Colorism: The Truth About Soledad’s “Who is Black in America?”

It struck a nerve.

Got under the skin of blacks, whites, and others.

Since Sunday evening, when Soledad O’Brien’s fifth installment of Black in America aired on CNN, many have asked, “Does it matter who is black in America?”

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Of course, proponents of the “I’m HUMAN” brand, and the “I don’t see color” camp showed up in full force following the documentary.

Several have insisted that people like Soledad pick at the scab of racism and won’t let us heal. That she and others are responsible for keeping racism and colorism alive because they won’t stop talking about it.

Other complaints included “I’m not represented,” or “This documentary doesn’t run the gamut of all black experiences.”

But I have another way to look at Soledad’s “Black in America” series in general, and more specifically at “Who is Black in America?” because it covers colorism, which has been a large focus of my writing since I began blogging in 2011.

Race may be something we’ve created, but created things are real.

Because they have real consequences.

Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine a person’s status as a slave. Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine who had the right to legally marry. Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine where you could sit, what water fountain you could drink from, and which door you had to enter.

When our social construct of race leads to bullying, physical violence and murder, economic disparities, educational disparities, and psychological pain, it becomes tangible, more than just a myth.

Unfortunately, the institution of racism that’s existed in this land for centuries is still reflected in our lived experiences, whether it’s residual, such as the economic and educational disparities between races, or whether it’s blatant acts of hate, such as bullying or murder.

Race is our Frankenstein. We’ve created it, so now we have to deal with it. I’m glad Soledad has the courage to confront this monster that so many want to run from.

Being “color blind” is not honorable.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with difference. The problem is allowing differences to divide us.

We don’t want homogeneity. We don’t want to be clones of each other, no more than we want flowers to all look the same.

The key is to recognize the beauty in our differences. God created us all unique in some way, not to segregate, but to celebrate. It’s human nature to recognize patterns, similarities, and differences, not just among people, but amid all elements of creation.

Yes, the entire world has a history and way of using differences to establish hierarchies or castes to gain power and privilege, and to oppress others. That’s the evil of the world.

But we don’t have to deny ourselves the blessing of beautiful colors. We need to create societies that accommodate,  appreciate,  and celebrate differences, not try to neutralize them.

Insisting on “color blindness” actually has an opposite effect. It results in making skin color differences taboo.

If what you really mean is that you don’t show differential treatment based on skin color, then say that. But don’t pretend you can’t see skin color.

Talking about race and colorism is part of the solution, not the problem.

On Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien, Michaela Angela Davis said,

Soledad, you’re in the solution.

On the Google+ Hangout with ESSENCE, Perry “Vision” DiVirgilio used an analogy that I like:

If you have an open wound on your arm, and you don’t treat it, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to stay there and fester.

Because I’ve already written about why I kept silent for so long and why I’m not any longer, I won’t go into great detail here.

I will simply ask, when has not talking about a social problem, ever helped people solve it? Would the Holocaust have ended if everyone in the world had just stopped talking about it? Would Apartheid have ended if everyone had just stopped talking about it? Would slavery in American have ended if everyone had merely stopped talking about it? Would women have gotten the right to vote if people stopped talking about it?

No.

Racism and it’s offspring, colorism, will not disappear because people go silent about it. People consistently bring about change in this world by first speaking up, and then taking action.

Consider what happens when you try to put a lid on a boiling pot.

One documentary cannot encompass everything.

It’s not fair to require one blog post, one article, one movie, one documentary, one book, one school, or one person to be the ultimate and final answer to all the world’s problems.

When I began blogging about colorism, I received similar criticism as Soledad did for her documentaries. People wanted to dictate what I should be writing about.

I say, if you don’t see what you want to see, go somewhere else and find it, or create it yourself.

We need all hands on deck. Soledad can’t do it alone. Yaba can’t do it alone. Vision can’t do it alone.

Plus, the documentary is a series. That means what you haven’t seen in the first five episodes, might show up in the sixth, seventh, or eighth. And the documentary is less than an hour long (if you consider commercial time). Let’s be logical about that.

“Who is Black in America?” merely opens the door a little more.

The bottom line is that I’m overjoyed that the issue of colorism has a national stage in mainstream media for the first time ever. In an earlier post on the media, I explained that the media covers weight issues, bullying, violence, interracial discrimination, single mothers, rape, and a host of other painful issues, but has never discussed colorism on such a prominent platform.

It’s been talked about, no doubt, but never in a forum so big as this.

I know the documentary barely scratched the surface of colorism, but it’s fueled the discussion like nothing ever before. Because of that, I applaud this segment of Black in America, and personally view it as success.

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Sister-to-Sister: an Interview on Colorism

Two girls of different skin tones, growing up together as sisters born of the same mother AND father. This is a glimpse into the mind of the lighter skinned sister as she reflects on colorism.

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Describe your home/family and work life.

I have been married for five years and am expecting my first child in March of next year. I am the middle child of three children and grew up in Baton Rouge, LA with my mother. My parents were divorced when I was 11. I currently practice school social work at a high school in southern Louisiana. I am a social worker by profession and a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Work at LSU. I maintain a very busy and active lifestyle between work, LSU, and family. In addition, I assist with the youth group at my church planning activities and teaching bible classes.

