Looking at black-against-black prejudice

March 22, 1993|By Karin D. Berry | Karin D. Berry,Staff Writer

It's black America's dirty little secret: Many African-Americans are prejudiced against each other on the basis of color.

Filmmaker Spike Lee explored the problem in his movie "School Daze," and was castigated by many for doing so. Now Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall examine the history and implications of this deep-rooted prejudice in "The Color Complex."

In the predominantly black neighborhood outside St. Louis where I grew up, we used to recite: "If you're white, you're all right; if you're brown, stick around; if you're black, jump back." However, my own prejudices were so strong that it was not until I attended historically black Howard University that it even occurred to me to question why so many black people were obsessed with light and dark brown skin, and hair texture. "The Color Complex" does a thorough job of explaining.

The authors trace the history of sexual relations between blacks and whites, and how it created a light-skinned elite during slavery. They also note it is estimated that as many as one-fourth of the black population has American Indian ancestry. After the Civil War, however, racially mixed blacks no longer enjoyed a higher status, and segregated themselves from their darker-skinned brothers and sisters.

The history of this self-segregation is astonishing. Morgan State University, one of the nation's oldest historically black colleges, was one that practiced biased admission policies based on skin color.

In 1916, according to the authors, "it was estimated that 80 percent of the students of these Black colleges were light-skinned and of mixed ancestry." Many educators thought it a "waste of time to train dark-skinned Negroes for paths in life that would be closed to them. . . ."

The chapter "Embracing Whiteness" describes many blacks' continuing quest to straighten their hair and noses, to lighten their skin, and to turn their brown eyes blue, green, or gray -- although as the authors note, European ancestry does that job for many black Americans.

Taken altogether, it is such a sad, desperate quest. Lye, acid concoctions, lemon juice, bleach and urine were used to try to lighten skin.(Check out just about any drugstore today and you will find Nadinola, Ambi, Artra and Porcelana "skin tone" creams.)

Even so, I dismissed the destructiveness of these prejudices, even though I know the pain it has caused many black people. (As a black woman whose color is acceptable -- that is, not too light and not too black -- I do not receive the attacks that those on the ends of the color spectrum do.) That continued until I read further in "The Color Complex" that two sociologists found in a 1990 study that for every dollar a light-skinned black earns, a dark-skinned black earns 72 cents.

The color caste system has further implications in the workplace. Both Dr. Wilson, a professor of women's studies and psychology at DePaul University, and Dr. Hall, who teaches social work at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, served as expert witnesses in an intraracial color discrimination case in Atlanta in 1990. Both also had researched the topic.

But the authors needed a better editor. I noted careless errors: Julie Dash's film is "Daughters of the Dust," not "Daughters of the Dusk"; black abolitionist Frederick Douglass did not divorce his black wife to marry a white woman -- he married her 18 months after his wife died; the fashion designer was Stephen Burrows, not Stephen Borrows.

Still, at best, "The Color Complex" is an excellent primer on color prejudice.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans."

Author: Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall.

Publisher: Harcourt Brace & Co.

1% Length, price: 208 pages, $21.95.

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