By Kaomi Goetz
It is not over. African-Americans’ historic battle for equality is still being tested today. Racial and consumer profiling, police brutality, and anti-affirmative action movements continue to challenge the work of hard-won civil rights laws. And there’s another struggle.
“A dark-skinned friend of ours came to our house and while we were talking, asked my wife if she was hired because she was light-skinned,” said Kenneth Meeks, the managing editor of Black Enterprise magazine. “We thought it was the oddest question. We started talking about good hair versus nappy hair, and I thought: `Where is this coming from? Aren’t we all black?’”
Meeks and his wife, who are both light-skinned African-Americans, were surprised and upset their friend differentiated himself from them by skin tone. According to Larry D. Crawford, an assistant professor of sociology at Morehouse College, self-hatred is a rite of passage for most African-Americans. He writes: “It’s almost as old as the word Negro. In the U.S. we voluntarily, systematically, overtly and unashamedly pass down this same nonsense through everything from children’s clubs to fraternities to sororities to schools to churches to political offices to businesses. It is a sad commentary on our self-hate and pathological denial of it that we still speak of and prefer `good’ hair.”
Though his dreadlocks are gone, Meeks said no one could be more “black” than he.
“I’m very Afro-centric, I’ve always been,” Meeks said. “My religion is Rastafarian, my higher power comes from Haile Selassie, the Ethiopian king.”
Meeks, author of the book “Driving While Black,” and his wife, an employee at CBS, often find themselves discussing skin tone with other blacks. Meeks is one of several black professionals interviewed for this article who say that colorism is a prejudice that blacks fight within themselves; a source of negativity that has a destructive effect on black self-esteem.
Colorism, or the practice of placing value on color tones, is a direct result from slavery: the house Negro versus the field Negro, Meeks said, adding that the practice evolved from assimilation into white America. Blacks who worked in the slave owner’s home frequently received better treatment than other slaves who toiled in the plantation fields. Often, slaves with lighter skin tone were a result of sexual relations or rape between the slave owner and his female slaves, whose offspring received education and special favors not available to other slaves. Crawford agrees: “No wonder an incredible number of us are still driven to `pass’ for European and hide among them.”
Colorism has affected blacks in a variety of ways, from self-hatred to self-affirmation at the expense of other skin tones. The exact number of light-skinned blacks who shed their blackness to pass for white, is a guessing game, yet nonetheless a significant one. Crawford of Morehouse College wrote: “As of the year 1950, the defectors had soared to 12,000 per annum. By 1980 the yearly tally was 17,000. If the number held steady during the 1980s – conceivably it was greater – then during that decade alone, some 170,000 persons abandoned black identity and the black American community. Even a conservative estimate would place those who slipped away to pass for white in the 60 years from 1930 to 1990, at some 630,000.”
“If you’re trying to assimilate into the white world,” Meeks said, “the only way you do that is you marry white, or you’ve got someone white in your background.”
Corey Dawkins, 31, an office manager at a brokerage firm on Wall Street, has light skin, a hint of his white maternal grandmother. Despite his light skin, he was considered black at his private, nearly all-white elementary school on the Upper West Side. He later transferred to a black Catholic school in Harlem, where he encountered problems because his skin was lighter than most of the other students’.
“I was called high-yellow, redbone, pale,” Dawkins said. “I got into a lot of fights because I was looked at as a white kid.” Dawkins said he had been singled out because he “didn’t talk like other blacks” and was not interested in rap, basketball, slang and fashion. Instead, Dawkins was into tennis and skateboarding.
Meeks, of Black Enterprise, said his experience of going from a black world to a white corporate one was equally disturbing. He said he lost some friends after he started wearing a suit and cut off his dreadlocks.
“I don’t wear it on my sleeve anymore, but I’ve got it tattooed on my skin,” he said. “You may think I have sold out, but I didn’t, and that’s important to me.”
Blacks on Wall Street encounter this double color stigma, Dawkins said. Black friends may believe you are a sell-out if you work in corporate America, but once you are settled into your geometric, standard-issue grey cubicle or office, all that white co-workers see is the blackness.
“Once you’re hired, black is black,” Dawkins said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re light-skinned or dark-skinned, you’ll be seen as black.” Although the corporate world is integrated, Dawkins said that the only way race can be mitigated between whites and blacks is if you have had the same educational background.
