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

"What happened is we did not keep the conversation going about black is beautiful. We got co-opted. The major failure of my generation is we dropped the ball on that. . . . I look at young girls coming of age today and they don't have an anchor like that."

Golden was 8 years old the day her mother warned her not to play in the sun. "I had not read Ralph Ellison's 'Invisible Man.' Toni Morrison had not yet written 'The Bluest Eye.' But already I had tasted the essence of racial and colorist tragedy. I feasted on it every day. I had parents who loved me, a nurturing family, many friends. I was smart in school, was considered the teacher's pet and I also knew that the special physical traits that comprised my racial identity were despised," Golden writes.

"One summer afternoon when I am playing outside . . . my mother comes onto the porch and as I speed past shouts out to me, 'Come on in the house -- it's too hot to be playing out here. I've told you don't play in the sun. You're going to have to get a light-skinned husband for the sake of your children as it is.' "

Golden's book, which was published in 2004, was explosive. "This is a subject that is coming out of the closet, which I think is all for the good," Golden said in an interview. But the book touched a nerve. "A guy did a review saying everything in the book was a lie. But I also heard from people in Afghanistan, from China, from Baltimore, thanking me for the honesty in the book and saying I had given them a voice they could use to speak about colorism. The thing that surprised me was the amount of denial I encountered from the intellectual class, who wanted to deny it continues."

When Barack Obama was elected president, the question rose again: Would a brown man's presence in the White House have an impact on colorism? The question was particularly poignant on that cold day in January when Obama was inaugurated, when the Rev. Joseph Lowery gave the benediction before millions on the Mall.

"Lord," Lowery prayed. A chilly wind whipped. "We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man; and when white will embrace what is right. That all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen."

There was knowing laughter from people in the crowd who knew that rhyme, a chant that schoolchildren yelled as they jumped double Dutch. There was applause from people who had been tripped up by racism and more deeply by colorism. Obama smiled and gave Lowery a hug.

Some among us wondered: Was Lowery talking about colorism, too? (Lowery says in a later interview that he was speaking about an end to racism.)

Still, people asked the question: Could Obama's presence in the White House spark the beginning to the end of the color-caste system?

"I don't know that Obama's election will have an effect on colorism one way or the other any more than it has an effect on racism," says Columbia Law School professor Patricia Williams, who also writes a column for the Nation. She is also author of "The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Law Professor."

"There is always some anticipation the world has changed overnight because of his election," Williams says, "that there will be an end to not only racism, but colorism itself. But colorism is even more subconscious on some levels."

The strength of colorism in the United States has been affected by another factor, Williams says. "There has been a complicated resurgence of colorism from people coming from Latin America, people of African descent coming from communities where colorism is very much on people's minds and marked with a specific range of indicators," she says. "You find some of it in the Dominican community. In Haitian immigrants and the Haitian community."

The Internet is on fire with discussions about the color of Michelle Obama, who "is dark-skinned and provides a new model, a type that has not historically been pictured, been a beloved wife, a beloved mother and daughter," Williams says. "She models all those things, as well as being elegant and beautiful and simultaneously dark-skinned. That is something in the popular media we don't see enough of."

When Barack Obama emerged onto the national scene, giving the keynote address at the Democratic convention in 2004, there was a collective pause among blacks, says Golden.

"A lot of my African American friends said this brother is incredible but who is he married to?" Golden says. "We were holding our breath, literally. Then when we saw his wife, my friends of all hues felt enormously proud that he was married to a woman that looked like Michelle Obama. The fact we had to hold our breath and the fact we had to be proud spoke volumes about where colorism is today."


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