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Marita Golden Says Colorism Hurts

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I recently mentioned colorism, which I believe is a major motivation for the excesses of the so-called multiracial movement, in the comments at another blog. Some folks, including a pair who are allegedly mixed-race, tried to shut the discussion down. They said there are no race problems – except for uppity colored folks who run off at the mouth. Fortunately, the efforts of such people to silence discussion of colorism are doomed. The topic is coming out of the closet and being talked about.

Among those talking is writer Marita Golden. Her views were recently considered in the New York Times.

Ah just couldn't see mahself married to no black man. It's too many black folks already. We ought to lighten up the race." — From Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

When you begin a book with a quotation like that, you're inviting trouble to come in, kick off its shoes and stay awhile. That's Marita Golden's intention. She wants to ignite debate about one of the oldest, rawest issues among African-Americans.

The aching honesty in the words of Zora Neale Hurston's character from 1937, Ms. Golden says, evokes a continuing aesthetic hierarchy among African-Americans that puts light skin at the top and dark skin at the bottom. It's the subject of her new book, Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex, which was published this week by Doubleday.

For Don't Play in the Sun, Ms. Golden interviewed black people, including a psychotherapist, a cultural historian, a biracial writer, a TV producer and her friends and her husband. The book's title comes from her mother's warning that the sun would make her deep brown skin even darker and less attractive. Through the prism of her own skin, Ms. Golden explores the belief that light skin and European features remain the highest standard of beauty in most places in the world. Color, though, is not just a black thing, she says. It is not even an American thing, with versions of lighter-is-better in India, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Ms. Golden considers this global obsession a legacy of colonialism.

I read an excerpt from Marita's Golden's book in the current edition of Essence, a magazine whose target audience is African-American women. In the piece, she describes her own marginalization as a child. Her mother, lighter skinned, disapproved of her dark coloring. She told young Marita she would need to marry someone light-skinned to have presentable children.

Having read Golden's autobiography, Migrations of the Heart, I believe the color conflict was the basis of serious alienation between mother and daughter. Golden would grow up to reject her 'home training'. marrying a Nigerian and moving to Nigeria for a time. Additional salt in the wound came from Golden growing up in Washington, D.C., a 'Chocolate City' with an entrenched history of colorism.

However, colorism is both personal and political. It can determine who gets opportunities in education and work. People of color who are light brown or fairer are often praised as more attractive and more intelligent, though there is no empirical basis for either belief. They are likely more apt to be hired and promoted than their darker peers. As black studies professor Henry Louis Gates has observed, color seems to determine which black women are successful as actresses and hired as models or to perform in videos. An Alicia Keyes wins a fistful of Emmys while an India Arie goes home empty-handed.

The situation is not monolithic. Dark-skinned women such as Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg do overcome the color barrier, as they do the barriers of gender and race, but they are phenomenal people. Millions of men and women of color pay the price for being the 'wrong' color — darker than a brown paper bag.

Regardless of who is at fault for the start of colorism among people of color, it seems to me that the problems caused by it must be solved by African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics and Indians themselves.

Reasonably related

*I previously wrote about colorism in regard to a lawsuit in which a dark-skinned employee sued a corporation because a light-skinned supervisor, also African-American, had discriminated against him.

My blog friend George Kelly brought my attention to the article in the New York Times at Negrophile.

Visit Marita Golden at her website.

Note: This entry also appeared at Silver Rights.

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About The Diva

  • By happy accident, through instant-messaging a pal tonight, I ran across Midge Russell and Kathy Russell’s “Divided Sisters,” which is posted in full. Readers may find Chapter 3 particularly relevant.

  • sheri

    “Alleged?” Interesting. Now that you mention it….how do I know you are what you say YOU are?

    It doesn’t even matter to me.

    You took a strong disagreement I had with you over your endorsement of a socialist agenda,(giving individual inheritance to the state) and the suggestion that “poor whites” were should be classified with those of “declining fortunes”, and turned it into me now being a racist, and against your beliefs about race and how it should be treated in society.I expressed my anger over this quite vehemently, and had Eric remove it, but my feelings on the issue are still the same.