“If you’re dark-skinned,” Dawkins said, “but went to private school and identify with the same things they do, the same types of activities, they will relate to you.”
In spite of the racial ambivalence in the workplace, Dawkins said there was still one area where color preferences still mattered to him.
“I think lighter-skinned women are more attractive,” he said. “I think there’s a bias toward lighter-skinned black women, it’s how people perceive race: light is better.”
At the same time, Dawkins said, he has experienced bias because his skin is so light.
“Some women have said I’m not dark enough,” Dawkins said of the white and Asian women he has dated. “Perhaps they are looking for exoticness. They think, OK, I got him, now I want a real black man.’ There’s a feeling that they are not getting the whole blackness effect since I’m of mixed race.”
Norma Jean Darden, owner of Spoonbread Inc., a soul food restaurant and catering business at 110th Street and Cathedral, can still remember the stories about her mother, a light-skinned black who could “pass” for white.
“My mother’s family was from Alabama and Kentucky,” Darden said, seated at a table in her restaurant, Spoonbread Too. “My father was from North Carolina. My mother’s family did not accept my father at first because he was dark-skinned. But they finally agreed since he was a doctor, and because he made more money than all of them.”
Among the many black and white family photographs covering the walls at her restaurant, a picture of her mother stands out. A striking, gentle-looking woman, Darden’s mother was often mistaken for white by both whites and blacks and she used her ability to “pass” to her advantage. Darden remembers a trip through the then-segregated South, where she said even though she, her sister and father couldn’t buy food in the stores, their mother could. Darden said the words on the storefront windows were simple enough for a little girl to read: “No Negroes, Jews or Dogs.” While they waited in the car, Darden’s mother would run in and buy what they needed.
One day during her “speed reading” class, Darden said, a white woman started complaining to her mother, `More niggers are moving into the neighborhood.’ Darden said the comment made her and her sister want to react. “That’s when we went up to our mother and put our arms around her,” Darden smiled. “The woman was shocked. But all my mother said was `Nice to meet you,’ and we left.”
Darden and her sister, Carole, four years her junior, were darker than their mother, whom Darden describes as “a maverick.” It was in little ways, that she and her sister would be reminded about the importance of skin color, from people not thinking they were not related to their mother, to surprising comments from their own relatives. Darden said an aunt on her father’s side of the family had been especially vocal.
“She would tell my sister and I not to wear light, bright colors, so we wouldn’t look so dark,” Darden said. “She told my sister not to wear green.”
Darden said the attitudes about colorism in her father’s family were indicative of the times — well before the Civil Rights era — and were baggage carried over from the slavery period. All of her father’s dark-skinned brothers married lighter-skinned women, she said, and her aunts, who were dark, could only marry dark men. Only men had the ability to “marry up” in skin tone. Ironically, the family line is being carried out through her aunts, since none of her dark-skinned uncles and their light-skinned wives had any children.
Carolyn Butts, publisher of African Voices magazine, is hopeful for the future. She said diversity will eventually offset the black-white, dark-light debate.
“If you look at the census data, I think it’s going to matter less and less,” Butts said. “People are becoming more biracial, more interracial mixing in neighborhoods.”
Butts, 34, grew up in the projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn, and is married to a white man of Irish-German descent. She does not fit the marry-white-to-assimilate model. Instead, Butts immerses herself in black culture through her work at the black arts and literature magazine, and runs workshops for aspiring black female filmmakers.
Kellee Lamar, 26, is an actress and works at a downtown talent agency, and just finished a commercial for Verizon, a telecommunications company. She is a light to medium-skinned black, her hair in a natural Afro, pulled back off her face and is dressed in a self-described “urban” denim look. It is hard not to miss her light green eyes.
“Yeah, they’re my natural color,” she said. “People in the industry don’t understand that blacks come in all shapes and colors. Everyone wants to pigeonhole you.”
In Lamar’s case, she said casting agents find her look too trendy or “street,” identifying her with the soul singers “Maxwell" or “Macy Gray.” Lamar says television commercials are less fixated on light-skinned black women than magazines because the image on the screen is a fleeting one, as opposed to a still picture. Still, she says, it doesn’t mean she will land a job on a soap opera or as a leading lady. Typecasting is too prevalent, she said.
