Author Marita Golden sees blacks’ historical obsession over skin tone as everpresent in modern times. Many tend to think of “paper bag tests” and other means of segregating blacks by hue from each other as belonging to a time when all blacks were segregated from the mainstream by law or tradition. Yet, Golden’s experiences have taught her that colorism — or the preference for and deference paid to blacks of a lighter tone — is hardly a thing of the past. The pain of being judged for being “too dark” by other blacks is inflicting searing wounds on the psyches of African-Americans today that cannot be healed until we start talking about it, Golden believes.
“I have begun more and more to conclude that colorism is the most unacknowledged and unaddressed mental-health crisis in communities of color around the world,” Golden writes in a recent essay for The Washington Post. “We speak of the color complex as a problem, as an issue, but it’s negative emotional impact on people of all hues is so serious that it needs to be called what it is — a disease.”
Golden’s book, Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex, addresses these implications — but she also runs workshops that tackle what she perceives as one of our community’s gravest social ills. She shared her experiences hearing the devastating results of colorism through her workshops in her piece.
“I was shocked to learn, the day after my grandson was born, that my daughter had been, as she said ‘praying that he’d come out light, like his father, not dark like me,’” one worksop participant told Golden. From a friend, Golden learned of fights breaking out on college campuses over insults hurled related to the combatants’ relative skin colors.
“My daughter hears all the time from black boys that they would never marry a girl darker than she is,” another associate of Golden’s said. This friend’s child has been assessed as Greek or Spanish because of her complexion.
And it goes both ways. Just as darker women often feel discriminated against, lighter women also suffer from the bitterness that can flood them when they encounter black women who assume that their color gives them a sense of superiority. “As a light-skinned woman, brown-skinned women tell me all the time that I’m not a ‘real sister,’ and sometimes even that I can’t be trusted because I’m light,” Golden learned from the recipient of such sentiment.
These events have impressed themselves on Golden in the last few years, not decades. Yes, it is true that things are changing compared to colorism in the distant past, but anecdotal experience shows that it eerily persists.
What can blacks do to shake off this demon forever? Golden has a simple idea: talk about it. And luckily, that is what some people are doing.
“People of all races and hues and across the generational divide are now creating a space where the real costs of colorism can be addressed,” Golden believes, but “we have to take the vital and healing conversation now taking place around us, out of the hallowed halls of the academy, cyberspace and the circles of the cultural elite and into our kitchens, bedrooms, churches and schools.”
Bill Duke’s seminal documentary Dark Girls (produced with filmmaker D. Channsin Berry) has been the first major conversation piece surrounding colorism as it affects black women of deep tones in recent years. The trailer alone sparked a serious conversation online and off in response to its explosive imagery showing how self-hatred permeates those chastised by loved ones and contemporaries for being blacker than them. The director announced his plans at a screening I attended to create a similar film about the difficulties lighter women encounter, such as that mentioned above.
But for our community to take this discussion “into our kitchens, bedrooms, churches and schools,” as Golden recommends, it will take more effort than just the actions of two cultural creators. It will take personal bravery.
We will all have to look into our hearts and question how we judge ourselves and others based on how light or dark they are. Self-examinaiton of this kind might yield results that force us to realize that we hold notions that are harmful to self-esteem — both that of others and ourselves.
This hard inner work is still essential.
If we gain, “the ability to comfortably talk about colorism,” Golden concludes, we can “recognize it and reject it.” In every segment of our community. For good.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.