When Crystle Stewart was named Miss USA, one of the few black winners of either Miss USA or Miss America, I found myself contemplating the history of colorism in black culture. Specifically my history of colorism.
Growing up no one in my house talked about skin color. It wasn’t an issue. We were told we were all black and based on the fact that I was not treated nicely at school, not as nicely as the two lightest girls in my class were, I concluded that I was not light-skinned.
I was, and still am, very proud of being black. But even at the age of 10 I was disturbed at how my peers were expressing their views of blackness.
I can remember waiting in line for lunch and hearing girls go on and on about how they were going to marry a white man so they could have “pretty babies.”
Everyone was obsessed with skin tone, which I’d say is black America’s number three obsession behind racism and class. It’s not entirely our fault. We all knew the rhyme.
If you’re white, you’re all right
If you’re yellow, you’re mellow
If you’re brown, stick around
If you’re black, get back!
This isn’t just some fantasy. It’s burned into our DNA from birth. We are told our value is in our skin tone, that it is a signifier.
Four years after the “pretty babies” talk, I learned that I was not as dark as I thought I was. I was friends with a girl who I thought was “high yellow” and one day we compared our arms on the bus. I was horrified to find our arms were almost the same color. So I suffered from a junior high color complex. I was caught between hating the fact that I was not, in fact, brown, yet at the same time coveting the hair of a biracial girl who had perfect, brown ringlets. When she straighted them with a relaxer I was horrified. How could she destroy what I always wanted?
But there was nothing wrong with my own hair. It was long. Easy to straighten and thick. And I became obsessed with the length and thickness as more and more people commented on it, loving it and coveting it themselves. I later developed a severe hair complex to go with my skin complex.
In junior high, high school and even college people wondered if I was biracial because they only saw my mother and she, despite having two black parents, could look very South Asian at times. They assumed my dad, with his forever afro and dark skin must be white since they’d never seen him. And a few people assumed he was our gardener because he worked in our yard so much.
Because my mother immersed me in black culture and history as a toddler and beyond, I was rather militant and protective when it came to what I thought people should know about my people. I was also militant about what I was/am. On one hand, I pinned for a West African culture that was alien to me. On the other, I pinned for the esteemed blacks who strove for intellect and excellence in spite of a racist society. But I also wondered why I had to be stuck on the color continuum. If I couldn’t be blacker than black, why weren’t I as pale as my great-great aunts, who I had the pleasure of knowing before they passed. Educated and proud of being black, they both looked like white women and had long, wavy hair. But they were from the same family that produced my dark father. It was confusing to me at the time, further agitating my conflicting feelings about skin color and hair.
When I went to college, I was mentally a militant. When someone told me that the rumor on campus was that I was a light Puerto Rican or some form of tragic mulatto, I snapped. They’d meant it as a compliment. But I took it as an insult. I wrote an editor’s column at my college newspaper about this racial confusion declaring that if anyone ever again asked me if I was mixed I would answer that I was mixed with “slave master.”
And I did just that, freaking out quite a few people.
But my militancy did not prepare me for love. My first serious boyfriend was very light and overly enamored with himself. He only liked other light skinned people. He was proud of his straight hair. He bashed “lower class” blacks. Calling people in the ghetto lazy, welfare miscreants. And he had little sympathy for anyone and anger at being lumped in with the lot of blackness.
He hated black history, even though he went to Morehouse University, arguing that the slaves were “stupid” because they did not fight for their freedom, but waited to be freed. I remember getting into an argument with him about it and actually started crying because I was so hurt, in pain for ancestors I’d never known. And it stung especially so, as I loved him and he was so ignorantly wrong.
He told me how much he loved my hair. He hated it when I didn’t wear it down. He hated it when I wore it natural. He hated to see me without make up. I was a trophy he showed off to his friends. But I felt awful. I didn’t feel any pride in being light complexioned. In my family I did not become this way because of loving relationships between white and black people. Both sides of my family were marked with rape. How could I be proud when I knew this was the end result of my ancestors being taken against their will, repeatedly, only to bare “white” children? Where was the pride in that?
But he didn’t care. We were “light.” We were better than other black people. And he said he’d dump me if I
ever cut my hair.
