Historical Evidence Leaves Many Light Skinned Blacks Wonder Where Do We Fit In?
“I find that my skin crawls at the mention of black-on-black skin-color discrimination. It is difficult to understand how a people who share a history of oppression based on skin color would do unto members of their own race what others have done to them for centuries.” – Lena Williams, “The Many Shades of Bigotry,” New York Times, November 22, 1992.
AUSTIN-When Blacks play the color cards against one another, it is one more indication of how confused a people we are and demonstrates a deeper divide than our link to the Willie Lynch Syndrome.
The historical effects are systemic and very deeply ingrained in the culture of the entire Black race.
Case in point is the recent Miss Black University of Texas Scholarship Pageant where 2017 winner Rachael Melanson was attacked and “crucified” on social media for winning the pageant but not being “Black” enough.
“The black community is supposed to support each other. If you’re black, you’re black,” said Malonson, who graduates this month from the UT with a degree in journalism. “It hurts to see and hear that people from my own race feel this way about me. I am a Christian and I love everyone and treat everyone the same. Color is not an issue with me.”
Social media users questioned Malonson’s background, often saying she was “too light.” Her father is black and mother is white.
The issue quickly escalated to a national and social media debate on colorism, a form of discrimination based on skin color.
The Miss Black University of Texas Scholarship Pageant was established in 1982 with a singular goal in mind – to support and uplift African-American women. Prior to its inception, African-American women had limited scholarship opportunities on the university campus. The Iota Delta Chapter formed the civic pageant to provide a much needed source for serving participants. She competed with seven other African-American women who vied for the same crown.
In a statement from the chapter, Iota Delta Chapter notes that in the 35-year history of the event, women from all across the color spectrum have won the pageant and have represented with utmost distrinction.
The group stressed that color is not an issue and comments were a poor and hateful use of social media in this case. “It is unfortunate that reality that her victory has been overshadowed by a constant barrage of negative commentary regarding her racial background,” the statement said. “Rachel is a proud African-American senior excelling at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the perfect embodiment of the ideals and precepts of the Miss Black University of Texas Scholarship Pageant.”
Colorism: The Nagging Specter Haunting the Black Community
Colorism is not the same as racism. It’s a form of bias that revolves around the shade of skin color, not a prejudice on actual racial status, according to Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall, authors of THE COLOR COMPLEX, The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans.
In “The Color Complex,” Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall examine how differences in color and facial features have played and continue to play a role in the socioeconomic status, family and personal relationships, and professional lives of many black Americans
In the book, authors note key issues that have spawned and rekindled among Black people because over skin color.
“Increasingly,” the authors write, “the color complex shows up in the form of dark-skinned African-Americans spurning their lighter-skinned brothers and sisters for not being black enough.”
“Throughout American history degrees of skin coloring and kinkiness of hair have had the power to shape the quality of black people’s lives,” the authors write. “Social scientists have advanced various theories to explain the widespread preference for light skin and straighter features. The first theory contends that the ‘establishment’ sets standards for behavior and appearance and that those who strive for success must conform accordingly. Standards change only after enough members of a subordinate group have moved into positions of power.”
Such issues come back to the failure of Black people to know their own history or the laxity in which our race explores the historical legacy of color discrimination.
Another Study by Author Trina Jones, called SHADES OF BROWN: THE LAW OF SKIN COLOR, at DUKE LAW SCHOOL in October 2000 catalogs the historical connection of skin color and relationship to race in the Black community.
In it, the 72-page report by Jones lays out the progression of how Blacks have been conditioned to understand and respond to the differing shades of skin colors in the Black race.
Jones notes it is important to note that colorism operates both intraracially and interracially.
Intraracial colorism occurs when a member of one racial group makes a distinction based upon skin color between members of her own race.
Thus, when elite Black social clubs denied membership to applicants who were too dark in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were practicing intraracial colorism.
Interracial colorism occurs when a member of one racial group makes a distinction based upon skin color between members of another racial group. For example, a White Hollywood producer might make casting choices between Whoopi Goldberg and Halle Berry on the basis of skin color.
