Dark Girls: The Color Line in the African-American Community

I just watched the trailer below and thought I’d post my thoughts about it.  There’s a real hesitancy on my part to post this, but this is real and can’t be denied.  Part of this hesitancy comes from dealing with my own pain behind this.  You see, I’m a dark skinned brother and as I hear these young women talk about their pain, it brings back some of my own pain growing up as a young child wanting to fit in.  I grew up in a totally black environment and the only whites I came into physical contact with were the occasional repairmen who would come to the house and the principal at the grade school I went to.  I didn’t come into contact with vast numbers of whites until I got to college, although my high school had a small number of whites who attended there.  Sadly, my first experiences with discrimination weren’t with white people, but with my own people revolving around this skin color thing.  I distinctly remember how some teachers at my grade school were blatantly partial to those of the lighter hue.   On top of the color dynamic was another one based on class.  My neighborhood was a middle class one with a wide range of people from factory workers, like my dad, to physicians all living right there together.  So, in addition to the color thing, there was also the preference for the doctor’s, lawyer’s or teacher’s child over that of the factory worker’s.  So basically, I had two strikes against me; I was dark skinned and my parents weren’t educated professionals.  Due to all of this, it took me quite some time to accept me and in some ways, I overcompensated in other aspects of my life.  Since, I was one of the “smart kids”, I used this to overcome this and to develop a positive self image.  When I was in junior high, I remember the teachers making certain assumptions about me and my abilities owing to their own prejudices until we took a standardized achievement test that I totally knocked out of the park while besting their “favorites”.  So, here I was, the dark skinned one doing something that no one expected.  That was of great satisfaction to me, but as I said, it took me some time to fully develop a positive self image because of this color thing.  As far as I’m concerned, doing positive things is the best way to overcome a negative self image as accomplishment challenges it.   I was fortunate to have figured that out.  There are many people who have never overcome this sort of thing and carry this burden for life.

There’s a flip side of this color line as well as I came to understand later in life.  The fair skinned folks have also caught their fair share of hell and there’s plenty of stories that can be heard on that end as well.   I’ve also come to understand that this color line thing exists around the world in other cultures and that confirms the dominance of the culture that has set the beauty standards.   The only way that can be overcome is by African-Americans becoming our own self reference points in a collective sense.  Essentially, being one’s own self reference point is really about self affirmation.  In other words, develop your own approval stamp and don’t look to the outside for the approval of others. In a way, it’s really about power in the sense that once you’re able to self affirm, you deny others the power to withhold their approval, so your self perception is no longer a function of whether or not someone else approves you.   There’s a lot I could say about that as related to black folks collectively, but it’s a broad topic that touches a number of political, economic and social aspects of being black in America and perhaps I’ll address that in a separate post.

The other part of my hesitancy to post about this revolves around the negativity this topic invokes.  For if one is not careful, it’s very easy to take something like this, paint in broad bushes and say that the vast majority of black folks subscribe to this.  I’d argue that the majority of black folks I know don’t.  So, while this whole color line thing continues to exist, I do think it’s lessened over time.  Although the producers of the film intend this documentary to be an expose on the topic (this is being produced by African-American directors D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke; both of whom have done a lot of good work), there’s the risk that one assumes this remains a widespread issue.  I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s not an issue, but I sometimes wonder if we might be better served with a focus on a more positive topic; something that could educate and inspire versus dredging up painful memories and resentments.

 

 

 

  • RVA

    Greg,

    Thanks for this. It is amazing the things that shape your journey in life. Without question skin color was one of them. The fact that I am on the darker end of the spectrum both raised self doubt and a need to overachieve. There is no doubt that I carry the wound, the stigma of skin discrimination, I just hope that some this sickness on our community abates.

    RVA

    • http://theafricanamericanclarioncall.com Greg L

      Hi RVA, thanks for dropping by.  Yes,  I agree we’re all the sum total of our life’s experiences and the negative ones can have far reaching implications.   This particular topic is not one that I’ve frequently engaged in, but I was moved by the clip and could definitely relate to how these ladies were feeling.  While it’s true that this internecine battle has its source from slavery and colonialism, it continues due to our giving it life.  I think that this topic has far broader implications than each of our personal self perceptions.  I believe that the impact on our collective self perception is what leaves us positioned as we are politically, socially and economically.  Our negative self perception literally fuels the economy of other folks as they service our need to be accepted.   The day we change our consciousness, there will be a sea change in our standing in this world across a number of measures.

      • RVA

        Greg,

        Your points are well argued. I especially appreciate the need to go beyond the personal reference to broader implications for political and economic well-being. The question is how to confront this the same way we are trying combat other maladaptive behaviors such as rampant homophobia, classism etc. Not easy challenges to address, but you get to a point in one’s life cycle that you just say we have to figure this out now. I would enjoy hearing how we can  all proactively address this beyond the natural tendency (on all our part) to hope for an existential moment.