Tell us about your earliest memories recognizing or dealing with skin color and colorism. 

I remember a time when my sister was being chased and taunted by a group of white girls at our daycare center, when I was about 8 years old. My older brother and I stopped them through physical restraint. When the day care workers took stock of the incident, they concluded that the version of the story that my brother, sister, and I told could not have been true since there were no “MARKS” on our skin like those on the skin of the white girls. Obviously, the darker our skin the less likely MARKS will show up.

At the same daycare, one of my sister’s Hispanic friends really frustrated me. I was 8 years old and had to teach a cultural competence lesson to this girl all the time because she didn’t understand that I could be the “real” sister of my darker skinned siblings. She kept asking “Why are you white and your sister and brother are black?” Granted the girl was in kindergarten, and I’ve been asked similar questions by adults both black and white, but mainly by other BLACK folks.

“Do you and your brother and sister have the same mom and dad?” “You must be mixed right?”  “Man your brother is black.” My response to this particularly ignorant comment was always “So are you and I.”  On and on, the annoying questions/comments went.

How do you view yourself in terms of skin color now?

My skin color is just a product of my birth. I don’t see myself as any better or worse because of the color that I am. I still grimace when people make comparisons about my sister and brother’s color, as if the shades of black are limited, or that it’s impossible for a great array to exist within one family. I am awesome because I’m me, which includes my skin color, but it’s not BECAUSE of my skin color.

How, if at all, has colorism played a role in your life up to this point?

I have seen elements of bias towards me as discussed above when compared to my sister and brother at daycare or among friends. I have come to be embarrassed at times because of my lighter skin color. What I mean by this is the snobby attitude of some lighter skinned women/girls makes people believe that snobby attitudes are common among lighter skinned women/girls. I am not that way. I am still very angered when someone attempts to tell me that I might be mixed or that I have to have different parents than my darker brother and sister. So I have had many points of frustration from colorism in my life!

As you prepare to be a new mother, do you have thoughts about raising a child with a healthy attitude about skin color?

I will be adamant about my child knowing the difference between ethnicity and skin color. There are very few people whose skin is actually the color BLACK. I will be sure that my child never says “Oh mom, look at him; he’s BLACK” to refer to a dark skinned person. My child will know that he/she is a Black person, and that different shades of BLACK should not define how we treat each other. Perhaps if we teach kids to value the black ethnicity and stop putting value on looks, our ethnic group/race would be in a different position in this country.

On a personal level, what may cause an individual to be biased against dark skin or light skin?

I think a level of insecurity is present when someone demeans another for any reason. This is also the case with skin color. When insecure about our own beauty, we try to cut down the beauty of others because of their skin color.

If someone has a negative image of others because of their skin color, what can they do to change that?

Biases usually stem from ignorance, so knowing others with a particular skin color BETTER can help to ease some of the negative images.

If someone has a negative image of themselves because of their skin color, what can they do to change that?

Examining your own self-worth is often a life long process because people often go through significant changes and stages. Acceptance and appreciation of your own qualities is a start. Rather than spending time on the negative images, one should spend energy using their individual qualities to make a difference in his immediate circumstances/ community.

Jandel Crutchfield

“Live Like You’re Dying”

“Leo ni Leo. Asemaye kesho ni mwongo” ~ E-sir

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

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Colorism: Don’t Fear Your Flame

WARNING! This post may ignite a fire that can’t be extinguished (unless your mind’s already a fireball, in which case this post is completely benign).

But don’t fear the fire! Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and time has shown that fire is proof of purity (for metals at least, but think metal as metaphor).

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The quickest road to flame starts with two, three-letter words: Why and How. These words have been known to incinerate things founded on fear instead of love, deception instead of truth.

Despite these benefits, many people avoid the fire because they can’t stand the heat or they’re afraid to get burned. You see, the fire doesn’t just consume fear and deception around us, it also consumes fear and deception within us.

As a teacher, I often ask Why and How, trying to get my students to think deeply and critically about what’s presented to them and about their prior assumptions. One assumption that several students have vocalized is that dark skin is a problem or an unfortunate condition that one should avoid when possible. Here’s some of what male and female African-American students of varying shades have actually said to me:

“I wish I was light-skinned like my mama.”

“This picture is ugly. I look black on here.”

“I’m not proud of myself. I got dark over the summer.”

“I’m black. I used to be lighter than this. I used to be as light as… well not you, but…”

“Dee is lighter than Maggie… That means Dee can smash her.”

The fact that they make such comments as though everyone else thinks the way they do, lets me know how ubiquitous colorism is among blacks. Colorism seems as common as blinking and equally unconscious. Which is the problem. Too many are content living unconsciously, living unexamined lives.

So I’ve been thinking. Maybe one remedy to colorism is for individuals to start asking Why and How. I urge all to ask these questions for any situation. (Why am I in an abusive relationship? How do I get out? Why am I unhappy at work? How can I change the trajectory of my life?) Gloria Steinem, the famous feminist, suggests:

“The only practical, permanent solution to poor body image seems to be turning inward to ask: Where did it come from? What subtle or blatant events gave birth to it? What peer pressure nurtured it? What popular images make our real selves seem different or wrong?”

