By Bernadette Steward
HOUSTON – Is “light skin” the same as “good?” