Dear Doctors: I feel ashamed of being a light-skinned black, and it causes me problems. I've always wished I was browner, and people think that's silly. What do you think?
Janis R. Decatur, Ga.
Dear Janis: Light-skinned blacks do have problems that are not often recognized by other blacks or whites. Historically, light-skinned blacks were the sons and daughters of slave owners and therefore received favored treatment and status within both the white and the black community.
Blacks who were not light took to using bleaching creams and straightening their hair in an attempt to look white. Understandably, many blacks envied light-skinned blacks because looking as white as possible was (and still is) a distinct advantage in a white supremacist society.
Mulattoes in African and Latin American nations also enjoy higher status. In South America, the coloreds (often mixed bloods) are separate, and they occupy a status below whites but above the native blacks.
However, in America, where being black is defined as having any black ancestry, no matter how slight or remote, there are distinct identity problems for nearly white blacks.
In the past, many blacks in this category would simply "pass" into the white world. Others, raised in the black community, identified themselves as black but enjoyed special privileges because of their fair skin. Years ago, the majority of middle-class and "successful" blacks were fair skinned. This pattern continues today, but to a far lesser degree.
The "black is beautiful" movement of the late 1960s changed many of these old patterns, putting a new psychological pressure on light-skinned blacks. In recent times many of them have felt rejected by their fellow blacks. It was no longer "in" to be fair.
Darker blacks often taunted them -sometimes calling them one of the "enemy".
You are by no means alone in your feeling about your light skin. Many fair-skinned blacks growing up "high yellow" in the black community.
One professional woman now in her mid-20s always felt ashamed of her light skin. She recalls that in grade school other black children were hostile and resented her no matter how friendly she tried to be. They called her "stuck-up" and taunted her. They yanked her long hair and called her names. She would cry herself to sleep, wishing she were darker.
She grew up feeling that she had to apologize for being fair, and she strained to gain acceptance by other blacks. She suspected that by ostracizing her they were making her "pay for the sins of her ancestors." She tried to look darker by getting a tan and using bronze-toned makeup.
Many other fair blacks have suffered similarly in search of a comfortable identity.
My advice to you? Don't feel ashamed or guilty about your light skin color. If you were living in a society without racist attitudes, you'd have no need for concern at all.
Avoid trying to "prove" you're black. Many light-skinned blacks are caught up in the "blacker than thou" syndrome, which is pretentious and defenseive. Others will go out of their way to show that they accept darker blacks and that they harbor no prejudice. Such behavior is condescending. And it may prove to be damaging, if others see this behavior as phony or neurotic.
So be yourself and accept your skin color. If you need to do more, work for the elimination of racial discrimination in our society so that your children will not have the psychological trouble that you describe.