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What Bitstrips Taught Me About Colorism













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.‎

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1 Comment on "What Bitstrips Taught Me About Colorism"

  1. About the Value and Excellence Jazz
    The tendency to believe that people with lighter skin have more value than others is a direct result of the mis-education of the masses. From the time we start school we’re taught that anyone who has ever achieved anything whatsoever, or had a cogent thought that benefitted humanity or contributed to the intellectual journey of mankind was White – Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc. Certainly someone had to be thinking in other parts of the world other than White folks, but according to our educational institutions, that wasn’t the case. That fact has contributed greatly to White feelings of superiority, and the acceptance of same by many Black people, and the people of other cultures.
    I stumbled upon that fact by accident, but the reason I know it is true with near certainty, is because when I was a very young child, I was falling victim to the very same mind-set, but fortunately, my father was a jazz fanatic, and he introduced me to jazz and the jazz culture before I was ten years old. As a result, all of my heroes were jazz artists, and I measured the relative value of people by how well the music of their various cultures stood up to the musical intellect and style of Charlie Parker. Since I have yet to find any culture that has, that gave me a strong sense of cultural value and pride.
    That’s why it’s so important to raise our kids with a strong sense of cultural pride. As a direct result of my lifelong attitude in that regard, I’ve never felt the least bit self-conscious about competing with my White counterparts on an eyeball-to-eyeball basis, and I’ve always prevailed. And there’s a very simple reason for that as well – because you are what you think.
    There’s actually no difference between people, but the one’s who tend to prevail are those who BELIEVE they are superior. That accounts for why so many White people call me arrogant (at least those who are out of touch) – because I tend not to know “my place.”
    I never try to prove myself to them. They have to prove themselves to me.
    A Swingin’ Affair
    Was told as a child
    Blacks had no worth,
    Not a nickel’s worth of dimes.
    I believed that myth
    ‘Til Dex rode in
    With his ax
    In double time.
    Horn was soarin’,
    The changes flyin’,
    His rhythm right on time;
    My heart
    Beat with the pleasure
    Of new found pride,Knowing,
    His blood
    Flowed through mine.
    Took the chords
    The keyboard played,
    And danced around each note;
    Then shuffled ‘em
    Like a deck of cards,
    And didn’t miss a stroke.
    B minor 7 with flatted 5th,
    A half diminished chord,
    He substituted a lick in D,
    Then really began to soar.
    He tipped his hat
    To Charlie Parker,
    And quoted
    Trane with Miles,
    Then paid his homage to
    Thelonious Monk,
    In Charlie Rouse’s style.
    He took
    A Scrapple From The Apple,
    Then went to Billie’s Bounce,
    The rhythm section, now on fire,
    But he didn’t budge an ounce.
    He just
    Dug right in
    To shuffle again,
    This time
    A Royal Flush,
    Then lingered a bit
    Behind the beat,
    Still smokin’
    But in no rush.
    Then he
    Doubled the time
    Just like this rhyme,
    In fluid 16th notes,
    Charlie and Lester,”your baby boy, Dexter’s,
    On top of the
    Bebop you wrote.@
    Like a banshee,
    This prince of saxophone,
    His ballads dripped of honey,
    His Arpeggios were strong.
    Callin’ on his idles,
    Ghost of Pres’
    Within in the isles,
    Smiling at his protege,
    At the peak of this new style.
    His tenor
    Drenched of Blackness,
    And all the things we are–
    Of pain, and pleasure,
    And creative greatness
    Until his final bar.
    Why I Love Being Black

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