Malonson was a victim of intraracial colorism.
In order to understand the ways in which discrimination operates and differentially impacts similarly but not identically situated people, one must examine and attempt to understand color. Such understanding begins with history.
Jones notes that the practice of race-mixing in the United States produced a population with skin tones of varying hues.
Over time, society attached various meanings to these color differences, including assumptions about a person’s race, socioeconomic class, intelligence, and physical attractiveness.
Before the Civil War: 1607-1861
Professor Joel Williamson has noted that “Whites and blacks had been mixing in Africa, Europe, and Asia eons before Columbus sailed the western ocean.” Thus, the first explorers to set foot on North American soil were technically mixed-race individuals. Accordingly, “black was never totally black, and white was never entirely white.”
This pattern of race-mixing continued with the European settlement of Jamestown in 1607 and the arrival of the first Africans shortly thereafter.
At a time when there was a shortage of White women, it was not uncommon for White men to interact sexually with Black women.
Whites depended upon the characteristics of the participants. Because the status of children followed that of the mother, White planters would receive an economic advantage (by increasing their slave holdings) through miscegenation with Black slave women. Miscegenation among non-landed lower classes, however, caused landed elites to fear that Black slaves and poor indentured White servants might unite against them and threaten the existing socioeconomic order.
The origin of colorism is linked to the way early colonial legislatures responded to the color question. One of the more distinguishing features of mulattoes, or mixed-race individuals, was skin tone.
The Lower South.
The Lower South (the region extending from parts of North Carolina southward to the Gulf of Mexico)
exhibited greater tolerance for racial mixing.
For example, in South Carolina, vast plantations with large numbers of Black slaves resulted
in White slave owners and overseers having constant sexual access to Black slave women.
As a result, racial mixing among White men and Black slave women was frequent.
Tolerance for racial mixing was equally strong in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans, where mixing
between Blacks and Whites reached its highest levels due to a surplus of White men and mulatto women.
The Upper South.
In the Upper South (the area reaching south from Pennsylvania into parts of North Carolina) the initial
interracial unions primarily involved White male indentured servants and Black slave women.
As a result, colonial legislators in this region took the harshest stance against miscegenation and mixed-race individuals.
To deter miscegenation, these legislators proclaimed that the children of Black slave women would be slaves notwithstanding the race of their fathers (and their lighter skin tones).
Late 19th Century
Thus, by the mid-nineteenth century, two trends were apparent.
In the North and in the Upper South, mixed-race persons shared the
same status as Blacks under the one-drop rule.
In the Lower South, distinctions within the Black population based upon mixed-racial
heritage and skin color were made routinely.
Skin color differences were indicators of relative status.
In addition, the mulatto hypothesis the theory that light-skinned Blacks were intellectually superior because of their White blood.
Friction Between The “Colors” of the Colored
Mulatto slaves brought the highest prices on the slave market and were awarded some of the most coveted indoor assignments on plantations, while the more arduous field work was typically left to darker-skinned slaves.
The preferential treatment received by some mulattoes (and the fact that some mulattoes owned slaves in the Lower South) inevitably infected relations between Blacks and mulattoes.
As light-skinned slaves began to affect the ways of upper-class White families and to flaunt their higher social and educational achievements, discord developed within slave communities.
Tensions also escalated within communities of free Blacks as well due to an increase in the number of free Blacks in the post-Revolutionary War era.
Jones noted that fearing that Whites would associate them with the poorer, darker-skinned newly-freed slaves, some mulattoes in the Lower South began to discriminate actively against those who were darker than themselves and to socialize exclusively with other mulattoes.
As the nation moved towards civil war, southern Whites found it increasingly difficult to justify slavery once the color line had become blurred by a significant mulatto population.
After the Civil War: 1865-2000
Although sexual activity between the races declined in the wake
of the Civil War, post-bellum anti-miscegenation efforts could not undo the results of more than two centuries of race-mixing.
Skin color variations continued to expand within the Black population as mulattoes and Blacks interacted sexually.
More importantly, the meanings ascribed to these color differences in the pre-Civil War era continued to play out within the Black community in the post-bellum period.
