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American Colorism

An article the Lighthouse produced on Haiti’s recent travails took an unexpected turn last month. Our focus had begun with the damage of colorism in Haiti, but it could not possibly stay a “Haitian story,” not with all the similarities and parallels between the little island nation and the U.S.

For starters, multiple sources we’d interviewed for the Haitian article informed us how extreme colorism had paved the way for the island’s political collapse. According to personal accounts, the economic division between Haiti’s lighter-skinned “mulatto” minority and the darker-hued “Black” majority had intensified social stratification and resentment to the point where Haitian despots like Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier were able to exploit the animosity by claiming to speak for the forsaken, darker majority. Empowered by a legitimately frustrated underclass, Duvalier and his family bled the nation dry while miring it in stagnation and illiteracy.

Haiti was developmentally behind its neighbors by the time it ousted Duvalier and his family, but its people, stained by his lies and rampant corruption, were left with little faith in politics. Their resulting despondence opened the door to even more government corruption.

Internal strife was not the sole source of Haiti’s problems, by any means. This was a nation under siege from its birth and beset with trade embargoes from white-led slave nations like the U.S., who resented Haiti’s Black population throwing down white slave-owners. France also bit deep into Haiti’s neck and drained it of resources for more than a century before the Nazis came along in the 1940s and showed France what a real bite looks like.

But one of the longstanding issues facing Haiti has always included its color-based social divisions and the fractured, vulnerable society that came of it. It is a weakness, I’m learning, that is not exclusive to Haiti.

Shadows of Haiti in America

“Colorism” is the name for prejudice or discrimination wielded against individuals of a different skin tone, typically by people of the same race. It’s not solely a “Black” problem of course. Lighter-skinned Hispanic people and Latinos can discriminate against darker, more “indigenous-looking” Latinos or Hispanics. Mexican telenovela actors are bleached enough to put their country of origin in doubt, and critics are rightfully concerned that Mexico is defining beauty by European standards.

Googled result ofTop Telenovela Stars. No, seriously.

White people also perpetuate colorism, in addition to rote racism. White-led Hollywood overwhelmingly prizes light-skinned lead actors and actresses over dark-complexioned actors, who instead get pigeonholed into “best friend” roles. I personally can’t think of a medium or dark-complexioned U.S. series lead beyond Issa Rae, and she already had a dedicated fan base before launching an HBO series. Instead, Hollywood gives us “Gossip Girl,” and then acts like it’s done Black America a favor.

But colorism just isn’t as sexy a topic as racism. Racism hits all the buttons as cop-killings continue to dominate the news cycle and the 2020 U.S. election devolves into a race war. (Certain people claim the Jan. 6 terrorist attack on the Capitol wasn’t about race, but that ignores the number of times the terrorists shouted the N-word.) So, racism keeps sucking the air out of the room while colorism hangs in the background, lurking in the dark, poking at your kids and trying to look innocent while pulling at the very threads that hold society together. And if you call it out, it’ll shrug its shoulders, grin and say “lighten up, dude. It’s just a joke.”

“A joke. That’s what they always said after they’d hurt my feelings,” says CFO Benita Carol when describing the isolation she felt among people of her own race because of her skin color. “When I’d get upset, they’d say ‘well, it was just a joke,’ but for them it’s just a joke. For me it was my entire life. (Because of my appearance) I was called names like ‘stuck up bitch.’ My own teachers called me ‘W.G.,’ which was short for ‘white girl.’ […] They always had nicknames for me, like ‘Powerpuff girl.’”

Colorism is Racism’s malignant little brother, but Colorism still gets invited to parties. It draws a good laugh in Damon Wayans movies and it makes a great burn on the playground. Like racism, however, it leaves a scorch mark that can stick around for a lifetime. California business owner and political activist Antoinette Scully says it still mars her sense of self.

California business owner Antoinette Scully said she has not let colorism stifle her ambition, despite growing up with it.

“When I was a kid I would get comments about how ‘you don’t want to be in the sun too long or you’ll get darker’. My brother has the same skin tone (as me) but he has hazel eyes while I have dark brown eyes, and there was a lot of tension for him having lighter, ‘prettier’ eyes. So now I don’t think I have pretty eyes, and when people tell me I do I question that. Even when it’s a partner saying it; if that partner has lighter colored eyes, it comes off as a definite lie because I’ve grown up knowing that my eye color was not pretty.”

Scully said the countless little affronts and insults have not left the kind of baggage that affects her career, but that doesn’t stop her from resenting every new slight that crosses her path.

“My partner is white and my kids are mixed, so they have lighter-colored skin. There’s been a lot of times in their toddler years when people would literally ignore me and talk to my kids and say how pretty they are and how attractive they are and how great it is to have mixed kids—that sort of thing. I got that from both races.”

Unlike Scully, some people carry a more pronounced wound. Filmmaker and producer Talamieka Brice said her experience as a dark-complexioned child left her with severe self-confidence issues that trailed her well into adulthood. The abuse, she said, came from all directions: classmates, strangers, even family—especially family.