Regarding skin color, we should examine our attitudes regardless of what color we are, regardless of which direction our bias is projected, and regardless of whether or not we feel complicit.

I’ve suggested some questions below. As you read these, remember that IDK (I don’t know) is not an answer for someone genuinely seeking truth. Shrugging your shoulders and reverting back to tasks that are easy for you does not promote life. Instead, keep thinking, searching, or investigating until you find at least a possible answer. I encourage the same persistence in my students.

  1. Why do I have a positive/negative attitude about dark skin?
  2. Why do I have a positive/negative attitude about light skin?
  3. How did my attitude about skin tone develop throughout my life, particularly my childhood?
  4. How has my attitude about skin tone manifested in my words and actions (or the absence of my words and actions)?
  5. Why does my reflection on this issue matter?/ How will understanding my attitude about skin color change things personally or communally?

Of course you’ll have to do the work of making your inquiry personal and specific to your experiences. I hope these questions are in fact only the beginning for you. I hope you take this investigation to a level that matters for your personal growth. I hope you share these questions and your responses with others whom you care about. I care about you, so this is my way of sharing.

Don’t fear your flame. Use it to light another.

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

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I (H)ate Soggy Symbolic Cookies. Oreos are Better.

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6 AM and I’m craving Oreos. It’s literally been years since I’ve eaten one… or been called one. By the time you get to college, all the black people on campus are probably the ones who were called Oreos, so there’s no one around anymore to dip you in a glass of milk. I always hated dipping cookies in milk anyway. The cookies just seemed to disintegrate in the milk, and all the sweetness washed away.

Oreo: n. a person who looks black on the outside but must be white on the inside because he or she acts white.

I thought about putting quotation marks around the words black and white, but I didn’t because the people who use the term Oreo don’t put quotation marks around those words. They don’t think of black and white as socially constructed labels for physical appearance, social norms, stereotypes social expectations, and the geographic region from which our ancestors come from. They think “black” is really just black and that “white” is really just white.

You might wonder why I don’t mention red, brown, or yellow. I don’t mention them because people who use the term Oreo don’t eat apples, coconuts, or bananas. Actually, they don’t eat any fruit; they only eat junk food. They can’t even imagine what a balanced diet could do for their health.

For me the spectrum was two dimensional. The outside of me was literally like the trademark chocolate of an Oreo. I mean, “too black to be wearing them bright colors” kind of chocolate.  The “inside” of me, my behavior at school, was reminiscent of what they’d observed of some white kids, and white is the trademark color of the cream filling inside of Oreos.

So what kind of behavior is Oreo cream behavior, and what kind isn’t? I’m all to eager to answer that question because it will lead to something resembling the distant cousin of analysis (provided you’re willing to read any further). I’ve made a chart classifying in-school behaviors as either Oreo Cream or Non Oreo Cream. This brief list is based on my personal experience and is not comprehensive, so don’t go off on me if it doesn’t align with every minutia of your personal experience, K.

Oreo Cream Behaviors Non Oreo Cream Behaviors
enjoying school putting all your energy into not enjoying school
making relatively good grades avoiding good grades at all costs
not fighting, whether you were afraid to or not fighting if you weren’t afraid to and talking a lot of noise while conveniently positioning yourself behind someone who might hold you back if you were afraid
being friendly with anyone regardless of race sticking to your own or occasionally harassing the others
not knowing all the popular hip hop songs and dances, though you may know some knowing all the popular hip hop songs and dances
being quiet and doing your work even when the teacher is not in the room being loud and not doing your work even when the teacher is in the room
reading for fun pretending that books are Kryptonite

This is the best my memory will do considering how long it’s been since I’ve been in the school environment. Oh, wait, I’m a teacher. But there’s no telling what kids are thinking, saying, or doing these days… except when the say and do stuff.

What I’m trying to say is that as long as black students believe failure and trouble are their birth rites, the problems facing the black community (and really the whole world) will persist.

Though some taunts hurt like sugar in a cavity, being called an Oreo never hurt my feelings (though eating Oreos often hurt my teeth). What hurts is seeing my kids buy into the notion that school is not for them; that blackness is synonymous with ignorance and violence; that they descend from people who shout and dance but never study and create languages, history, math, science, or architecture. Imagine all the enjoyment they miss believing they’re biologically inhibited and socially prohibited from enjoying all types of music, books, food, cultures, languages, places, and ideas.

Sure. By the time a student sits in my classroom as a seventeen year old freshman in high school, maybe school isn’t for him at the moment. That doesn’t mean it had to be that way. That doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. There’s nothing inherent in him that makes him fail in school. It’s a combination of his circumstances, his thoughts and feelings about his circumstances, and his actions or responses to his circumstances.

Then there are teachers, trying to be vessels for a higher power great enough to affect the delicate lives of youth in a city with some of the highest poverty and crime rates in the U.S., and really, is any cookie smart enough to do that?

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand? (If it’s an Oreo cookie, I want one.)

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