Colorism Within the Black Community
During the post-Civil War era, skin color differences continued to play an important role within
the Black community, as elite mulattoes sought to maintain the
privileged status they had acquired during slavery.
In order to distinguish themselves from the darker-skinned masses, these
mulattoes established separate communities in which skin color.
Today’ s Trends
Many of these trends continue as contact between the races has increased (especially in the aftermath of the civil rights movement), Whites still seem to prefer and to find less threatening
persons who look more like themselves.
These preferred individuals tend to be lighter-skinned and economically better-off.
Black women who play romantic leads in major Hollywood films tend to have lighter skin and longer hair.
Lighter-skinned women with European features predominate among successful Black contestants
in beauty pageants and in music videos.
Jones added that they are also more likely than darker Blacks to be selected to endorse mainstream commercial products.
In other employment settings, sociologists have found that even when researchers control for socioeconomic background, lighter-skinned Blacks fare better educationally and occupationally
than their darker peers.
Color Played Roles in Overall Black Education Development
One of the most important areas in which mulattoes received superior treatment to darker-
skinned Blacks was in education.
Mulattoes formed preparatory schools and colleges that denied access to persons who were too
Many historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) established in the nineteenth century also discriminated on the basis of color in their admissions process.
Not only were educational institutions segregated by color, but their curricula differed as well.
In schools attended by mulattoes, students received a liberal arts education.
By contrast, darker-skinned Blacks were taught in schools and programs that focused primarily on vocational learning.
This focus on training in practical skills reinforced the placement of darker-skinned Blacks
into lower-paying, less-skilled positions.
Thus, at the turn of the century, the class of successful Blacks was largely comprised of the visibly-mixed population.
These differences were reflected in the leadership of the Black community, where mulatto elites also dominated the intellectual and political life.
Black Power Movement Not So Black for Light Skinned Blacks
The agenda of the Black Power movement on its surface, skin color differences seemed less important as light-to medium-skinned Blacks . During that time, the alliance between mixed and unmixed Blacks was further strengthened during the Black Power movement of the 1960s.
That movement revived the affirmation of Blackness that had characterized the Harlem Renaissance. The celebration of all things Black (e.g., black pride, black beauty, black achievement, black history,
and the use of the term ‘black’ rather than ‘Negro’”.
Blacks like Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Angela Davis joined forces with darker-skinned leaders like Eldridge Cleaver, Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton.
Still, at the same time that “Black unity” was the rallying cry of the movement, lighter-skinned Blacks were sometimes ostracized and made to feel as if they had to prove their Blackness.
The perceived demand for lighter-skinned Blacks to prove their loyalty.
Throughout the 1970s, some members of the Black community continued to view disfavorably lighter-toned Blacks, according to Jones research.
These individuals were stereotyped as morally weak and mentally unstable because of their mixed-racial heritage. They were also accused of thinking hat they were more intelligent and attractive than unmixed Blacks.
Color has been a major factor is shaping the feelings and psyche of today’s African-Americans.
Blacks have been exposed many different definitions of Blackness across history and have been constantly forced and pressured into a certain molds of how that fits in a predominantly White majority society.
That situation within itself creates a serious dilemma for lighter-skinned Blacks trying to fit in and find a social and ethnic home.
In their research, Russell, Wilson and Hall found that many Blacks believe that African-Americans cannot afford to waste time on such superficial issues when so many of them face a multitude of other problems like unemployment, drug abuse and homelessness.
Williams believes that for blacks even to begin to tackle such deep-rooted issues and difficulties affecting African-Americans in modern times, they may first have to shed some of the burdensome psychological baggage.
For Rachael Malonson, her challenge as a light skinned Black person is to raise awareness and shed light on the long dark history and struggle with centuries of colorism for Blacks.
She said he has learned a great deal about the complicated historical cross section of differences that exists within the Black community proper.
“This issue has come to the forefront and I am not going to let it die,’ she said. “I want people to understand this issue and we plan to be involved in bringing out the kind of positive discussions and finding solutions that brings understanding and unity to all of us as a race.”