        RVA

        • http://theafricanamericanclarioncall.com Greg L

          >> I would enjoy hearing how we can  all proactively address this beyond
          the natural tendency (on all our part) to hope for an existential
          moment.<<<

          Yep.  Those moments are generally a function of putting in some work and otherwise they rarely come about.  I too would like to hear more about proactive stances we could take on a number of issues.  IMO,   this entire thing  just comes down to leadership and that perhaps is our greatest challenge.  I just think that we've defined our fight as simply one of social justice rather than grappling with the questions of how we solve other thorny problems.  To be sure, there's a place for social justice, but the entirety of the African American experience in this country is much broader than that.  So the question of how we approach these sorts of issues or things like economic development frequently don't get on the table, except for in the social justice context IMO.  To my way of thinking, that context tends to frame our progress in the context what of someone else "approves" rather than what we can develop independently. I just think being able to do stuff outside of the social justice framework is key for our pride in addition to just getting stuff done.    At bottom, this skin color thing is really a reflection of our pride, or lack thereof IMO.   

           I've just resolved that I going to just do my part by helping who I can within the context of what I do.   

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  • Bernie O’Hare

    Greg,

    Perhaps the most attractive woman at the Courthouse is a darker-skinned person. She probably should be a model somewhere. 

      

    • http://theafricanamericanclarioncall.com Greg L

      Hey Bernie,  Thanks for dropping by.  My business affairs generally don’t take me to any of our local courthouses, so it’s unlikely that I’d ever see this person, but I do appreciate beauty 

  • Huckleberry

    ” The only way that can be overcome is by African-Americans becoming our own self reference points in a collective sense.  Essentially, being one’s own self reference point is really about self affirmation.  In other words, develop your own approval stamp and don’t look to the outside for the approval of others. ”  The first sentence is correct. the following are wrong.  Beauty is not self-referential; it’s a cultural construct, and it plays a fundamentally social function.  In this sense, the black communitys preference for lighter-skin is a reflection of the broader society they inhabit.

    • http://theafricanamericanclarioncall.com Greg L

      >>> The first sentence is correct. the following are wrong.  Beauty is not
      self-referential; it’s a cultural construct, and it plays a
      fundamentally social function.  In this sense, the black communitys
      preference for lighter-skin is a reflection of the broader society they
      inhabit.<<<<

      Huckleberry, thanks for dropping by and offering your commentary.   My response to you is a series of questions.  If our concept of beauty is a entirely a cultural concept imposed by the larger society, where does that leave us?  Does the larger society have to change their concept of beauty before black folks can arrive at another definition or can we arrive at another definition independent of what the larger society says of beauty?

      Don't black folks have cultural constructs arrived at more or less independently of the larger society that are in fact accepted by others?  What about things that were developed within the African-American community like jazz and hip hop that have been embraced by the larger society?

      If there is in fact a two way street as far as cultural constructs go, is it not possible to develop a self referential beauty standard that embraced first by us and then by the larger society by default?

  • Black Diaspora

    Not wishing to hurt anyone’s feelings, I must admit that I don’t find white skin
    attractive. People of color have allowed themselves to be snookered into
    thinking so. We have been brainwashed into thinking that white is all that. It’s
    not.

    Because whites wield the power, they have set the standards for beauty,
    directly and indirectly. I prefer color to white—the whole black rainbow, from
    black to what is often called high yellow, or red bone. Those terms are often
    used pejoratively, but they identify the full spectrum of blackness.

    “The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice.” I’ll take “sweet blackness”
    any day to white blandness.

  • Black Diaspora

    “[I]t continues due to our giving it life. I think that this topic has far
    broader implications than each of our personal self perceptions.”

    Many of us look for external affirmations of our self-worth, either from
    within the black community or beyond. Yet, until we’re self-affirmed, the
    problem of image persists, requiring more and more proof of our self-worth.

    “As far as I’m concerned, doing positive things is
    the best way to overcome a negative self image as accomplishment challenges it.
    I was fortunate to have figured that out. There are many people who have never
    overcome this sort of thing and carry this burden for life.”

    As long as we “carry this burden,” we’re not in charge, but have ceded power
    over us to those from whom the “burden” was received.

    True, “doing” can lead to “being.” Yet, “being” can precede “doing,” allowing
    us to affirm ourselves, and define ourselves, from a place of “being,” actually
    carrying out our daily actions and activities as a result of what we’re being,
    but this mental state is rarely understood, or consciously pursued.

    For years, the larger society took the lead in shaping our self-image, and
    our self-worth. After a time, in a Pavlovian way, it wasn’t necessary for that
    society to push so hard–a small reminder of our inferior societal position was
    strong enough to evoke the full weight of its efforts.

    Because of its hidden impact, we mustn’t underestimate the power of
    “conditioned reflex” in our historical effort to undue the intentional damage
    that was done to our image over decades.

    You’d be amazed to know just how many responses in our life are
    reflexive, are elicited automatically–that is, not created in the moment.

    “[T]here’s the risk that one assumes this remains a
    widespread issue. I’m certainly not suggesting that it’s not an issue, but I
    sometimes wonder if we might be better served with a focus on a more positive
    topic; something that could educate and inspire versus dredging up painful
    memories and resentments. ”

    Although I can’t say with certainty just how prevalent colorism is now in the
    black community, I can say with some certainty that it once existed to
    such a significant degree that it drove many of our choices and decisions. I
    say, on the other hand, discuss colorism and racism at length until it no longer
    dredge up “painful memories and resentments.” If these negative feelings
    persist, it’s because we haven’t honestly dealt with them, but have resisted
    them instead, and have allowed them to fester underneath the projection of more
    acceptable emotions.

    In short, for sanity sake, we have resorted to resisting those emotions that
    are causing us, or have caused us, discomfort. But that may not be the best
    tack.

    Because those who are responsible for the problem don’t see a need to change,
    it behooves us to be about the business of building up what they have torn
    down–our individual and collective self-image. Again, this is something that we
    must do for ourselves. Outside help, and solutions aren’t required when it comes
    to ameliorating our damaged self-image.

    Because of a radical shift in my own perspective, I no longer harbor anger or
    resentment toward those who oppressed and suppressed. This shift didn’t happen
    all at once, but was the result of many years of contemplation and
    introspection.

    Sure, let’s “focus on…more positive topic[s]…that could educate and
    inspire,” but within a context of taking a long, hard look at the problem
    itself. What we resist, persists. What we truly look at disappears.

    • http://theafricanamericanclarioncall.com Greg L

      >>True, “doing” can lead to “being.” Yet, “being” can precede “doing,” allowing
      us to affirm ourselves, and define ourselves, from a place of “being,” actually
      carrying out our daily actions and activities as a result of what we’re being,
      but this mental state is rarely understood, or consciously pursued.

      For years, the larger society took the lead in shaping our self-image, and
      our self-worth. After a time, in a Pavlovian way, it wasn’t necessary for that
      society to push so hard–a small reminder of our inferior societal position was
      strong enough to evoke the full weight of its efforts.

      Because of its hidden impact, we mustn’t underestimate the power of
      “conditioned reflex” in our historical effort to undue the intentional damage
      that was done to our image over decades.

      You’d be amazed to know just how many responses in our life are
      reflexive, are elicited automatically–that is, not created in the moment….What we resist, persists. What we truly look at disappears.<<<

      Yet another one for the annals BD.  I'm really appreciative of your taking the time to share your thoughts  

    • Victoria Rowels

      BLACK RAINBOW

       

      Copyright by Victoria Rowels ©2011

       

      Young black slaves with beautiful dark skin,

      Violated by white masters again and again.

      They had white women to whom they were publicly wed.

      But they preferred to rape black women in the slave shed.

       

      A painful history we all want to forget,

      But we can’t because of the children born of it.

      Their hues range from black to white,

      With hair sometimes straight and other times tight.

       

      Evidence of a crime and justice never received.

      Centuries have passed and yes, we still grieve.

      But we must love the black rainbow that we have become.

      We are the original hue-mans and should unite as one.

       

      From the middle passage to every denied civil right,

      We make the best of our trying plight.

      But brainwashed to hate our African origin,

      We began to hate our beautiful black skin.

       

      From European standards of beauty to the paper bag test,

      We have been encouraged to take part in a self-hate fest.

      Now is the time to stop this genocidal game.

      God loves us all and we should do the same.

       

      A young black girl wanted to be fine.

      She bought hazel contact lens and now she’s blind.

      Some black women put glue in their hair,

      To hold long straight weaves that blow in the air.

       

      We shouldn’t do destructive things like that.

      We are a beautiful people and that’s a fact.

      Sisters and brothers we must love our natural state.

      We must love the black rainbow and stop all the hate.

       

       

       

       

       

      • http://theafricanamericanclarioncall.com Greg L

        Ms. Rowels,

        Thanks for taking the time to share your poem with this blog’s readers.  For me, it captures the very essence of how we need to begin shaping our self perceptions  to overcome the color line phenomenon.

        BTW,  I had a chance to read more about you and your own life’s story.  Your story is quite inspiring.  Again, thanks for taking the time to visit the blog and share your thoughts.

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