Akilah Beasley

USA, African and the World History WISE 202

April 1, 2010

“Colorism and the Social Interactions between Light and Dark Skinned African-American Women”

Imagine that you just entered a public facility and you see a sign that says “White Section” and another sign that says “Colored Section”. Now imagine that inside of the “Colored Section” there is a sign that says “Light Skinned” and another sign that says “Dark Skinned.” Suppose the “Light Skinned” section receives better treatment than the “Dark Skinned” section—the  equipment in the “Light Skinned” section is in better shape, they receive great customer service, and they are somewhat accepted by the people in the “White Section.” Now imagine that the people in the “Dark Skinned” section receive the reciprocal; they have to use second-hand equipment and they receive horrible customer service. The people in the “Dark Skinned” section are not accepted by the people in the “White Section” and they are looked down upon by the people in the “Light Skinned” section.  This scenario may seem unwarranted but it is an example of how colorism operates.

Colorism is an extremely controversial fixation that has poisoned the minds of black people in the United States for centuries. Black women especially, have been subjected to face the consequences of colorism—the divisions within their gender are more distinct and the effects are extremely intense. African-American women have learned to put emphasis on the skin tone of other women belonging to their race; they make divisions based on those skin tones and associate negative stereotypes with each party[1]. The division is strictly between light dark-skinned women; interactions between both parties have changed drastically throughout history. Such changes root from the conditions that Africans faced before they were forced into slavery. The severity of this obstruction intensified once Africans were captured and forced into the Trans-Atlantic slave trade which lasted from 1619 to 1863[2].  Once slavery ended and society began to interfere with the ways that skin color was perceived the unity within the black community was destroyed—hierarchy dominated the African-American race and it left an everlasting sense of insecurity in both light and dark-skinned women.

The continent of Africa had been influenced by ideas of colorism before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade occurred. In many parts of Africa skin tone was used to describe a person’s status; lighter skin became a symbol of wealth, class, beauty and prestige. Wealthy Africans did not have to perform manual labor in the sun like their less fortunate counterparts; therefore they were not as dark as the people who lived in poverty. Often times, light-skinned Africans owned slaves who were dark-skinned. Dark skinned Africans were always inferior to light-skinned Africans[3]. This factor had already been embedded in the minds of people of color. The effects that colorism had on Africans intensified however once they were forced into the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade began in 1619. The European settlers of the New World realized that there was a demand for a work force in their newfound territory. Africans were the primary source of this work force because they were excellent workers. Africans had experience in agriculture and maintaining cattle. They were used to a tropical climate and resistant to tropical diseases unlike their European oppressors. They were taken from their native land of Africa and shipped to the Americas where they would perform extreme levels of manual labor on either plantations or in mines[4].

Certain aspects of slavery escalated the severity of the color issue in America. The concept of distinguishing blacks by skin tone was exaggerated once races where mixed during slavery. European slave holders and African slaves would engage in sexual activities which lead to the creation of a new type of slave—one who has lighter skin and fine textured hair. These new looking slaves were called mulattoes[5]. Mulattoes resembled their European oppressors more so than the traditional African slave—they were favored for this reason and treated better than the darker slaves. The mulatto women were allowed to work and live inside of the house with their Master and his family, they were called house Negroes; their objective was to cook, clean, do laundry, and cater to the needs of their master and his family.  The darker women lived on the plantation in small one room shacks. They were responsible for working inside of the field or nursing their master’s children. The lighter women were praised my their master for being beautiful while the darker women were scolded for being ugly and having nappy hair. The darker women suffered more severe punishments than the lighter women when they failed to satisfy the needs of their master. Some of the mulatto women were taught to read, write and speak proper English while the darker women were kept illiterate and ignorant[6].

The circumstances that the slave women existed in put a strain on the ways that they interacted with each other—the darker women desired to be as beautiful as the light-skinned women.  They thought that light-skinned women were allowed to enjoy luxuries that they were denied; they longed to be treated like the lighter skinned women. Along with the desire to be treated like light-skinned women followed a sense of envy; they envied the lighter skinned women because they knew that they would never be able to obtain their status. Alternatively, light-skinned women either felt like they superior to dark-skinned women or they developed a color complex from not knowing their true identity and who their biological father was.  They often questioned their existence and their ancestry; often times their questions were left unanswered because it was taboo to speak of sexual relations between slaves and their masters. The light-skinned women who felt superior to dark-skinned women searched for acceptance from the White people in society. Many times they would try to pass for white; on some occasions they may have been successful but if someone discovered that they were actually African-American, they had to prepare to face dire consequences. Light skinned women also experienced counts of alienation; they were not accepted by the whites in society and they were shunned out of the African-American communities that contained a majority of dark-skinned blacks. These factors contributed to the deterioration of unity within the African-American race, they also reflect insecurities that existed on both ends of the spectrum.

Once slavery was emancipated in 1863[7], life changed drastically for African-American women. Colorism had flourished into more than just a house Negro verses field Negro scenario- this obstruction had oozed its way into society affecting the ways that dark-skinned women prospered in social settings, professional settings, and in the media.  White people preferred to use light-skinned women as the face of beauty and success when considering the African-American race. Light skinned women were considered beautiful because they favored the majority—they were as close to white as any black woman would ever get; they were highlighted for that very reason.  

