Perhaps the greatest cinematic representation of the longstanding “light skin vs. dark skin” debate that has plagued the black community can be found in the 1988 Spike Lee film School Daze. The nearly seven minute musical sequence that finds the light-skin, straight-hair “Wannabes” squaring off with the dark skin, natural-hair “Jiggaboos” highlights one of the most controversial divisions among black people. Folks who are of African descent but are visibly more fair-skinned are assumed to have a superiority complex, due to their complexion being closer to white, reflecting the internalized notion of white supremacy. Inversely, those of a darker hue are looked down upon and ridiculed for possessing features that are more African in nature, again a product of white supremacy, suggesting that anything black is naturally inferior.
At one point in our history, fraternities and sororities used a “paper bag test” admission policy to social events, where potential participants were required to have a complexion lighter than that of a paper bag to gain admittance. Ridiculous as this as issue of colorism sounds on the surface, it reveals deeper issues of self-hatred that run deep in the black community. But these issues are history, right? Surely, in 2011, 23 years after Spike Lee satirized this divide on celluloid, we have recognized that one is neither superior nor inferior based on varying degrees of melanin. Of course, if any of us assumed that, we would be wrong.
Club promoters in Columbus, OH plan to host a party they are billing as “Light Skin vs. Dark Skin” and have used social media (Twitter and Facebook) to help with the party’s promotion. An electronic version of the party flyer began making its rounds on the popular sites earlier this week and stirred up quite a bit of commotion, as some started claiming alliance to #teamlightskin or #teamdarkskin, while others went about vehemently denouncing the exploitation of the “color battle” for profits. It’s clear that the issue has yet to die.
But why not? This is a generation that has become much more progressive in thought, bucking many of the traditionally conservative mores of the black community, particularly those surrounding the ideas of personal sexual practices. Even in those spaces where there is still much disagreement and debate, say regarding homophobia or interracial dating, there is a willingness at least to have a conversation and discuss root causes of the conflict. Colorism remains a taboo topic that is generally swept under the rug.
While we mostly agree that the idea is silly, we fail to address the very real ingrained sense of white supremacy that informs our ideas surrounding the various shades that black people come in. So long as we ignore these problems and leave them unsolved, the sore will continue to grow and fester resentment amongst ourselves.
Think back to the trouble Senator Harry Reid found himself in when he suggested that part of President Obama’s appeal was that he was light-skinned, and this characteristic was an impetus for his election. While some dismissed the comments as those of an ignorant, privileged white male, others agreed, recognizing that it is more difficult for darker-skinned black people to gain acceptance by the mainstream of American culture.
The desire to dismiss Reid’s comments seemed to stem from the feeling that we, as black people and a country at large, had moved on from such ideas and/or wanting to counter the narrative of light-skin superiority. What became clear is that, while it may go unspoken, subconsciously the issue of “light-skin vs. dark-skin” has never left us.
And the debate has resurfaced again, this time in the world of hip-hop, where many of black America’s most heated debates find a home, with popular rapper Lil’ Wayne being accused of having not only a preference for lighter-skinned women but a fervent disdain for those who are darker. This is not a new or unique accusation, as rappers have been called on their preference for showcasing light-skin/white women over dark-skin black women in their videos for nearly as long as music videos have been around. It’s another extension of an issue that plagues the Black community.
There are those who will continue to blame colorism on the false notion of “Willie Lynch” (a mythical figure that has captured the imagination of some black nationalists who claim he is responsible for masterminding many of the divisions the black community experiences today). While that is obviously not true, as no so much man ever existed, what is true is that black people have yet to truly solve the issues of ingrained self-hatred and white supremacy that have found in expression in this particular debate. And while some, like the club promoters in Ohio, seem to be attempting to make light (no pun intended) of the situation, the self-image of generations of black people is on the line. It’s about time we put to rest the notion of any one hue as superior to the other. There is no need for more “wannabes” or “jiggaboos” on either side.