Part of the beauty of people of African descent is our wide spectrum of skin tone; from “ebony” to “chocolate” to “caramel”. But how is it that our roots are so similar but we are so disconnected as a people today. How is it possible that we could ever willingly categorize ourselves into the basic categories of “light-skinned” and “dark-skinned” automatically negating the value of all of those tones in-between? Attitudes of skin tone and the idea that lighter is better have roots in slavery and the hierarchy that existed amongst those enslaved.
As a tactic to control and break enslaved Africans of their bond with one another, slave masters would marry, have children with and give jobs more desirable to those with a lighter complexion. This assignment of a more positive connotation to those with lighter skin has connections to the idea of one being a “house slave” or a “field slave”; someone who is lighter and therefore “more attractive” is less suited for hard manual labor. These early skin tone preferences set the stage for what we see today in the way society ranks our skin tone. In the book, “Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters” by Evelyn Nakano Glenn, the history of skin tone is described in terms of being more or less European and so in turn being more or less refined versus primitive (p.5).
I feel as though I see the aftermath of slavery’s impression on the black skin tone when I look at my brother and how he views black women. He has never dated a black female with a darker skin tone and I naturally ask myself why. Is it because darker toned women do not find him attractive or is it because society has told him that dark is not beautiful? Why is it the norm in music videos today to only see lighter skinned women with long, fine hair? Were those girls the best for the job or were they selected based on what is seen as most attractive in society today?
Today we even see the aftermath of a hierarchy of skin tone taking hold in the plight of blacks in the education system and our economic system. We see a higher number of lighter skinned blacks in high powered positions and performing better in school. In an article called, “Minority Status and Schooling in Plural Societies” John U. Ogbu describes the category of castelike minorities which blacks fall into and how “…the variation in skin color permits members of these minorities to ‘pass’ into the dominant group in order to overcome castelike barriers in social, political, and occupational positions” (p.171).
Part of the negative stigma assigned to dark skinned blacks in society comes from within our own community. We have taken the attitudes forced upon us during slavery and now force them upon each other. We as a community have become perpetrators of “colorism” and have failed to negate and reject the idea that lighter is better, a success for our past oppressors (Herring, p.3).
Herring, Cedric, PhD, (2004). Skin Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the "Color Blind" era. 1st ed. chicago: Institute for Research on Race and Public Policy and University of Illinois Press.
Nakano Glenn, Evelyn (2009). Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters. 1st ed. Stanford, California : Stanford University Press.
Ogbu, John U. (1983). Minority Status and Schooling in Plural Societies. Chicago Journals . 27 (2), pp.168-190