Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Beautiful Shades of Black

           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



Race: Defining an evolving concept

           When one is asked to describe the rainbow, he or she will describe seven relatively discrete bands of colour, and yet what is actually there is a continuous distribution of light of different wavelengths (Hogg & Abrams). Our cognitive processes do not allow us to see the rainbow as a continuous spectrum, and we end up classifying the spectrum of light into separate and distinct categories. This is similar to how the United States has dealt with race, since the concept of race was socially created to describe both social and physical human differences.
In any form of civilization, there must be a caste system to create social order. As social beings, humans use these classification systems to outline social “norms.” These classifications are necessary to define behaviors and answer essential questions. These norms are built into who we are as a nation. “From the time the first Africans stepped onto Virginias shore, the English mainland colonies moved toward a biracial society, one in which people from Africa and their descendants- including those of mixed African and European heritage- held a subordinate legal, social and economic status” (Soderlund). This caste system placed people with darker skin at the bottom, therefore giving power to Whites. This division of power made Africans an easy target to the growing demand for labor.  Once this caste system was in place, English colonists began creating bogus reasons for the enslavement of Africans. Dark skinned people were described as pagan, uncivilized, and inferior human beings (Soderlund). This served as a justification to why it was morally acceptable to enslave Africans. As slave owners realized that the slave trade was a profitable market, laws were created to protect it.
            When we think about race relations in the United States, we are forced to wonder not only how it originated but also how to define it. We are forced to wonder if it is a system to biologically categorize humans, or if it’s a socially constructed term that is forever changing. Also, if we do believe that the concept of race is evolving, then can we change the present state of injustice that the categorizing of race has caused? As a student in a Black Studies class, I decided to turn to the book Racisms: An Introduction by Steve Garner. When discussing skin tone differences that exist between people of different races he states:
Moreover, the terms we use, like ‘white’, ‘black’, ‘yellow’, ‘red’, etc. are not even descriptions of what they claim to describe. Nobody living is actually white. Nobody is really ‘black’ in the sense of the ink on this page, although there are some people with very dark complexions indeed. Certainly, nobody’s skin is yellow or red – unless they are sunburnt or suffering from particular diseases. So the conclusion must be that such terms have social meanings but not biological ones. (Garner).
Garner’s conclusion is correct, in the sense that the words we use to describe racial categories don’t have a factual basis. Our skin isn’t actually black, white, red, yellow, etc. Depending on our geographic location, we use different words to categorize race. I am an American student, whose parents are from Jamaica. In Jamaica, this classification system of red skin and yellow skin is more common. However, Garner’s choice of words seems to be bread directly out of the ‘racist’ system of the United States, whether it was intentional or unintentional. When Garner says that no one is actually black in the sense of their complexion, he feels the need to add the note “although there are some people with very dark complexions,” however when he states that “nobody living is actually white”, he does not add the similar disclaimer that there are people who have really pale complexions. This leads me to the greater question of what is the stigma against people of darker skinned tones that has caused the oppression of the Black race. This can only be lead back to the categories that existed during slavery, which caused people of darker skin to be treated inferiorly.
            When examining the evolution of racial categories in America, we see that the census information for the 18th and 19th century included the following breakdown: free white males, free white females, free other persons and slaves. These categories were constructed because of the social relations present at the time. Enslaved Africans were not relevant enough to be categorized as “Africans” or “Blacks.” Slaves were not considered to be civilized humans and therefore they were labeled as property. Giving Enslaved Africans a category on the census, would be acknowledging that slaves were humans. Different terms have appeared and disappeared throughout the history of the United States census, based on the social context of the time period. Words like “Mulatto”, “Octoroon”, and “Quadroon” appeared and disappeared on the census. From 1920 until 2000, the U.S. Census did not recognize mixed-race individuals (Walker). Now, people are allowed to check off more than one race. Also, the term African American wasn’t introduced until the 20th century. The changing census proves that the concept of race is a developing one, based on the social relations, and context of the period. Racial categories also vary by geographic location, where we see classifications within a race or ethnic group based on skin color.
            When questioning the necessity of race, one has to evaluate its’ purpose. Although racial classification has not always been used in positive manner, both science and history have proven that classification is both necessary and essential to human existence. There would be no social order without a social classification system. However, how we as individuals choose the use this classification system, is another story. I have seen numerous arguments explaining why race is in fact biological and more than a social construction. Steve Garner’s Racisms: An Introduction identifies one study that finds African Americans to be a higher risk for the disease sickle cell anemia. Another study he identifies found that the scores on an IQ test varied, based on race. He also mentions that people who dispute these findings often argue that there are a host of social class and culture-related issues around what is counted as intelligence and what is actually measured in these types of tests (Garner). I tend to agree with that argument. Social class and the resources available to a particular ethnicity will affect the results of any experiment that tests knowledge. It particularly angers me when people don’t understand this concept.
            Last week, I decided to watch a “True Life” episode on MTV called “I hate the US government.” At first glance, I figured the episode would be focused on the injustices of the United States government. However, the episode was focused on how people hate where the government is presently headed, with Obama as president. The episode didn’t go into the topic of race, but the undertone of racism was present. A story that bothered me in particular was one about a high school student who began his own Tea Party Club at his school. The episode illustrated his discontent with Obama’s new healthcare bill, and what he described as Obama’s “socialist policies.” He didn’t agree that everyone should have to suffer and pay higher taxes for healthcare. As a Black student, his argument angered me because it did not offer a solution for those who have been denied resources for centuries – therefore making it harder for them to access sufficient healthcare. It upset me that a student, not too far from my own age was not interested in the people the bill was helping. Instead he seemed more concerned with government politics, and higher taxes. My disappointment laid primarily in the fact that this episode did not represent the injustice of the United States government onto minority groups.
            During the past few semesters, I began to take a few Black studies classes, in both history and literature. Before this, I knew racial categories existed but never gave it much thought. I knew that Africans were brought from Africa to America and enslaved. I also knew that this horrific historical event had tragic effects on the racial system in America. After taking classes and expanding my knowledge of slavery I have a broader understanding of the concept of race in America. Before, I might have said that race, like other controversial socially constructed categories such as gender and sexuality shouldn’t exist. However, this argument doesn’t seem practical when it’s practically innate for humans to classify the things around us to keep social order and to grasp understanding. Similar to the rainbow analogy I described earlier, humans fear the unknown and therefore categories make everything definitive. I believe it’s impossible for humans not to classify one another based on origin and physical characteristics. However, I don’t believe that these classifications should be used to form racist ideologies.
            What separates people’s understanding of who is who in one place, at one time, is not necessarily the same logic that applies elsewhere at other times (Garner). The concept of race is an evolving one that varies according to social context. I believe it’s unrealistic to say that these categories should be thrown away because there is no such thing as race. Instead we can accept the fact that these terms are socially constructed, and socially foster positive attitudes towards each category to reverse the effects of racism.

