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.
*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.