by Hope E. Ferguson
Several months ago, like everyone else, I started seeing cartoon avatars from Bitstrips show up in my Facebook news feed. Like countless other Facebook users, I had fun piecing together my avatar from a number of choices available and posting a few cartoons. It was all good passing fun, except for one thing. When I looked at some of my friends’ and family’s Bitstrips, I noticed a disturbing trend. Many people of color created avatars with much lighter skin than they actually have. Light-skinned blacks became indistinguishable from white. Brown-skinned people were suddenly light tan; and dark-skinned people inevitably made themselves light brown, and in one case even white!
It got me to thinking about how this issue of colorism plagues us still. In the last few years, the topic has been revived by such documentaries as “Dark Girls,” and by celebrities like Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, who have created controversy by seemingly morphing into white women before our eyes. Allure magazine recently ran an article on the popularity and dangers of the practice of skin bleaching, and my sister told me that West Africans even have a term for it: Fanta face and Coca-Cola body. (Fanta is an orange-colored soda, and the effect of whitening often leaves brown skin with an orange cast.) As Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote in a very cogent piece in the Daily Mail, “Too many black and Asian children grow up understanding the sad ‘truth’ that to have dark skin is to be somehow inferior,” and dated the desire for light skin in India to before the time of the Raj.
For black Americans, it’s an old story. Dark-skinned female slaves brought from Africa were used as sex toys by white slave owners and overseers. A new caste arose: the mulatto. Because these mixed-blood people had hair, skin and features closer to that of the master, many, both white and black, viewed their looks as more desirable. Black sororities and social clubs instituted “paper bag” tests: i.e., you had to be no darker than a brown paper bag to gain entrance. Some mixed people passed for white by day in order to achieve the economic benefits of whiteness, while reverting to their own race when at home. “One Drop,” the mesmerizing story of New York Times (<–subscribe) book critic Anatole Broyard, who in his later years passed for white, had parents who did just that. I find it perplexing that in almost every culture, light is considered desirable, and black despicable. White is pure; black is evil. Why does this mindset stretch across the globe in cultures that until recently had no significant contact with one another? After pondering the issue, I decided that likely it is a vestige of agricultural societies, where the well-to-do were able to avoid toiling in fields and darkening their skin, whereas the peasants were dark or swarthy from the sun. Therefore, light skin became equated with wealth, ease and class, and dark skin with poverty and peasantry.
I grew up in a family that disdained colorism. Or so I deduce, because I was completely unaware of it until my teens, when my family returned to the U.S. after my father’s diplomatic posting in East Africa. I was fascinated and surprised by the talk of “good” hair, light skin, and that the hip popular clique were mainly light-skinned and wavy-haired. My fair skinned, wavy-haired boyfriend with a monster curly Afro, would dissect his family’s lineage with excruciating detail. I later attended Howard University with a green-eyed young man who came from a family infamous for having intermarried with relatives to avoid the “curse” of dark skin. That is why the Bitstrips avatars, Beyoncé, et al, and the extreme prevalence of nose jobs on beautiful black female actresses, has been such a disappointment to me. I admit that once upon a time, many, many, years ago, I would probably have gone under the knife to refine my round, negroid nose if I had the money. But now that I am older, I view my nose as a badge of honor. Even if I had the time, money and vanity, I would no more alter what God gave me than to change my first name. I feel that it’s almost a rebellious act to be proud of my nose.
That’s a sad commentary during a time when we have seen our first Black commander-in-chief, and when a black man has just joined the ranks of chairmen at Microsoft. I say, it’s time to bring back James Brown’s anthem: “Say it loud; I’m black and I’m proud.” As we witness the dawn of the brown, black and yellow century, let’s throw off the old bondage that taught us that if you’re white, you’re all right. Let’s embrace our African, Asian, Arab, Latina beauty … if not for ourselves, then at least for our children and our children’s children. There’s speculation that women in Hollywood feel they must alter their looks in order to “cross over” and to become mainstream, and therefore rich and powerful. To paraphrase scripture: But what does it profit a person to gain the whole world, if he or she loses his or her soul?
Hope E. Ferguson is senior writer for the State University of New York’s Empire State College in Saratoga Springs, New York. The great-granddaughter and granddaughter of African Methodist Episcopal (AME) ministers, she grew up hearing about social justice issues from her father, a human rights attorney, and mother, an artist, who were active in the civil rights movement. She blogs about faith, culture and politics at Morning Joy.