Image Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of National History


Garner, S. (2009). Racisms : An Introduction. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Hogg, M. A., & Abrams, D. (1998). Social identiļ¬cations: A social psychology of intergroup relations and group processes. London: Routledge

Soderlund, Jean R. (2000). "Creating a Biracial Society 1619-1720."Upon These Shores: Themes in the African American Experience 1600 to the Present. Ed. William R. Scott. New York: Routledge, 63-82. Print.


Expectation vs Reality; a True Look at Race and Racism in the United States

The word race is defined as a family, tribe, people, or nation unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics.  It is defined but what actually does it mean? In today’s day and age when people talk about race they usually mean where your ancestry is from. People often have pride in their own race and from this pride stems racism.  Racism is the poor treatment of a people based on their race. And specifically speaking in the United States, race and racism are big topics.  In this article we will see how racism and slavery is typically spoken about in present times and how slavery and racism were actually practiced in the 17th and 18th century.
When one thinks of slavery in the United States they are probably thinking of a lot of slaves working on a plantation to pick cotton while being whipped by slaveholders.  But this is only a small portion of history in the United States, called the antebellum period.  The antebellum period was the period in time of US history leading up to the civil war.  Inventions like the cotton gin had been invented, which led to an increase in demand for manual labor to produce cotton.  The more labor needed, the more slaves were demanded to work on these fields.  As the number of slaves increased the number of laws and regulations also increased to keep the increasing population of slaves in order.  It is because of these laws and regulations that racism started to form.  These rules took away the rights of the slaves and further put a divide on the social system of the times.  As time went on, it didn’t matter whether you were a free man or not, if you were black, you had a lot of rules placed on you. So much so that you were automatically considered inferior to others just based on your skin color. And racism was born.
Slaves Repairing a Road
Now slavery and racism in actuality was very different.  Slavery was very different depending on where you were.  Not just your typical north vs. south, but state to state.  The rules and regulations placed on slaves at the time varied greatly from state to state, in fact, you could be a free black man in one state, and if you went to go visit your uncle in another state you could be forced into slavery because of the laws of that specific state. Contrary to popular belief, slaves did not only pick cotton.  Slaves at this time did a variety of tasks including, but not limited to, fieldwork, carpentry, blacksmithing, leather repairs, and raising slaveholder’s children.  In the case of female slaves, they were required to do everything the males had to do, and they also had to do “anything seen to be unfit for a white woman to do.”
View of a Rice Field
In conclusion these differences and expectations really just emphasize how long of a process this was.  Slavery and racism are not things that just popped up overnight; they are ideas that took a long time to come into practice.  Even though slavery is not practiced, these ideas and notions of being inferior are a very real and prevalent today. I encourage you to read more about the topic and inform yourself, because educating ones self is the only way we can put an end to the ignorance and stop racism in America today.

-Scott, William R. and William G. Shade. 2000. Upon these shores : themes in the African-American experience, 1600 to the present. New York: Routledge.