The Ugly Roots of the Light Skin/Dark Skin Divide

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By Allison Samuels

Talk about words that sting to the core. Harry Reid's recent comments about President Barack Obama's light skin and acceptable non-"Negro" vocabulary and speech brought back a rush of memories that I'm sure most African-Americans would like to forget.

Since the days of slavery, skin color has been used as a tool of separation and preferential treatment within the black community. The residue of the "house" versus "field Negro" divide has long remained with us, even as we celebrated black pride in the '70s and hip-hop culture in the '80s. House slaves were usually products of a relationship between a master and a female slave, so they tended to have lighter skin. The boss's offspring would more than likely receive the special favor of doing work inside the house out of the hot sun. They'd eat better, often get taught to read and write, and enjoyed many of the liberties of nonslaves. Slaves with darker skin were usually stuck toiling in the fields. The anger over that old distinction has never quite gone away in African-American culture.

And Reid's recent controversial and disturbing statements prove that no matter how hard we as African-Americans try to move past a racial stigma that's haunted us for far too long, mainstream America just won't let us let it go.

Ironically, I first encountered the light skin/dark skin debate while attending Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college. Prior to that, black was pretty much black in my hometown of Augusta, Ga. But in the big city, skin color─and all of its perks and disadvantages─became painfully obvious, even to an 18-year-old girl. Our class presidents were often of a lighter hue and the campus beauty queens were without doubt those with fairer skin, straighter hair and finer features. Was this what I came to a black college for?

It turns out it was. I learned that we as blacks had internalized all those misinformed ideals about color from the mainstream population. I learned the politics of hue and the assumption that lighter means better, more polished, and a more privileged background. I learned that no matter my accomplishments, my dark brown skin would be my resume in certain areas of life. It was a painful lesson─one made all the worse by the fact that many of the people harboring these feelings were exactly the same shade of brown I was. But I also learned that since those feelings were imposed on us by others, we won't change until the society overall does.

That's exactly why I don't want President Obama to speak out on this matter. What can he can say about an issue that has plagued this country and African-Americans for hundreds of years? How many people would he anger─no matter how he worded his opinion? Race is a subject on which President Obama just can't win. Unfortunately he'll be forgiving slights like Reid's for as long as he's in office. Do we really want him to comment every time? No. I want my president to focus on terror threats and health care─not social stereotypes that he can do little to squash. Being the first African-American president really ought to be enough.

Many have said that Reid's statement represents a time long gone, but I beg to differ. Look around at African-Americans on commercials, television shows, and movies and you'll see that the mainstream still employs the attitude that lighter and brighter is better. Even the major news shows seem to hire those with more Eurocentric features. Those same images only reinforce the pain to those of us who don't have that look and feel ignored. They often also result in unfair resentment toward those who do.

Reid's comments also go a long way toward explaining why the likes of the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are too often dismissed by the mainstream─no matter how much validity their statements have. Their church-inspired cadence reminds the dominant society of a blackness they are uncomfortable with, and thus they are ignored. Dark skin and a certain way of speaking most often equals "ghetto" and is therefore unacceptable. On the other hand, as Reid himself suggested, Barack Obama was the preferable choice if an African-American were to hold the highest office. His perfect speech and clean-cut look made the mainstream comfortable. There was no ruffling of feathers by being different and certainly not by looking different.

Those antiquated ideas about skin tone are just one reason I took so much interest in writing about first lady Michelle Obama. Though I took my share of heat for it, I felt strongly that her dark brown skin and impeccable work-and-education resume would and could do wonders for those still stuck in the time warp of colorism. There were those who thought a dark brown African-American woman wasn't attractive enough or capable of captivating the national scene. How she's already proved them wrong.

And there is problem in a nutshell. When we only surround ourselves with people who look like us or remind us of ourselves, we miss the opportunity to erase the negative and mostly wrong impressions of those who don't. Sadly in the long run, Reid's comments will be forgotten. The president has accepted his apology (what else could he do?), and the news shows will eventually find something else to focus on. But for brown-skinned people like me, Reid's words will continue to haunt in ways most people will never fully understand.