Exploring institutionalized colorism and more

Category:  Opinions
Friday, October 18th, 2019 at 11:12 AM

Recently, actress, model and author Lupita Nyong’o has brought attention to societal beauty standards regarding light and dark skin. Nyongo addressed the issue via Twitter in early October: “Colorism, society’s preference for lighter skin, is alive and well. It’s not just a prejudice reserved for places with a largely white population. Throughout the world, even in Kenya, even today, there is a popular sentiment that lighter is brighter.”


There is little doubt these days that racism continues to plague our societies. According to the 2019 edition of the political science textbook “We the People,” 90% of black people and 56% of white people acknowledge racism is a problem in the U.S. Still, the intricacies of discriminatory practices based on skin color are unnoticed by many people.

Nyong’o appeared on "The Tonight Show" last week, speaking about her children’s book, “Sulwe” (which means “Star” in Luo), a story about a dark-skinned little girl’s self-love journey.

Nyong’o spoke about praying for lighter skin as a child because of societal beauty standards and about wanting to give girls of color what she did not have growing up: media that portrays people that look like her. Nyong’o’s book addresses colorism and attempts to eliminate the idea that melanated skin is less desirable. Furthermore, she addresses it to those who need it most — children.

Nyong’o’s words on colorism resonated with me on a couple of levels. Though she grew up in Kenya and I grew up in Edinboro, I felt I truly understood where she was coming from. I am a “light-skinned” African American, the daughter of a white father and a black mother, and I have been made aware of that fact for as long as I can remember.

Like Nyong’o, I have vivid memories from childhood of wondering why so few cartoon characters had skin like mine and why there were only a couple of toys at the store that portrayed black people (compared to the dozens depicting white people).

I was “raised white,” meaning the culture I was steeped in as a child was predominately that of white people. I was one of a handful of students that were not white in my school district, and I spent most of my time with the white side of my family growing up. As I got older, I began to feel a profound sense of “otherness” in the white community.

Other students commented on my blackness constantly. Sometimes, it was with innocent-seeming jokes like, “Zeila, why don’t you join the basketball team? Black people are always good at basketball!” Sometimes, it was with not-so-innocent slurs like the hard "r."

I was asked on more than one occasion if I was adopted after other students saw my white father and grandmother. I began to spend more time with my mother’s side of the family, attempting to find my place in the black community.

To my dismay, I still felt a profound sense of otherness in these black spaces. My darkskinned family members called me “high yellow,” referring to my skin tone, and said the way I spoke was “too white.”

It’s embarrassing to admit, but my mother taught me the right words to say and the right inflections to use to avoid further comments on my speech. I began to wear my hair in styles that resonated with my identity as a black woman, such as box braids, instead of straightening it, and I tanned my skin to darken it. I wanted so badly to be “black enough.”

Though the sense of otherness was the same, the causes were opposite. In white spaces, I received backhanded, mildly racist compliments like, “You’re pretty for a black girl.” Or, “If I was into black girls, you’d be my type.” I knew that I did not look like the other students, that I stuck out like a chocolate chip in vanilla ice cream and that my blackness made me less attractive.

In black spaces, the compliments were still mildly racist, but instead of putting me down, they seemed implicitly structured to imply that I had an advantage other black people did not. “You wouldn’t have done any field work, child! Look at that beautiful skin!” is a direct quote from an uncle that will always be seared into my memory.

To my thinking, this dichotomy is where the inextricable nature of racism and colorism is apparent. For further clarity on the definition of colorism and the historical context that colorism is based upon, I sat down with Dr. Rhonda Matthews of the Edinboro University History Department.

When asked if she was prepared to explain the complexities of colorism, her eyes widened and she seemed to steel herself as she straightened in her chair and laughed aloud, exclaiming “I will do my best!”

Matthews offered a socio-political definition of colorism in her own words, saying “Colorism is social interaction that is based upon racialized and socialized expectations of people of color within any given society.” She was firm in maintaining that this is a blanket statement, because “the ways in which we respond to skin color and/ or tone depends on our cultural belief systems in any given society.”

In other words, colorism is not exclusive to any single community, rather it is a discriminatory social phenomenon that can be observed in any country in which racism is ingrained in the culture. It is important to note that colorism is different than discrimination based on immigration status or on social behaviors that are inherent to a culture.

For example, discrimination against Irish people in the early 1900s by other white people was not necessarily colorism, because the discrimination was based on stereotypes about Irish people being drunkards and undesirable workers, not on the hue of their skin.

Regarding the idea that racism and colorism are exclusive to white people, Matthews said: “Colorism is not just a feature of white communities. [In this country,] treating people differently on the basis of their hue started with American institutions but is maintained by communities of color, because it’s deeply ingrained in American culture.”

She continued: “It’s all part and parcel of the fact that our institutional structures (schools, the economy, social spheres, religions) are steeped in racist thoughts and acts. Our laws and policies are racist.”

So what can be done? According to Matthews, “We must examine the very foundations upon which the United States was built.”

Essentially, we, as a society, must recognize that modern America was built on the backs of black slaves who never received reparations and whose descendants never received reparations, though every other minority group who has experienced oppression by the U.S. government has received reparations of some kind. Apparently, they thought freedom from the field was reparation enough.