“One particular instance involved my aunt. She used to keep me for a while and she was really more on the end of, you know, ‘you can’t do this because you’re too black.’ She wouldn’t even let me eat with my fairer skinned cousins. I would have to eat the scraps. She’d say ‘get yo’ li’l black hands off my table. You eat when they’re done.’ I think she must have had her own mental health issues, but it still took a while for me to get that off me. All kids have minor infractions because they’re kids, but my infractions would land me locked in the closet all day. […] I internalized all of that because I was a kid.”

Film producer Talamieka Brice says she carried heavy color-related baggage into adulthood. Much of it, she claims, came from her own family.

Saddled with humiliation at an early age, Brice entered adulthood loathing her dark skin and full features. “For the longest I did not embrace who I am, and I’ve carried a lot of shame for years. I was in my 30s before I finally came to terms with it. I did not see the beauty in myself until I saw it reflected in my son, with my first child.”

Her newborn boy, she said, shared his mother’s face. She looked down at a bottom lip juicy enough to look like a heart stuffed with love and a buttony nose that demanded a million kisses. It was then that she recalled the adoring words of her own mother: “My Mom, that awesome lady, she said people pay good money for your lips, and she was right.”

The disregard that put Brice on the path to self-loathing went beyond family and acquaintances. The corporate community, she says, is no less divisive.

“I could see how lighter-skinned people got certain privilege and access to things that others did not. I worked in public relations and I was one of the youngest employees, but up on the seventh floor of my building—other people called it the ivory tower because it was mainly all white,” she said.

People her shade never walked those “ivory” halls unless they were delivering something.

Scully and Carol agree. Scully claimed lighter-colored Black women do indeed “have more access” than dark women in some organizations, and that this dichotomy causes tension and an unwelcomed sense of “hierarchy” between both groups. Carol, whose skin is comparatively lighter, confirmed that white society grants people who look like her certain advantages. She was quick to add, however, that that same society still had plenty of racism for anybody who isn’t white, no matter how light-complexioned.

“I remember when I was passed over for a promotion. When I worked for the (Mississippi) Department of Revenue, I came in at the same time as two other white auditors. I trained more auditors and I also brought in more tax revenue than they did, but I still got passed over for a new auditing position, from Auditor I to Auditor II. We also had a CPA program where they would allow us 40 hours to study for our CPA and they’d pay for our CPA materials. I submitted my application but a year and a half later it still had not been approved.”

Carol’s white supervisor blamed the snub on “budget issues” while approving white applications all around her. A white, male co-worker submitted his application and “got approved within a week,” she said.

But Carol discovered that whenever she fell victim to this blatant racism her light skin made it impossible to find solace in the arms of her own people.

“When I experience racism, prejudice or discrimination and I talk to my people about it, it’s almost like my experience is not as valid as theirs because of my skin. So, a lot of times when I experience these things, I feel I just have to deal with it because they don’t understand. One time at Sally (Beauty Supply) a woman there was, like, ‘I’m darker than you.’ People get a kick validating their Blackness by letting me know I’m not as Black as them, or not Black enough. I’m not saying my genes are straight from the motherland, but I’m always having to defend my Blackness.”

Studies suggest that colorism pokes its nose into every nook and cranny. Lighter-skinned Black people are often perceived as smarter, and Black people who come off as intelligent in job interviews are frequently recalled as having lighter skin than they probably actually had. People with darker skin also claim to suffer higher incidences of “microaggressions.”

One writer in the Guardian even claims her dark skin tone makes it more difficult to date a Black man with “a college education, a steady job, and able and willing to pay for the first date.” All the prime Black men, she believes, are too busy chasing lighter-skinned women.

Darrick Hamilton is a professor of Economics and Urban Policy at the New School Milano, New York. Hamilton published a 2008 study examining why many dark-skinned women are single. His results suggested that a scarcity of men with higher levels of education and origins in low-crime neighborhoods put Black men in control of the dating scene. The numbers reflected 55 percent of light-skinned women being married, but only 23 percent of dark-skinned women. Darker-complexioned Black women with ‘higher status,’ Hamilton said, faced a bigger penalty in marriage markets than light-skinned women with a lower socioeconomic status.

When I asked a lighter-skinned Black man if he felt this is true, he immediately went on the defensive.

“Chances are, if these dark women have a PhD or something like that and they’re not getting a date it isn’t because of their dark skin color. They’re not getting a date because they’re stuck up.”

‘Stuck up bitch,’ they’d called my source Benita Carol. I was hearing that phrase a lot in my research.

If Haiti Can’t, How Can We?

Colorism’s most intimidating feature is its endurance. Slave masters in both Haiti and the U.S. raped enslaved women, and then gave their lighter-skinned offspring preferential treatment. They often worked them in the house rather than the heat of the cotton and cane fields. This kicked off a hateful hierarchy that’s managed to survive countless generations, even in Haiti. Keep in mind, however, that Haiti is a nation that violently ended slavery in 1803. It executed its French slave-owners and became the first Black-led republic and the first independent Caribbean state on the planet. And yet a system born of rape and preference remained so pervasive there that a monster like Papa Doc was able to exploit it and set the nation back decades.

