Colorism: The Hierarchical Nature of Skin Tone that makes "Light Alright"
By Janis Prince Inniss
If you're black, get back.
If you're brown, stick around
If you're light, you're alright
I thought of this old saying when I heard that according to the authors of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid assessed then Senator Obama's chances at the presidential nomination as good because he is "light-skinned" and "speaks with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." There has been much debate about whether Senator Reid's comments are racist, but I want to focus on the "light-skinned" element of his remarks.
Skin tone issues abound. Time magazine darkened O. J. Simpson's mug shot on their cover in June 1994; this alteration was heightened by the fact that an untouched image of Simpson ran on the cover of Newsweek. (See the two covers here and read more about the covers here.) And today, skin lightening creams continue to be a booming business, with sales growing in countries from the Caribbean to Africa and Asia.
I have long noticed that a large portion of African Americans who are prominent now or were in the past are very light-skinned. (Many are light-skinned enough to have "passed" for white in an earlier time--a subject discussed in this post.) Think about and/or look at pictures of the following people: Colin Powell, Julian Bond, Eric Holder, Harold Ford, Thurgood Marshall, Edward Brooke, Debra Lee, Douglas Wilder, David Paterson, Deval Patrick, Malcolm X, and of course President Obama. Although these people are light-skinned, some more so than others, as a trained sociologist--or at least as someone beginning to think like one-- you are probably wondering whether this is real or whether I am simply overlooking noteworthy African Americans who have a darker complexion, such as Dr. Martin Luther King.
However, research findings indicate that lighter skin is positively related to job status, education, income, and marital status among blacks; dark-skinned African Americans even receive longer prison sentences than the light-skinned. And light-skinned African Americans are over-represented in politics (as reflected by the list above). Further, another study indicates that our political orientation "colors" how we see the skin color of politicians. Partisans who agree with a candidate see him as lighter than he really is, and those who disagree, darken the candidate. Liberal study participants were most likely to rate lightened pictures of Barack Obama as most representative of him, while those who considered themselves conservative rated a darkened picture as most representative of candidate Obama.
Many black people think of colorism as a within group phenomenon. In other words, they think that black people are the ones who use the shade of a person's skin to assess their worth, affording those with lighter skin better treatment and higher value. In fact, when Spike Lee released the film School Daze (a film in which light-skinned black women and dark-skinned black women battle), many said that Lee was airing dirty laundry. Whatever else you may think of Reid's comments, they suggest an understanding of the colorism dynamic among Americans, not only African Americans.
What are we to make of this? Because they more closely resemble whites, than their darker-skinned counterparts, both white and black Americans have annointed light-skinned blacks with the higher status attributed to whites. This goes at least as far back as the "house slave"--someone born to a slave owner and an enslaved woman--who may have been treated more kindly and allowed to be in the "big house".
It is important to note that light-skinned people who were enslaved were sometimes subject to harsher treatment, perhaps because their color broadcasted "slave/master" relationships. This phenomenon--colorism--is not unique to the U.S. In fact, in his recent best seller Outliers: The Story of Success (discussed by Karen Sternheimer in this post), author Malcolm Gladwell, writes of the role of colorism in his mother's Jamaican family and points to the advantages light skin afforded some of his family and lists this as a factor contributing to his family's success.
Given the importance of race--skin color--in the larger society, why would gradations of color not be important? Let's employ stratification theory as a lens to examine this phenomenon. In simplistic terms, this theory tells us that the dominant group has the most access to wealth, power, and prestige; achieving these is also controlled by the dominant group and those who look more like that group can more easily blend into (assimilate) into that group. And through socialization processes we gravitate towards dominant views of beauty and standardization.
Colorism, then, may be seen as learned, an unconscious acceptance and belief that "white is right". Notably, one historical moment during which the preference for light-skin color, even among blacks, was challenged was during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s, a time during which James Brown's "Say it Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud" was a major hit. Does that time period teach us anything about how we can combat colorism both in the broader society and within the black community? Do you think research conducted during that time period might have yielded different results than those I described above?
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