I’d like to say my drama with black men and my hair/skin tone died after I dumped Mr. Light Bright And Almost White. My next boyfriend was very dark, but he too was obsessed. He was controlling and strangely jealous, angry at me because he felt white people treated me differently. Going on and on about the beauty of dark women, but dating me. Then later one day, in a moment of weakness, he talked about his crush on a white girl as a child and his youthful dream of one day having a light skinned girlfriend with long hair. This was a stark contradiction from a man who was going on and on about my “processed” hair and how I should cut it off and go natural.
When I later did cut my hair and go natural, something I’d been wanting to do since I became aware that my hair obsession was unhealthy, he balked. I was not pretty to him anymore. He still went on and on about the beauty of India Aire and bashed Halle Berry, said people were unjustified in saying Whoopi Goldberg was ugly, yet he was with me.
Needless to say, we aren’t together anymore either.
But that’s how bizarre we are. How divorced we are from ourselves. How we tell ourselves that we love dark women and that they are beautiful. But when you open magazines, they are not there. When you turn on the television, they are not there. When you go to the movies, look at the runways, turn on the music videos, they are not there. You’re lucky if you even see a girl with two black parents like myself. It is almost always a mixed girl, that perfect blend of light skin and the “right” kind of curly hair.
We say we love one thing, but then we do another. And it’s because it is so ingrained, beginning with that first black skin doll my mother bought for my sister in the 1970s. The one that was “for us.” The only one she could find to buy. How that doll was us and we should embrace her, but when we went out into the world everything said reject her. Reject that black doll. Reject the black skin. Reject the black girl. Reject black people.
I know that I suffer from this dual consciousness. This pathology. And if others are honest, they will recognize that they suffer from it as well. This is something that must be unlearned by everyone. There should not be dark black girls pinning for “pretty babies.” There should not be light skinned people proud of their paleness as if it made them better or special. There should not be dark skinned men swearing their allegiance to dark women, but marrying the lightest woman they could find.
I had a younger cousin call me and my sisters “white” because we were the lightest people he knew. I had a little girl in Arkansas beg to touch and comb my hair. She told me how she did this to the white girls in her class and how she wished she had long, straight hair like them. I felt ashamed of who I was, of my hair. I wished for the days back when I didn’t know this because my parents didn’t make it an issue. My grandparents didn’t make it an issue.
When I was very little, my father saw me coloring all the Barbies in my Barbie coloring book white. He didn’t scold me. He asked if he could color with me and he colored his Barbie brown with black hair. It blew my five-year-old mind. It never occurred to me that I didn’t have to color Barbie white. And my father’s Barbie was so different and so beautiful that I colored nothing but black people from then on. When I noticed my baby sister doing the same thing, I did for her what my father did for me. I didn’t tell her she was wrong. I simply showed her that she had other options. People, dolls, toys, beauty could look like her. She had the option and she took it. Like me, it was only black people to draw from then on.
My parents corrected me. They reeducated me. They did the best they could before the ignorance of the world enveloped me, looking like Vanessa Williams with straighted noses like Janet Jackson. Before the snow on television became so blinding that I’d too want to look like Jennifer Aniston and shun anyone darker than a paper bag.
I wish more black people would talk about this. It is such a scarring pathology and all the “black is beautiful” slogans in the world can’t over power a hatred that runs so deep we deny it’s even there. The love/hate towards light skinned people. Light skinned people bashing dark skinned people. Dark skinned people bashing the light skinned people. And everyone hating everyone. Everyone looking for racial qualifiers, for proof that they are truly “down.”
This shouldn’t be happening. We try to hide it but the self-hatred still shows.
Until we deal with that pathology, “black is beautiful” is a myth. The children’s rhyme remains true. And a river of people will claim to love a black girl, pine for a mulatto and eventually drop all pretenses and wrap their arms around whiteness, hoping it will rub off and finally make them pretty and clean. Finding light women attractive, liking spiral curls or straight hair, marrying a white person does not make you less black. But looking down on and denying the beauty of black does.
We need a mental immolation to cleanse ourselves of these demons. To set the pains of the past ablaze and watch those plantation gradations turn to ash. We need to destroy the racism within the black race. We need to take our ancestral hatreds, lock them in the plantation house and watch as Tara burns to the ground.