Robert Fatton Jr. (who’d spoken to me for the first article in our Haitian series) is a professor of Politics at the University of Virginia. His family is a member of Haiti’s reviled bourgeoisie class, and he describes Haiti-brand colorism as a kind of long-term poison. Like toxic lead anchoring itself to bone and dripping illness into the system over the course of years, the descendants of Haitian slavery carried the taint of colorism to the next generation. Fatton incriminates his own family for their contribution to the system.

“Traditionally, mulattoes are very colorist,” Fatton said. “If you’re a mulatto and you’re ready to get married people will tell you to ‘improve the race.’ That means you get married to a light-skinned person or even a white person.”

In this way colorism gets passed down to the kids as assuredly as Grampa’s stupid-looking ears. This begs the question of how the U.S. can hope to deal with the colorism issue if Haiti cannot. Haiti literally cut slavery to bloody pieces with swords and hatchets, so how could a racism-clogged country like the U.S. ever hope to defeat it? De facto slavery was still rampant here in the 1900s and the federal government allowed state-instituted racism as recently as 60 years ago.

Abolition, old school style: An 1806 engraving of Haitian Gen. Jean-Jacques Dessalines holding a severed French head.

Trina Jones, law professor at Duke University School of Law, in North Carolina, says I’m being too generous with my U.S. history.

“The United States has never defeated institutional racism,” Jones pointed out, not 60 years ago and not today. “And, yes, we are still struggling with colorism.”

But it’s worse than parents selling hate and superiority to the kids. Colorism, she says, is a powerful global phenomenon not only because of a history of slavery, but also because corporations make such tremendous money from it.

“Skin color is hugely important in places like South Korea and in India where we see marital ads highlighting the color of a woman’s skin and the marketing of skin lightening products toward women, claiming your chances of romantic and economic success is heightened by using their product to lighten the skin,” Jones said.

The evidence is all over the international marketplace. Nigerian-Cameroonian pop star Dencia makes millions hawking skin-bleacher “Whitenicious” to the African continent, and Japan will happily sell you a product to make your nipples soft and pink. But U.S. corporations are some of the biggest offenders keeping the colorism train rolling. European and U.S. skin care companies raked in billions from sales of whitening skin products way back in 2015, according to a Global Industry Analysts report. This is colorism of the worst sort, Jones says, promulgated by white people.

“When companies lighten the skin tones of celebrities like Nupita Nyong’o or Beyonce, that’s not a person of color engaging in colorism. That’s a corporate entity dominated by white decision makers and marketers who are making color distinctions.”

Duke University School of Law Professor Trina Jones.

The fight isn’t totally hopeless. Despite centuries of untold damage, the conversation on colorism in America is finally getting airtime. We’re not just talking about L’Oréal’s cheap lip service to removing words like “white/whitening,” “fair/fairness,” and “light/lightening” from its skin bleaching products. They’re still gonna sell them, of course. (Got to make them dollars!) But people, at least, are coming out and talking about the issue and pulling colorism from the shadows. Even Prince Harry and Meghan Markle got dragged for making a deal with a skin-whitening company.

“That’s how we move forward on this,” said Brice. “We talk about it. Here’s the thing, especially among women: everyone thinks that someone has a key to a door that they don’t have, and that’s not true. The truth is we all have our own keys; we just have to learn which doors to open. We have to claim our keys.”

Fixing Things for a New World

Jones said the legal community and U.S. law is also stepping into the debate and recognizing the problem. She referred to the court case Walker v. Secretary of Treasury, IRS, which laid the groundwork for any lawsuit raising the issue of color bias between Black people. The Walker case involved a lighter-skinned Black plaintiff alleging her supervisor, a darker-skinned Black woman, had terminated her because of the lighter color of her skin. Letting that case move forward in 1989 meant U.S. courts were finally acknowledging the difference between colorism and racism on a federal level. Other, similar, cases abound. Jones said People v. Bridgeforth is equally significant because it reversed a prosecutor’s use of peremptory strikes to remove dark-colored jurors from a case involving a dark-skinned defendant. A lower court claimed the defendant had failed to prove discrimination was involved in prosecutors’ peremptory strikes, but the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, arguing that the NY state constitution distinguishes between “race” and “color,” and that “color has been recognized as a category upon which discriminatory practices have been based ….”

Jones also pointed out that the number of color-related charges filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has increased over the last 20 years, with the most noticeable uptick immediately following the election of the nation’s first Black president.

Whatever is driving this push needs to drive it fast because the fact of the matter is that the U.S. has to knock colorism out of the park, and quickly. The face of America is changing at a lightning pace. We’re going from “Black and white” to a racial mishmash of “others,” and all that colorism baggage is licking its lips in anticipation. Jones says she sees the future, and colorism is the new bad guy of a multiracial nation.

“Erroneously, we have characterized race relations in terms of white and Black whereas the racial hierarchy is much more nuanced,” she said. “Color will play a role in positioning individuals in this hierarchy particularly as we move forward and racial categorization has less salience in this country. (In the near future) when it’s not as easy to engage in racial classification, color may assume a greater importance.”


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