Through the Past, Darkly
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.

"It may seem like nothing now," Poussaint says. "But I can remember how difficult it was for people to use the word 'black' to describe themselves. It felt derogatory. Even some leadership would not use the word 'black' because they thought it was a derogatory term. We have come a long way to get rid of colorism."

Yet recent studies show colorism still has a negative effect on quality of life. Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and public policy at the New School in New York, says recent research shows colorism affects income and marriage rates.

"People thought the civil rights legislation took care of colorism," Hamilton says. "We find evidence that colorism is still prevalent in our society."

The most provocative research, he says, is related to marriage. Among black women younger than 30, there is "a premium associated with light-skinned complexion," Hamilton says.

"There is a well-established literature of colorism, a preference for lighter-skinned individuals," according to a report called "Shedding 'Light' on Marriage," which was co-written by Hamilton; Arthur H. Goldsmith, a professor at Washington and Lee University; and William A. Darity Jr., a professor at Duke University. "We find that the light-skin shade as measured by survey interviewers is associated with about a 15 percent greater probability of marriage for young black women, and light-skin shade as measured by self-reported biracial status is associated with the presence of better educated and higher-earning spouses for married black females."

That phenomenon is captured in the documentary "A Girl Like Me," produced by Kiri Davis, now a student at Howard University. In the film, an 18-year-old girl named Glenda explains: "There are standards imposed upon us. You are prettier if you are light-skinned."

Another girl in the film, Wahida, 16, explains, "I know people who went out and got bleaching cream and got capfuls of bleach and poured it in a tub and laid in the tub."

Jennifer, 18, says, "I considered lighter as more beautiful. . . . I felt there was not any attention toward me because of my skin color or my hair was kinky. I had dolls with long straight hair. I would comb their hair and wish my hair was like this."

In the film, Davis revisits the famous doll study done by Kenneth Clark, which was used in the Brown v. Board of Education case. In Davis's 2005 film, she put a brown baby doll and a pink baby doll before preschool children.

"Show me the doll you like to play with," Davis asks.

A little brown girl with braids picks up the white doll.

"Show me the doll that is nice," Davis asks another child.

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."

"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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