marita Golden, author of "Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex."

<          3        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company