Is the black community still plagued by colorism—discriminating and hurting each other based on skin complexion?
That’s the intriguing question explored by author Marita Golden in an essay published on the Washington Post website. Golden says she still encounters black people making harmful comments or treating one other differently because one person may be darker or lighter than the other, which for her brought back hurtful memories from her childhood when such colorism was more rampant and destructive.
Golden shared the highlights of a dinner discussion she recently had with two African-American females who said they still see evidence of colorism among young people.
“When I was in high school a girl told me I acted like I didn’t know I was dark-skinned, and wondered where I got my pride and dignity from,” one of the women told Golden, author of “Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex.”
Golden said the other woman talked about her daughter, who has been mistaken for every nationality from Greek to Spanish.
“My daughter hears all the time from black boys that they would never marry a girl darker than she is,” the woman said, adding that her daughter attends a respected HBCU and has shared with her mother stories of female classmates physically assaulting one another in the wake of verbal colorist insults.
Golden has spoken on college campuses across the country and led many workshops on colorism since the publication of her book.
“Back in the day there were paper bag tests, blue vein societies and the orthodoxy that AKAs are light, Deltas are brown, Zetas are black,” Golden writes. “Fast forward to today and on Twitter there is a #teamlightskinned hashtag and complexion competitions in urban nightclubs, as reported by the St. Louis American via the St. Louis-Post Dispatch. The color complex — or, put simply, the belief in the superiority of light skin and European-like hair and facial features — is, among African Americans, a legacy of slavery. Once practiced and adhered to with nearly unquestioned fidelity, today, despite its persistence, colorism is increasingly being questioned, and in some quarters dismantled.”
Golden says she encountered a great deal of colorism herself growing up in Washington, DC, where she can recall her mother calling her indoors with the warning, “Come on inside out of that sun — you’re already gonna have to get a light-skinned husband for the sake of your children.”
“By the time a young male classmate in my fifth-grade class at Harrison Elementary School brushed my hand away when I reached for his after we were assigned to be partners to learn how to square dance, I knew instinctively that he didn’t want to touch me not just because I was a Negro (as we were called back then), but also because I was the wrong color Negro,” she writes.
Golden says increasing attention has been directed at the issue in recent years. In addition to her book, she points to the “must-see” documentary by actor and producer Bill Duke called “Dark Girls.”
“Black and white scholars around the country and the world are studying and writing papers and books about the societal consequences of this largely accepted, even encouraged, form of discrimination,” Golden writes. “Their findings, such as the results of a study from Villanova University published in January of 2011 on lighter-skinned black female prison offenders, are bringing together evidence from psychological, economic, political and cultural studies that reveal the insidious and long-term impact of the color complex on an individual’s emotional well-being and life chances. Research conducted by Verna M. Keith of Arizona State University and Cedric Henry of the University of Illinois at Chicago confirms the truth, hidden in plain sight, that in the black community there is a direct correlation between higher levels of wealth, health, education, and status and lighter complexion. “
Golden calls colorism one of the most unacknowledged and unaddressed mental-health issues in communities of color around the world, linked to the still lingering belief that the closer to European one appears, the better and more attractive you are.
“We have to take the vital and healing conversation now taking place around us, out of the hallowed halls of the academy, cyberspace and the circles of the cultural elite and into our kitchens, bedrooms, churches and schools,” she concludes. “In my family, when our now-grown children were young, my husband and I wove discussions of colorism into conversations about media presentations of African Americans, African American history, race and life in general, so that our children developed the ability to comfortably talk about colorism, recognize it and reject it.”