As the black community clawed its way to some semblance of equality via the Civil Rights Movement, the insidiousness of systemic racism became clear. As Matthews stated, racism in the U.S. is “an entire institutionalized process.”

The ideology of fairer skin being the height of beauty was bred from “dehumanization,” according to Matthews. The centuries-long enslavement of black Americans created the foundation for systemic racism.

“In order to maintain systems of oppression, especially one as inhumane as slavery, you have to make sure that everyone in your society understands that these people we are oppressing in the most horrific of ways have to be oppressed because they’re ‘not human,’” Matthews said.

Even though they are experienced on the personal level, Matthews addressed how comments like, “You’re pretty for a black girl,” and my uncle’s insinuation that, had I been a slave, I would’ve had an easier life than my dark-skinned counterparts, are “inextricably linked to racist notions of dehumanization.”

Attempts to mitigate these racist undertones often miss the mark; the common woke (and, let’s be real: white) mantra of “I don’t see color” merely perpetuates the inherent racism in our society, because denying the existence of implicit bias and systemic racism allows it to continue.

According to Matthews: “You can’t disentangle colorism from racism. They’re too tightly woven together. Lupita was absolutely spot on that [colorism] is the sister of racism; they’re connected, but they aren’t the exact same thing. You get colorism from racism.” Matthews described the “Paper Bag Test” employed in southern states for decades postabolition. A paper bag was held up to the arms of potential employees: if the arm was darker than the bag, the individual was not eligible for hire.

I was floored by this historical tidbit, not only because it is horrific, but because I heard something similar the day before when I asked one of my dark-skinned peers his opinions on colorism.

He asked to remain anonymous if I included his quotes for fear of offending his classmates. He acknowledged the existence of colorism, saying light-skinned African-Americans have privileges that dark-skinned people do not, such as lighter prison sentences.  

Deborah Mathis of NPR commentated on this trend in 2006, quoting a study by Stanford psychology professor Jennifer Eberhardt. Mathis wrote: “Professor Eberhardt reports that convicted murderers who look more stereotypically black — broad noses, thick lips, dark skin, kinky hair — are more than twice as likely to get the death sentence than are fairer skinned black men. That is, as long as the victim is white. Let either man kill a black person, and the likelihood of capital punishment fades away.” 

My peer then mentioned his preference for light-skinned women, saying, “If she’s darker than caramel, I won’t ask her out.” This ideology could be seen as a modern-day paper bag test, and Matthews called it “inherently racist.” 

Regarding these revelations, Matthews continued: “If the discussion about privilege is you are privileged because our discriminatory system likes you a little bit more than dark skinned people, that is a distraction!” Talking about prison time — or any other perceived privilege that light-skinned people may have a degree of — without addressing what put that person in that position to begin with, “is a deflection,” according to Matthews. One that amounts to entirely “missing the point.” 

“They still get a prison sentence!” She continued, “What are the foundational, institutional effects that put that light-skin there, regardless?” Of a light-skinned black person and a dark-skinned black person sitting in prison, she said, “The same effects will happen to them after jail: likely the effects that put them there in the first place.”  

Comments like those made by my peer are proof that a system designed to divide the black community achieves that goal. Matthews said colorism is “absolutely” an expression of internalized racism. “That’s what colorism does for the black community,” she began, “it further steeps us in white, male, patriarchal, institutionalized, internalized racism.”  

Matthews also spoke about how her mother worked hard to provide her with toys and media featuring people that looked like her, because she recognized the racist messages that minority women internalize.  

Her mother, unlike my own caretakers or those of Ngoyo’o, understood the insidiousness of the internalization of stereotypical, not-so-subtle racist imagery portrayed in popular media. “These messages are internalized even by our own people. When you replicate the message, you’re not breaking the cycle,” said Matthews. 

When asked how oppressive systems can be improved, Matthews said: “I like the idea of Truth and Reconciliation Committees..with teeth. They have to be given the ability to systematically, and in a methodologically sound way, do the research on the damage of slavery on today’s black population.”  

She also stated that the legislation enacted post-abolition perpetuated the damage and should be examined, so comprehensive policy changes can take place. Matthews agreed that racist and colorist behavior would decrease if the racist foundations of our legislation, education, and social standards were properly recognized and addressed, but lamented the unlikelihood of such comprehensive restructuring because, “That’s a lot of work.”

“People tend to talk in these emotive ways about these issues,” she said. “My government can speak in emotive language when it comes to rhetoric, but it’s not good enough; I want some policies that work toward the goals expressed with emotive language. Keep the emotive language, but make your policies match.”  

In essence, the American people and government need to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to combating systemic racism. If the system truly changes, behaviors will too.  

Matthews said it best. Fairness should be actual, “not rhetorical.” 

Calls for revolution aside, people of all colors can learn from media like Nyong'o’s “Sulwe” and studies like the one conducted by Eberhardt. The first step to changing unsavory social dynamics surrounding race is to look critically at media, at our institutions, and at ourselves. Even more so, we must approach each other and ourselves with respect and kindness. As Ngoyo’o said on "The Tonight Show," “Love yourself before anything else.” 

Everyone else will follow suit.

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