Skin Games

Color and Skin Tone in the Black Community

By Jimi Izrael

Part I: “Blackity Black”

Where I grew up, at the corner 143rd and Alder in East Cleveland, all the folks came in only three colors: doo-doo brown, booty-brown and midnight. Everyone else was white by default.

I didn’t think much about skin tone until I moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio. There I saw black in every shade, and watched curiously as some blacks tried, with varying degrees of success, to convince our white peers that they weren’t as black as their skin color suggested. You know: they spoke in that persistent inflected inquiry with a cowardly tone, inserting “like” between every third word, and avoided any sudden moves or wild gestures that might provoke arrest or panicked gunfire. But me, myself? I wore my inner-city credentials and my dark-brown skin like a Jimmy Walker T-shirt: tight, right, and DY-NO-MITE! Sho’ you right . . .

Later, my ex-wife would explain the politics of skin color to me. She fancied herself light-skinned (whatever, man) and regaled me with tales of the trials of attending an all-black college being “red-boned.” Big-boned, maybe, but looking at her I saw nearly the shade I saw in the mirror, give or take a half tone. I told her I considered myself to be of lighter skin. She rebuffed me like a doorman at some exclusive club. “You?” she exclaimed. “Light-skinned?” She laughed heartily. “Nononononono. You are Black. Blackity-Black. Don’t ever tell another soul you are anything other than dirt brown!” She shook her head: “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Sure, I’d seen School Daze. But all this time I had thought a quadroon was a flat coconut cookie – how had I been a Negro so long and not noticed that skin color among black people was a serious issue?

Skin color is an issue among blacks and whites alike, and it has been since we arrived as slaves here some four-hundred-odd years ago. That’s when the race mixing began.

When English sailors settled here for exploration, they forgot an important provision: women. Native American women could sometimes be seduced or raped. However, there was a long and bloody resistance to the white man’s “courting” of Native women.

The Dutch provided a remedy; African slaves were brought to America in the early 1700s, providing a labor force and a pool of beautiful Nubian queens for the white man to rape or marry, as his heart desired. Due to the scarcity of women, some white men actually married slave women in clandestine quasi-legal ceremonies, but this wasn’t the norm. African men were powerless to stop white slave-masters from taking their women.

Not all English settlers were part of America’s ruling class. Poor whites – some of them convicts and prostitutes – came from Europe and became indentured servants here. Because these whites shared the same lot and lifestyle, they came into close contact with black slaves; sometimes members of the two groups became friends or even lovers. White men taking African women were ridiculed, but black men with white women were whipped, castrated, or murdered for defiling “the sanctity of white womanhood” – her sanctity being valued, of course, in correlation with her social class.

Other interracial couplings took place as well. Some African men had relations with Native American women. Although Natives initially feared the black man, calling him “Mannito” (meaning both God and Devil personified), the two groups eventually found a bond combating a common enemy: the white man.

And, as we all know, the white man spread his seed among his African slave women with reckless abandon, producing pretty mulatto, quadroon (one-quarter black) and exotic octoroon (one-eighth black) children that would fetch a hefty price on the slave market. Female slaves were auctioned at “quadroon balls,” where respectable white gentlemen could choose a tryst for the evening or a sex slave for life.

Eventually, legislators had to decide whether the progeny of these coupling could ever be free. This gave birth to the “one drop” theory of racial identity, which was created to protect the white gene pool from contamination; no matter how white someone of mixed race looks, in the United States that person is considered black.

“Lighter-skinned blacks, the ones that were closest in relation to the master, were favored and treated differently,” says Dr. Dorothy Salem, professor of Black Women’s Studies at Cleveland State University. “These light-skinned blacks became free blacks, and were allowed to prosper and flourish. There is still some of that today.”

Indeed, Africans in America have put their own values on the color of skin. Since the days of the “blue vein” clubs, the “banana block” district of Philadelphia, and W. E. B. Du Bois’ light-skinned “Talented Tenth,” fair skin has become the skin of choice in black communities, particularly among women. Many black men still generally prefer lighter-skinned women, and the “good hair vs. bad hair” wars are still raging at a hair salon near you.

Corporate America capitalizes on our color-struck community, selling skin-bleaching products to the tune of $44 million in profits in 1990 alone, according to The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans by Kathy Russell. And it’s not just Big Brother doing it to us: black Americans are responsible for the products that mask our natural beauty. While Madame C. J. Walker invented the process of relaxing hair to “fix” nappiness, George Johnson, the founder of Johnson Product Company, arguably perfected it. White America, for its part, seems to alternately love and hate the texture of our hair and the tone of our skin, given the flip-flopping fads for perms and tanning salons.

If, until recently, beauty magazines have typically ignored the darker-skinned woman, they have fetishized the dark-skinned man. Our image as beautiful beasts, or exotic primitives seems to have found resurgence in pop culture. Eugene Robinson, editor-in-chief of CODE, a style magazine for men of color, registers his opinion. “Well, a great part of being masculine in our society has very much to do with precisely that mixture of force/will, grace and beauty,” he says. “As a darker-skinned male, I view this as nothing if not positive.. America has never shown a lack of love for that which is attractive…whether they were honest about that appreciation or not is a different story.”

“While [black men] have felt the effects of their dark coloring and broad features, dark-skinned females have suffered far more,” writes Russell. “A dark-skinned Black man can use his intelligence to compensate for his ‘unfortunate coloring,’ and if he is financially secure he may marry a light-skinned woman, thereby improving his social position and that of his children. A dark-skinned Black woman who feels herself unattractive, however, may think that she has nothing to offer society no matter how intelligent she is.”

Where do these attitudes come from? In Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American Identity, William E. Cross, Jr. says that many of our feelings about skin color start as children. “It is very difficult for any Black American to progress through the public schools without being miseducated about the role of Africa in Western Civilization,” he argues. “This miseducation does not automatically lead to self-hatred, but it can most certainly distort intra-Black discourse on Black cultural-historical issues…causing some blacks to take black skin as the mark of oppression.”

Sociologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark studied black identity issues and self-perception at Columbia University in the 1930s and 40s, culminating in work that helped the NAACP win the Brown v. Board of Education case before the US Supreme Court. In that brief, Clark described a now infamous doll study, in which they asked black children to choose between brown and white dolls, selecting which they would themselves prefer to be. Overwhelmingly, the black children picked out white dolls.

Sandi, a light-skinned mom and engineering professional, talked about the challenges of raising her 4-year-old daughter, Chelsea, to see the beauty in every color of the brown spectrum.

“We have gone back and forth about Barbie – she wants a blonde Barbie and I will not have one in the house. We finally compromised and got Theresa, Barbie’s Latino girlfriend, but I find the fact that my daughter is color-struck at such an early age disturbing,” Sandi says. “In a heated argument, she once told me her skin was prettier than my brown skin! And I told her I love my brown skin. The funny thing is, I have friends and relatives that spread across the black color spectrum. She tends to warm up to the light-skinned people we know, and I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s TV or what – I can only guess where she gets her attitudes about color from.”

“It’s not just a black and Latino thing – people of color all over the world are color-struck to some degree or another. Pakistanis, Africans, Jamaicans – anywhere that has been colonized by Europeans. Wherever the white man colonized the indigenous people, he set forth the standard of beauty.”

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