    But of course, as I have checked, you have a history on this site for causing serious fighting, due to your baseless accusations of racism, and your refusal to stop in order to maintain harmony.

    I now have my serious doubts as to whether you are ANYTHING of what you claim.

  • Kudos to George for adding a link which sheds light on how women of color and white women often misunderstand each other.

    I also want to clarify my thoughts in regard to the American economic system lest I be thought naive. One of the things I left law school with was and understanding of just how embedded capitalism is. I don’t believe there is much possibility of overthrowing it in this century. Therefore, I believe that about the most that can be hoped for is reforming the aspects of capitalism that harm working people most. That is hardly tantamount to being a socialist. Dirtgrain, the blogger whose entry I cite in “Debunking the American Dream” is more hopeful of deeper systemic change than I am. Jaded? Yes. Naive? No.

  • sheri

    Congratulations on your law degree. I don’t have one, but I haven’t needed one to see how the system locks down poverty in a neverending cycle. And it ain’t a purty sight.

    Jane FOnda compared the poverty of children in the mountains of North Georgia to that of a third world country. Starving, and living in tar paper shacks. I know, I live here.And I understand the system that damns you if you do, damns you if you don’t. Some things have changed in the last few years, but it isn’t nearly enough.

    This type of tragedy knows no color boundaries, the suffering is equal, and caused by the same reasons.It is the real colorlessness of society.

  • joni

    Colorism hurts but LOVE conquers all. Mac Diva is the resident troll with an agenda to prove that we are all racists (MD excepting of course). According to reports she has been committed several times but always manages to escape. Unfortunately BC is her favorite haunting grounds. Hopefully some day she will get laid and curb that dour sourpus of hers.

  • sheri

    Joni, it seems as if we collided with MD at the same time.:0) I’ve never seen you here, but then I’ve only been coming here for about 2 mths now.

    So, you are mixed race?

  • joni

    Yes I’m mixed of a European flavour, but my family is all colours and races including black, brown and everything in between. Our love for each other makes us colorblind. The bottom line us ALL of us are mixed if we dig back far enough in the family tree. Just ask Dinah Shore Adam and Eve, or treeless Lucy depending upon your preference. It’s too bad oxymorons like MD can’t figure that out. Hateful troublemakers like her need to fade away like a bad stink.

  • Efforts to suppress discussion of colorism have obviously failed when the topic is on the front page of the book section at the New York Times. This source of pain to millions of people is getting the attention it deserves. Hopefully, more progress will be made toward ending colorism.

    I will leave it up to people who read the entry to decide who the trolls on this thread are.

  • Given how the rascist legislation of South Africa has held it back, and the 10th anniversary of the slaughter in Rwanda, what sort of agenda are you trying to promulgate?

  • joni

    Like the man said, “Love Conquers All”. Pathological fixations about race only serves to propagate discord and hatred because it dwells on our differences. I realize it is MD’s major purpose in life to expose the world as racist, but I can assure all concerned there really is life after conflict. My advice is to focus on positive affirmations and what makes we humans the same rather than dwelling on our minor differences – i.e. the color of our skin. Such a silly and useless pursuit. Nuff said.

  • Jamilla Blackman

    I’m doing a paper on colorism . I’m a dark skinned hispanic and black female. Does anyone have a tips or sites to help me write a good essay????
    Please help!!

  • asha

    My children spent their last school year being subject to intra-racial colorism from peers and some adults. This issue is not just one that will go away because people wish not to talk about it. I wish that the world( the black world included) was color blind. However years and years of socially imposed self hatred have left us in a box of tired old notions of what constitutes beauty and intelligence within our community. This issue needs to not just be talked about, it also needs to be fought about. If racism is illegal (or should be) from whites toward blacks, then the same should be true of blacks towards blacks.Its time for a change.

    Do any of you know if there are any support groups for darker skinner sisters and brother who have or are suffering from intra-racial discrimination?

  • nels

    Found this link; an interesting perspective on colorism.


  • wow
    love your blog!
    see more on colorism at OUTLOOK