The repressive social engineering imposed on Black people during 250 years of chattel slavery sought to destroy our humanity and turn us into mindless beasts of burden. It did not succeed. But, it was so destructively powerful that its effects have extended more than 150 years beyond slavery to today. Its debilitating effects can be seen in the African American community economically, socially and, especially, psychologically. That’s because it weaponized our skin color against us. Then it put that weapon into our own hands to continue using it on ourselves in self-hate.
“If you’re white, it’s all right —
If you’re brown, stick around—
But if you’re black,
Get back—get back—get back—”
Those words were put to music by American blues songwriter Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958). He wrote the song “Black, Brown and White” in 1947. His words serve to put on display that devastating bomb of COLORISM created during the social engineering of slavery.
Colorism effectively ripped the heart out of the ambitions, opportunities, advancement and unity of Black people in America for centuries. It separated us from society and from each other on the basis of our shade of skin. For far too long, because of colorism, the lightness or darkness of our skin has determined acceptability in terms of jobs, education, social status and just plain life.
Colorism started when Southern slave owners gave preferential treatment to their slaves with lighter skin. While dark-skinned slaves labored outdoors as ‘field slaves’ in the baking sun doing back-breaking crop work, their light-skinned counterparts usually worked indoors as ‘house slaves’ performing less difficult domestic tasks. Why the difference in treatment? Slave-owners were partial to light-skinned slaves because they were often family members.
Since slave owners often took sexual advantage of their female slaves, light skinned children were the result of those unions. So, even though they were slaves, they were also the unacknowledged children of their masters. So, being a light skinned Black person came with certain privileges that the darker skinned slaves were denied.
When slavery ended, colorism continued in the form of a self-sustaining caste system within the African American community. Lighter skinned Blacks separated themselves and became the Black aristocracy. They got better jobs, better education, better housing and better lives. I was recently talking to a member of my extended family who told me that she was given access to more prestigious and higher paying employment opportunities because she had light skin. Dark skin job seekers couldn’t even get an interview. She’d even been told by one of her employers that she had just made it because her skin color was near the borderline.
The lines of color separation were maintained by insidious little tests to keep out the unwanted. The Ruler Test judged on whether your hair was as ‘straight as a ruler.’ The Brown Bag Test judged on whether your skin color was lighter than the color of a brown paper bag. The Blue Vein Test allowed only those whose skin was light enough to show blue veins beneath the skin.
But colorism is a double-edged sword. Many light-skinned African Americans growing up in the Black community did not gain privilege from their skin color but isolation, scorn and abuse. Light skinned Black children were often cruelly ostracized by their darker skin contemporaries. They were called ‘stuck up’ or ‘high yellow’ or ‘near white’ or ‘not really black’ or worse. This scorn was often a reflection of the resentment of their parents who had been negatively affected by color discrimination. Remember, early in Barack Obama’s run for the U.S. Presidency, he was dismissed as not being “Black enough.”
Colorism is a lingering remnant of the conditioning of slavery. The harm it inflicts on our community should be obvious. It creates distrust between us and even sometimes animosity. In a time when our ability to work as a cohesive group is critical to our survival, colorism can hinder our ability to progress, prosper and grow as a people.
According to Michael Eric Dyson in his book, Come Hell or High Water,
“There is, too, a curious color dynamic that persists in our culture. In fact, New Orleans invented the brown paper bag party — usually at a gathering in a home — where anyone darker than the bag attached to the door was denied entrance. The brown bag criterion survives as a metaphor for how the black cultural elite quite literally establishes caste along color lines within black life. …The cruel color code has to be defeated by our love for one another.”
Spike Lee showed the harmful potential that is an unavoidable outcome of colorism in his 1988 movie, School Daze. It has been reported that during the filming of the movie, Lee accommodated the light skinned actors in a more upscale hotel that the hotel for the darker ones. This favoritism resulted in actual tension on the set and at one point in the production an actual fight broke out between the two sides. Lee kept the cameras rolling.
While the conflicts of colorism served to profit Spike Lee in his movie project, the underlying lesson of his work is critical. We cannot afford to diminish, or disparage, or dismiss or destroy each other over something we cannot control like the shade of our skin. The wounds we have inflicted upon each other in the past must be allowed to heal so that we can come together. Those wounds can only heal if we let go of the pain and resentment and anger of the past. They can only heal if we can forgive.
According to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
Self-healing is needed. Recognizing our own value regardless of what shade we are is necessary. We need to be able to look in a mirror and see beauty not ugliness. We need to be able to look in a mirror with love not shame. Loving ourselves is critical. Forgiving ourselves is critical and so is forgiving those around us.
We need to forgive ourselves for succumbing to the continuous drone of contempt, ridicule and disapproval that has been heaped upon us. Colorism cannot destroy us. Colorism cannot break us apart into opposing camps. We are one people. Let us forgive each other and allow that coming together to happen.
We must use our energy to move ourselves forward together. We have the power and ability to lift ourselves up to the heights that we as God’s children deserve to experience. Let us break those chains of social engineering that hold us down and arise on the wings of our minds.