 The “Brown Paper Bag test” was used to decipher who was considered light and dark-skinned. If you where the same color as the brown paper bag or lighter you were considered light-skinned, anything other than that was considered dark-skinned. Better opportunities were presented to those who were lighter than the brown paper bag[8]. Light skinned women thrived in professional settings. They were able to obtain better jobs because of their skin tone and they were encouraged to be educated because they had a better chance at being successful than dark-skinned women. Light skinned women were portrayed fairly in the media and they were put on a pedestal by society. For decades a light-skinned woman were featured in more films, on more magazine covers and on more billboard ads than dark-skinned women. The most famous and glamorous celebrities were light-skinned women with long, fine textured hair. It was rare to see a dark-skinned women being praised for her beauty[9]. There were also organizations and clubs that were formulated specifically for the benefit of light-skinned women. The Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority was one of those organizations; it was founded on the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC in 1908.  Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority is the oldest Greek-letter organization established by African-American college-trained women[10]. This Sorority is known for implementing the brown paper bag test while considering who would become members of the sisterhood; the members had to either be lighter than or the same color as the brown paper bag. Women belonging to the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority have a reputation for being elegant, beautiful, intelligent and classy. They were considered the elite of the African-American women in America.

Shortly after the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority was founded the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority emerged. The Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was founded on the campus of Howard University in Washington, DC in 1913[11]. This sorority consisted of a variety of African-American women; they ignored the tactics of brown paper bag test. The majority their members were dark-skinned however because most of the lighter women pledged AKA. The Delta women were known for being strong, powerful and strong-willed. They were often compared to the women of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority; negative connotations were associated with each group. They became rivals for this very reason. It is perceived that the women of AKA think that the Delta women are envious of them because they do not obtain the reputation of being beautiful, classy, and elegant. Delta women strive to disprove such allegations; they claim that they put emphasis on the integrity of their sorority as opposed to their organization’s glamorous framework. This factor further deteriorates the unity concerning black women in America. Women who aspire to pledge a sorority struggle with choosing the sorority that best reflects their personality; some women wish to pledge AKA but they contemplate that decision because they do not want to be associated with the sense of conceit and follows the AKA name. On the contrary, some of the women who wish to pledge Delta struggle with their decision because want to be considered beautiful like the women of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority[12].

The issue of colorism has altered the ways black women in America interact with each other. They are unable to correspond with one another without reflecting on historical events that deteriorated their race’s unity. Dark skinned women feel like light-skinned women are credited for being more attractive; they are offended by the fact that light-skinned women are accepted more by white America. Light skinned women argue that they have a hard time living in a society where dark-skinned African-Americans are the majority. They feel like they had to undergo years of alienation, uncertainty, and guilt for being labeled superior over their darker counterparts. The controversy that colorism birthed remains because both groups are unable to let go of the color factor and unite with one another. African-American women must learn how to evaluate the malfunctions that occurred within their race and use them as fuel to revitalize the unity within the black community. The first step to doing so is to bury the insecurities that shadowed colorism and to recognize that every shade of black is beautiful.

[1] Margaret L. Hunter, “’If You’re Light You’re Alright’: Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color,” Gender and Society, no. 2 (2002): 175-193

[2] Michael Mullin, Africa in America: Slave Acculturation and Resistance in the American South and the British Caribbean 1736-1831(Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

[3] ColorQ World, “Pre-European Contact Colorism and Post-colonial Racism in Asia and North Africa,” http://www.colorq.org/articles/article.aspx?d=2002&x=colorism  (accessed April19, 2010).

[4] Alistair Boddy-Evans, About.com, “African History : The Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade,” The New York Times Company, (2010) http://africanhistory.about.com/od/slavery/tp/TransAtlantic001.html  (accessed April 23, 2010)

[5] Donald L. Horowitz, “Color Differentiation in the American Systems of Slavery” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, no.3 (1973): 509

[6] Trina Jones, “Shades of Brown: The Law of Skin Color,” Duke Law Journal, no.6 (2000): 1487-1557

[7] Alistair Boddy-Evans, About.com, “African History : The Trans- Atlantic Slave Trade,” The New York Times Company, (2010) http://africanhistory.about.com/od/slavery/tp/TransAtlantic001.html  (accessed April 23, 2010)

[8] Trina Jones, “Shades of Brown: The Law of Skin Color,” Duke Law Journal, no.6 (2000): 1487-1557

[9] Margaret L. Hunter, “’If You’re Light You’re Alright’: Light Skin Color as Social Capital for Women of Color,” Gender and Society, no. 2 (2002): 175-193

[10] Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., “A legacy of Sisterhood and Service,” http://www.aka1908.com/past (accessed April 23, 2010)

[11] Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., “A Sisterhood called to Serve,” http://www.deltasigmatheta.org/history.htm (accessed April 23, 2010)

[12] Tamara L. Brown, Gergory Parks and Clarenda M. Phillips, African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision, (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2005).