Drama surrounding skin color has plagued the Black community since the days of slavery. The notion that fairer skinned slaves were allowed inside the main house otherwise known as the “big house” on plantations, and darker slaves were not, is perhaps where this issue began.
It is in fact documented by many American historians that slaves with fair skin served their masters in the “big house,” while darker slaves were exiled to the crops and fields to perform the painstaking and backbreaking work. And so it is no wonder why slaves placed a value on having a “light skin” back then, and why having a dark complexion can bring on a poor self-image for some Blacks today.
Colorism is a term used to define prejudices based on skin color within a race. Among African-Africans, those of a lighter hue are sometimes more socially accepted than those with a darker skin tone, an apparent example of colorism.
According to Dr. Olivia Perlow, Ph.D., colorism is an ideology that is a manifestation of White supremacy. Perlow, an assistant professor of sociology at Northeastern Illinois University told the Chicago Citizen that colorism was socially constructed as a divide and conquer strategy to disrupt group unity and class consciousness by providing whites with more privileges while marginalizing and oppressing people of color.
“Colorism has been present since the days of slavery where lighter skin slaves (usually the offspring of a slave woman via the rape by the white master) were often afforded more ‘privileges’ such as being house servants as opposed to field hands, given overseer privileges, some were set free, etc.,” Perlow said.
Perlow says this practice led to the freeing of slaves who were disproportionately lighter-skinned. As a result, many light skinned slaves were freed earlier than other darker slaves and therefore had more time and opportunity to accumulate wealth and gain education, particularly higher education.
Today, colorism is present within families, often between siblings that have skin color variations.
Pearl Coleman, 47, says she has felt the “sting” of being the darkest of her four sisters. She told the Chicago Citizen that at an early age, she faced ridicule because of her complexion. Around age 10, she began to notice her sisters were more accepting of their nieces and cousins who had fairer skin.
“If they were lighter, they were more appreciated I would say,” Coleman said. “I remember being with my family and I have a younger cousin who’s very light skinned and everyone always loved her. With me, I always felt like I was a third wheel. I was never referred to as pretty or smart.”
Coleman grew up during the post-Civil Rights Movement era, and said she faced discrimination because of her skin color not only at home, but also at school.
“The earliest memory I have of it [colorism] is in the ‘70’s. Even at school, the boys wanted the lighter skinned girls with the longer hair. We would have class parties and the boys would choose the lighter skinned girls to dance with,” she said.
An educator, Coleman says colorism is alive and active in 2012 –she witnesses it every day with her students. She said her students refer to a light skinned Black person as “white” and a Black person with a dark complexion as “black.”
“When they refer to a lighter skinned person as white it’s a more upbeat type of conversation,” Coleman told the Chicago Citizen. “When it’s a darker skinned person, the students call them derogatory names.”
Coleman says that there’s huge difference in the way light and dark skin is perceived in Black culture.
For example, Coleman said women with light skin often face persecution for being “pretty” and women with dark skin face discrimination for being “ugly.” These perceptions may be the culprit behind the strife that sometimes exists between Black women.
“It’s like we have so much division between us because we’ve been taught to hate ourselves for so long. We’re constantly searching for validation,” Coleman said.
She’s unsure if African Americans will ever be able to conquer its color complex. Coleman explained that as long as children continue to call each other names because of their skin color, the community will not move forward.
“I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to reach a pinnacle where we’ll come to heal ourselves and love each other,” she said. “There’s always going to be competition as long as there’s mainstream media, as long as people are perpetuating the image of ‘light is right.’”
Though colorism in Black culture often favors those with a lighter hue, La’Keisha Gray-Sewell, 36, says her aunt taunted her during her childhood because of her fair complexion.
“I remember my auntie saying when I was younger, ‘you little high yellow thing you. You think you’re so cute.’ That was always her words to me.” Gray-Sewell’s family is diverse in skin tones and she is the lightest.
Because of her aunt’s remarks Gray-Sewell downplayed her light skin. “If I was getting attention it wouldn’t be because of my skin complexion,” she said.
Gray-Sewell also faced colorism in high school and college while participating in Black organizations. “I would always have people telling me I was trying to overcompensate for being so light skinned…overcompensating meaning being ‘Black.’”
Gray-Sewell feels that’s colorism is a matter of perception and that people often hold on to insecurities from prejudice related to colorism.
“You really can’t pinpoint colorism,” Gray-Sewell said. “It’s hard to actually lay claim to that. I think it’s all in our heads—our own perceptions. When you start to step away from it, you can say maybe because of my past experiences, I am still carrying this around.”
Gray-Sewell says colorism is not an issue for Blacks to conquer, but it should open dialogue. “I think that what we need to do is start speaking truthfully about all of our experiences… because none of us are to blame for the perception or the stigmatism.”
Although colorism is a by-product of enslavement and colonization of peoples of color by Europeans, Professor Perlow says that the effects of the practice will continue to linger on in today’s society.
“Although the physical chains are off, the mental chains remain and people of color world-wide have internalized the European standard of beauty,” she said.
By Thelma Sardin