Colorism Within Black Families
The Unspeakable and UnwrittenTaboo Within Black Families
The Black family is often the main source of strength and a stalwart bulwark against the outer/outside society. It is within the Black family where many Blacks receive the utmost of nurturance, support, reassurance, respect, and encouragement. In almost every family, including Black ones, there exists a modicum of dysfunction whether it is sibling rivalry and other related familial dynamics. However, quite a few Black families are extremely reluctant to mention the last taboo..... the issue of.colorism.
Colorism exists in many Black families either overtly or covertly. The issue of colorism began during slavery when dark skin was denigrated and considered to be unattractive while lighter skin was prized. and viewed as being more comely. During slavery, lighter skinned Blacks were treated more preferentially by the slaveowner than the darker skinned Blacks. This perception of light vs dark carried over into the post-slavery era.
As a result of this incessant indoctrination that lighter is better and darker is worse, many Blacks started to believe that lighter skin was indeed better as it bestowed privileges that being of a darker skin did not. There was even separation into different clubs and societies among Blacks based upon skin color. There were the blue vein societies in the South and there was the infamous paper bag test which prohibited admission to Blacks who were darker than the paper bag. These light skin clubs and societies wanted to be "racially pure" and separate thus no darker skinned Blacks were to be admitted to those clubs.
Because of the emphasis on skin color, many Black parents from the post-Reconstruction to the early twentieth century prayed that upon the birth of their children that they would be light and not too dark. They knew that being too dark was a detriment in society as there were few or no opportunities for dark skinned Blacks. Even though there were few opportunities for Blacks to achieve a modicum decent living, lighter skinned Blacks were more likely to be hired than darker skinned Blacks.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the majority members of the Black middle to upper middle class were light skinned. In comparison to the majority of Blacks who were impoverished, they had privileged lives. They intended to retain that privilege by establishing by-laws and rules to keep their line "pure" so to speak.
In such families, the members were exhorted to stay within their particular color line regarding dating, courtship, and marriage. Many Black middle and upper middle class families were just as elitist as the wealthiest Caucasian families. They stressed only marrying other light skinned members. Their sons and daughters were strongly admonished not to especially marry anyone who was darker than they were.
Throughout the 20th century, colorism has become somewhat less prevalent in the Black community. However, it has not completely disappeared. In many Black families, lighter skinned members are especially prized and given preferential treatment over their darker skinned members. For example, in some Black families, the lighter skinned child is favored by the parents over his/her darker skinned siblings.
This coloristic favoritism not only occurs in the immediate Black family but also in extended Black families also. I remember a maternal aunt gushing over one grandniece being so light-skinned and beautiful. Conversely, while the lighter skinned members of the family, both immediate and extended are adored and lionized, the darker skinned family members are often denigrated, just considered to barely exist, and/or in more extreme cases, scapegoated. Many darker skinned members in families remember being called pejorative names regarding their color by family members in the heat of anger or merely in jest.
Of course, there are cases of reverse colorism in some families where the lighter-skinned family members are seen as being too good and/or uppity for the rest of the family. Other light skinned family members are viewed by their family members as not being authentically Black while the darker skinned family members are considered to be real and authentic people. There is no clear cut application of colorism in Black families. Some light skinned family members are praised while others are derided as with darker skinned family members. The colorism issue is solely dependent upon the variables and the particular family at hand.
Even in this postmodern era, there are some light skinned Black families who adamantly insist on keeping their racial lines pure so they admonish their family members to only date and/or marry within their skin color perimeters. They are strongly exhorted not to have the unmitigated audacity to bring anyone home who is noticeably darker than they are so the parents do not want the racial lines "tainted" with.
There are many light skinned Black families who have married only other light skinned members for generations. That action is totally de rigueur in many light skinned Black families. If a light skinned family member elects to date and/or marry a darker skinned person, he/she is coerced either subtly or more forcibly to stay within the family skin color perimeter. He/she is warned by the parents or other family members that they do not want any dark babies. In essence, such families want to stay light or perhaps, go lighter but never darker.
In a few Black families, darker skinned members are often unfavored by their parents and/or other relatives. Many darker skinned family members, especially if they are females, are constantly inculcated that they are not attractive enough and their dating and marital prospects are extremely few and far between. Many a darker skinned daughter can vividly recollect a parent or other relative telling them that they had better be smart since they are not attractive enough to draw a man. They are even told that they would be extremely lucky if a man does look at or consider them. In the documentary DARK GIRLS produced by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry, a young dark-skinned Black woman relayed how her mother praised her to a friend; however, the mother made a comment of how much more beautiful her daughter would be if she was lighter.
Many darker skinned women purported to seldom being told that they were beautiful. In one article, a light-skinned woman was gloated over by a mother who openly detested her own daughter because she was darker skinned. According to this mother, her daughter was definitely not considered to be beautiful in comparison to the lighter skinned woman. Worse yet, many Black families pay a backhanded compliment to their darker skinned daughters that they are pretty and/or beautiful for being dark skinned. However, in many Afrocentric families, darker skinned daughters are taught to appreciate and revel in their beauty.
Many darker skinned family members are inculcated by their relatives to expect little or just be content with the crumbs of life. They are often given lower expectations from their parents and/or other family members than their lighter skinned family members who are exhorted to achieve. Many more darker skinned family members are told by their families that they have to be smarter and more qualified than their lighter skinned members and/or Caucasians just to get in the door and/or to be noticed.
Many darker skinned family members are treated more harshly by parents and/or other relatives to season them to survive the harshness of life in a mostly Caucasian society. In some families, dark skinned children are disciplined and inculcated more stringently than their lighter skinned siblings and/or relatives. These parents and relatives portend that this training and discipline is just to train them for survival.
Many Black families are divided because of the issue of colorism. As a result of such colorism in many families, many darker skinned members believe that they are worthless and less than human. They feel quite inferior. Many darker skinned members date and/or marry lighter skinned or other non-Blacks because they do not want their children to suffer as they do. There are some darker skinned Blacks who pray that their children will not be dark because to be dark means to be a second class citizen within both the Caucasian and Black communities.
There are many lighter skinned members who believe that they are superior to the darker skinned members of their families because of the preferential treatment received from parents and/or other relatives. In many families, the lighter skinned members are often the favorites or the golden child. This often causes dissention within the family albeit for the worse! Because of the mollycoddling that many ligher skinned members receive from their family, they portend that the outer society will afford them the same treatment. However, they often are shocked when the outer society oftentimes treat them as any other Black person. The Black family is often a source of constant strength and renewal for its members. Artificial issues such as skin color has no place within the Black family structure.
In summation, the issue of colorism is quite an insidious one within many Black families. Family members are often idolized or denigrated based upon skin color. Furthermore, the issue of colorism divides members of the Black family who should be able to have a rapport and seek communion with each other. The Black family is a wonderful institution of love and strength and clearly colorism is quite destructive to this institution!
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© 2012 Grace Marguerite Williams
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