Preference for lightness preposterous on its face


April 29, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

In just a moment, I plan to share with you an article I rea Sunday in the op-ed section of the Washington Post.

Personally, I don't believe this story. But please draw your own conclusions. Don't let me influence you.

Here's the story: Portia Williams, described as a Maryland writer, says she went to a party recently where every dark-skinned woman had had a light-skinned child. And this was no accident, she was told.

"Many of the women I met that day spoke openly about the necessity of having light-skinned children; that they had their children out of wedlock, and that the fathers of their children had not mattered as much as the lightness of their skin," writes Ms. Williams.

She was told that "an increasing number of dark-skinned women simply refuse to produce a dark-skinned child."

And she concluded, "We were talking about the painful and contradictory effects of forced assimilation -- the everyday struggle for social acceptance and against self-hate. If you're black the struggle is hard enough. But if you're 'too black,' it can become your life."

Now, I believe the writer went to a party. And it is remotely possible that every dark-skinned woman had a light-skinned child. But I find absolutely preposterous the notion that "an increasing number of women" are having light-skinned children on purpose, and are choosing their partners on that basis.

Why do we persist in believing these crazy things about ourselves?

I asked a number of black men and women of various complexions if they believed the writer was correct -- that an increasing number of women have become so color-struck they would stoop to any lengths to produce a light-skinned child. Most of the people accepted the writer's conclusions.

"Do you personally feel that way?" I asked them.


"Do any of your close friends or relatives feel that way?"


"Then why believe it of other people?"

No answer.

There is historical evidence that black America once divided itself into a caste system based on skin color. And, certainly, we live in a society that deluges us with visions of beauty based upon European standards. In February, I reviewed a book, "The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans," whose authors claim that even members of the postcivil-rights generation continue to be obsessed with the desirability of light skin.

But we also must remember that we live in a society that is prone to think of blacks in terms of stereotypes, based upon untested and untestable generalizations.

Far too rarely are blacks depicted as normal individuals. Too often we are seen in sociological terms -- as either victims or

victimizers. It is easy for us to fall into the same trap.

For the record, I suspect black preoccupation with skin color exists and has always existed for some individuals. But I also suspect its import has been exaggerated, especially as a sign of black self-hatred.

I believe most sane black individuals have managed to find beauty in their skin colors despite the values of the majority culture. In much the same way, blacks were taught, and believed, that Africa was primitive and bad, yet they remained very African in their ways.

Not too long ago, sociologists replicated the famous study where black children were asked to choose between a white doll and a black doll and received the same results -- most black children chose the white doll. The original study has been quoted as evidence that black children have embraced the beauty standards of the majority culture even to the degree of rejecting themselves.

But in the latest version of that classic experiment, sociologists took the test a step further. They gave the same children a choice of dolls with skin complexions of various shades, and with this option the children most often chose dolls with complexions closest to their own.

That makes sense. It is exactly what I would expect normal children who are part of a normal community to do.

And, though it may be the most controversial thing I have ever written, I am convinced that blacks, by and large, are normal people.

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