Arts & Culture
‘Colorism’ in America: Who is black and who is not?
Folks of African descent have been called many things, “black” being one of them. Americans of European descent are called the opposite, “white,” which begs the question—who came up with those color-coded labels and what do they really mean?
Is it to do with shades of skin tone, heritage, hair texture, ethnicity, language inflection, experience, superiority versus inferiority, or who the world perceives you to be?
America’s census has all these categories to “box” us in, and I have always wondered what the purpose of this classification was.
Soledad O’Brien herself is of mixed heritage—her mother is black, her father is white—and she says she has always thought of herself as black, although some do not see her lighter shade of brown as “black enough.” She once told how the Rev. Jesse Jackson offended her by saying she had it easier because of her closer to “white” skin tone.
But was he right? Do blacks with lighter skin tone have better opportunities to succeed in American than their darker-skinned counterparts? How many very dark skinned television hosts do you know in your neck of the woods?
Racial identity, discrimination within the black community and the wider general American population pertaining to skin shades is like a sleeping giant—ever present but rarely talked about out loud. The brown paper bag test is no longer used physically but is always being implemented psychologically.
Lighter skin, closer to white folks has always been looked at as more beautiful. Even intelligence is subconsciously measured by skin tone.
The “one drop” rule, which was actively implemented in America up to 1967, still affects us today. Not surprisingly, when our dominant culture legally said that one drop of “negro” or “African” blood made a person black, this in turn was interpreted as “inferior,” “impure” or not as “good as.”
Now some of our younger generation are rebelling against being boxed into these age-old stereotypical categories, opting to be whatever they want to be. Young people of biracial parentage are saying they are neither black nor white. Some say they have no race and just “is.”
O’Brien follows a few young people of “mixed” parenting who struggle with their identities. One young woman, Rebecca, of Egyptian heritage, says she identifies as black but meets resistance from other blacks who say she isn’t. She has a skin tone closer to white, with long “soft” hair, and even her best friend does not see her as black. The aspiring poet, who won a spoken-word competition, said she doesn’t understand why Egypt, which is part of Africa, is not seen as “the real Africa” just because it is not sub-Saharan.
Interestingly, when she applied to colleges, the teen checked the “white” box as her identity. When O’Brien asked her why, she sheepishly answered that she didn’t want to mess up her chances” of getting into a good college. Maybe therein lies the irony of her wanting to be seen as black?
Another young woman, 17-year-old Nayo Jones, who had a black mother but was raised by her white father, saw herself as neither black or white, while her younger sister identified as black. Nayo said she was always teased by her classmates for having lighter skin than theirs and was nicknamed "white girl."
This reverse side of discrimination raely discussed in the black community, can be traced all the way back to slavery, where lighter-skinned slaves—most times the product of rape by slavemasters—got to work in the house of their masters while the dark-skinned ones had to work in the fields.
This pitting of tones has been handed down to our times, manifesting itself in our current social hierarchy, some of which Nayo was the recipient of. Some of us are still bogged down by that false, harmful stereotype.
So again, who is black in America: what you look like or who you identify with? Moreover, who gets to decide if you are black—you, your community or the government?
Want to continue the discussion on colorism? Hangout with ESSENCE magazine and Soledad O'Brien on Monday at noon ET by clicking here: http://ow.ly/fXiNQ
Check out my other article on the topic: