Color Conscious

Emma D. Sapong, Buffalo News, August 22, 2006

Even within ethnic groups, prejudice fostered for generations still exists

Jaquail Yamini’s complexion is reminiscent of deep, dark chocolate. Kiara Fisher’s is much, much lighter—more like mocha, with golden undertones.

Neither youngster—both African-Americans—understands why their complexions are received differently by their peers.

For all of Jaquail’s life, the word “black” has been used as a pejorative to hurt his feelings. The 12-year-old can’t seem to go a day without other African-Americans, in the neighborhood or at school, fiercely hurling it at him. He finds the constant ribbing confusing.

Kiara is baffled, too. The 9-year-old doesn’t understand why her light skin attracts compliments and plenty of admiring friends at school.

“They say because I’m light skinned I look better than everybody else,” Kiara said.

Jaquail’s and Kiara’s stark experiences are examples of the latest generation’s encounter with the age-old reality of “colorism”—discrimination based on skin tone.

The practice, which embraces light skin and European features and rejects dark skin and African features, is centuries old. It is steeped in the African-American experience and perpetuated through the media, experts say.

But for Jaquail, it could have implications beyond childhood barbs. Recent studies show that darker skinned blacks tend to wind up less educated and less employable, which can lead to an overall lower earning potential and socio-economic status than their lighter skin counterparts.

“I find consistent evidence that African-Americans with lighter skin tone have higher educational attainment than those with darker skin tone,” Joni Hersch, a Vanderbilt University economics professor, wrote in a December research report “Skin-Tone Effects Among African Americans: Perception and Reality.”

For example, one of the three studies used in the report found that a very dark-skinned woman receives an average of 10.44 years of education compared to 12.17 years for a light-skinned African-American woman. A very dark-skinned man earns 11.14 years of education while a light-skinned man receives 12.41 years of schooling.

“There are correlations between skin color, income and occupation,” Ronald E. Hall, a Michigan State University sociology professor and co-author of “Color Complex,” said in a phone interview. “The lighter you are as a black person, you’ll earn more money, get more education and a better job.”

Marita Golden, who dealt with the subject in “Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex,” said colorism is ingrained, prevalent and plays itself out every day.

“[Colorism] is a deep, deep sickness,” she said. “It’s very shameful because blacks have been brainwashed. Self-hatred is a big part of who we are.”

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Special treatment

Kiara, a fourth-grader at the Science Magnet School 59, is already experiencing special treatment because of her complexion.

“Some kids say, “I want to be your friend because you are light skinned,’ “ she said.

Jaquail, on the other hand, said he tries to ignore the nonstop insults about his dark skin. “I don’t listen because they are black, too,” said the seventh-grader at School 79. “But I’m used to it; I’ve been hearing it most of my life.”

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“I think employers see black first, not shades,” said 26-year-old attorney Karema Page, who is also a light-skinned African-American.

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Generations of blacks have experienced the effects of intraracism, as the African-American community has long assigned more value to white features, especially light skin and long hair. That value system is reiterated by the media, especially in movies and music videos, where light-skinned women are desired and celebrated.

For some darker-skinned African Americans, it can mean lower self-esteem and an inferiority complex.

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For some lighter blacks, it can brew resentment and insecurity about their blackness.

“Paper bag test”

Many agree that the practice is an extension of racism and a psychological vestige of slavery, caused by black slave women and their masters having children. Within the institution of slavery, the biracial offspring were favored over the darker-skinned blacks. They were assigned to house work instead of laboring in the fields, received some education and were even offered freedom.

After slavery, a black hierarchy formed where light-skinned blacks were at the top. They were the first to populate the black colleges and own businesses. The elite crop of lighter blacks created exclusive social clubs and organizations, such as fraternities and sororities, that admitted blacks who were lighter than a brown paper bag, creating the infamous “paper bag test.” And many believe that hierarchial system formed out of slavery still exists.

“Modern studies seem to show that lighter skin African-Americans still do better,” said Howard N. Bodenhorn, an economics professor at Lafayette College. “The initial wealth advantage gave light-complected blacks greater access to education that led to better jobs, more wealth that has been passed along to their children.”

But colorism is not unique to the African-American experience. Golden, the author, described it as a “global virus.”

When Andres Garcia, vice president of Kaleida Health, was growing up in Puerto Rico, it was his fellow darker skinned Puerto Ricans who were marginalized, languishing in poverty.

“The biggest privilege a white person has is the color of their skin, and they are not even aware of it,” he said. “So the lighter you are, the more privileged you are in any culture.”

From the Caribbean to Asia, other people of color have long-standing societal hierarchial systems based on skin tone, created out of colonialism.

“When Europeans conquered the world, they established the norms of beauty and the symbolism of wealth and power,” said Henry L. Taylor Jr., director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies. “The more a person looks like that hegemonic figure, the more that look gets attached to wealth, power and authority.”

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Kiri Davis, a New York City high schooler, is one of those youngsters. Her award-winning documentary “A Girl Like Me,” features African-American kids at a Harlem day-care showing overwhelming preference for a white doll over a black doll. The short film is a remake of the 1940s “doll test” experiment, which had similar results.

Midge Wilson, a DePaul University psychology professor and also co-author of “Color Complex,” said eliminating colorism “is going to require a revolution.”

“It’s kind of depressing because it’s so deeply entrenched in our country,” she said. “Whites play a huge role in prepetuating this because they usually do the hiring. Skin color is such a visible feature, you can’t miss it.”

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