“I’m either the funny one or the crazy best friend,” Lamar said. She has not had much problem finding work, but thinks that has to do with timing.
“Now ethnic, funky is in,” she said. “But what happens when it’s not trendy anymore? I’m out of work.” But when asked which dark-skinned actress in Hollywood she was most proud of, she drew a blank. “Wow, I guess I have to think hard about that … Angela Bassett’s great, but other than that, it’s hard to think of dark-skinned actresses.”
At a black film festival, Lamar remembers women asking the black directors on stage why all the roles are cast for light-skinned women. She said the panel started to give excuses, until John Singleton, the director of “Boyz `n the Hood,” admitted that men found lighter-skinned women more attractive, and that he had made that mistake a couple of times himself.
“He said he’s trying to better now,” she said.
Lamar knows she’s in a tough business; she’s used to the casting calls for “mocha-colored” actresses, and stage calls that really are for white actors unless specified by a single phrase. “If they say `untraditional casting’ then it is open to black people,” she said. But Lamar is able to cope because she is used to racism and reverse racism. As a teenager growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Philadelphia, Lamar went to an integrated high school and has long dealt with the color issue.
“There was this phrase,” she recalled hearing when she was young. “Light, bright, and damn-near white.”
“I was the only black girl where I lived,” she said. “And I was always black to my white friends. At school I wanted to get to know the black girls, I wanted to be accepted, but they said I wasn’t `black enough,’ that I didn’t `talk black.’ I ended up going back to my white friends.”
Lamar is just as matter-of-fact about the trials in her life today and the struggles of black actresses, light or dark-skinned. “It’s a business,” she said with a tinge of resignation. “It’s what people want to see.”
Debbie Cowell, 31, knows all about stereotypes. Dark-skinned, tall, slender with a close-cropped hairstyle, her look accented by a pierced tongue, she has dealt with preconceptions her entire life.
“White people feel at ease when they hear my voice,” said Cowell, who holds a master’s degree and is an associate editor at Broadway Books, a publishing division of Random House. “But I find that they are usually threatened by my look: I’m dark, I dress in dark colors. I’m a strong woman.”
Not all dark-skinned black women are as confident, Cowell said, and some of their low self-esteem has to do with colorism in America. “My family’s from the Caribbean,” she said, “so I grew up with a different sense of self-esteem. My mother was always reinforcing me.”
Yet Cowell did not understand why other children were calling her names, like “blackie, crispy, or coconut.” Then, at age 9, she happened upon two black women in an elevator, one dark-skinned, the other light. They both told her she was “absolutely beautiful.” Cowell said, “That’s when I knew the other kids were wrong.”
She still noticed color preference existed, though. Cowell grew up in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and said that in school the teachers would always pay attention to the lighter-skinned children. When she decided to try teaching herself, she made a point to give more attention to the dark-skinned students, as a reaction to her own classroom experiences. Cowell noticed the attention she gave the dark-skinned students confused them at first, but ultimately gave them confidence, and it was the lighter-skinned students who became jealous.
That same colorism is very much alive today, Cowell said. “All the videos, BET, Essence, JET,” Cowell said, “black publications are as guilty as any. Please have someone who is representative of what my mother looks like.”
“Dark-skinned women get exotified or completely desexualized,” she said of the few images of darker models that make it into print. “There needs to be another woman out there,” besides the light-skinned, chemically-straightened look so often seen in magazines and on television.
Most of Cowell’s friends are dark-skinned blacks, though her boyfriend is light-skinned. “That’s something I have to check myself on,” she said. She usually dates dark-skinned men and knows she needs to reconcile issues about her own past skin tone preference for dark skin.
Norma Jean Darden knows that cultivating preferences about color and race is dangerous, and can tear families apart across the racial divide. Darden recently learned that her maternal grandmother was white, but had died when her mother was very young. Darden’s mother and her mother’s younger sister, both half-white, half-black, had to decide for themselves: Were they going to pass, or were they going to be black? Darden’s mother decided to be black, but her younger sister chose white, and cut herself off from her family. Darden’s mother never heard from her sister again, who married and disappeared into the white world.
“They have no idea they are black,” Darden said, of any first cousins she may have.
Kaomi Goetz is a reporter at Michigan Radio. The story was written in 2001 for a Master’s degree at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and is reprinted by permission.