Skin color, sad to say, divides people of color

Wiley Hall

February 11, 1993|By Wiley Hall

After I finished "The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans," I sat down to discuss the book with a few friends.

The authors of the newly published work claim that a great deal of bias, based on skin complexion, continues to exist within the black community. They point to the case of pop performer Michael Jackson as a tragic example; he has bleached and scrubbed his skin until he looks like a zombie or some bizarre escapee from a wax museum.

"Frankly," I said, "I think the authors are exaggerating. Skin color isn't that important to blacks anymore. We've outgrown such stuff. And Michael Jackson? Michael Jackson is hardly typical."

L My friends stared at me in silence for several long moments.

"Well, either you were born and raised on some distant planet or you are not being honest," said one woman. "Michael Jackson is just an extreme example of a serious problem among blacks."

The group then read me chapter and verse about the black community's continued preoccupation with color: A dark-skinned woman said she went to a nightclub recently where the men absolutely refused to dance with anyone dark. She said the pattern became so obvious that both light-skinned and dark-skinned women left in protest.

A woman with a lighter complexion claimed that a date once told her he hoped someday to marry a light-skinned woman such as she because he thought the children would look prettier.

Both the men and women in the group spoke of offices at black-owned or -operated institutions where either black-skinned or light-skinned employees move up through the ranks to the exclusion of others.

My friends went on and on, piling example on top of example -- and they were describing the behavior of members of the post-civil rights generation, who ought to know better. This was not a clinical discussion, either. My friends, whether light-complexioned or dark, were raging mad.

Everything they said astonished me. But you know me; I tried not to let it show.

"Oh yes," I said after a while. "I knew this was a problem all along. I was just testing you."

Kathy Russell, a script writer; Midge Wilson, a psychologist; and Ronald Hall, a professor of social work, wrote "Color Complex." Ms. Russell and Mr. Hall are black. Ms.Wilson is white. "The 'Color Complex' is not meant to be prescriptive," they write in the introduction. "People's appearances and love lives are their own business and should remain so. Yet we share the conviction that an informed individual can make choices more freely and can better resist social practices and cultural attitudes that are meaningless and unfair."

The authors trace the historical roots of our skin biases to the days of slavery when blacks with light skin sometimes received greater privileges, particularly in the Deep South. The book describes other manifestations of madness, such as the

preoccupation of some men and women with straightened and lengthened hair; the authors do note that "in general, black men seem to have a more positive attitude toward their hair than black women."

Most disheartening to me, however, is the book's contention that the color complex apparently continues unabated among members of the post-civil rights generation. The authors note, for example, that music videos usually feature light-skinned women with long hair.

In fact, the authors found an interesting pattern in music videos, movies and television: Men usually are dark-skinned while women are light-skinned with straightened hair. Light-skinned men and dark-skinned women are extremely rare in the entertainment media, even when blacks are the producers and directors.

The authors of "Color Complex" concede that progress has been made. But they also have documented that prejudice continues.

All of this, as I say, astonishes me. I assumed Dr. Martin Luther King was dreaming about a change in the attitudes of whites alone when he spoke of a future when his children would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.

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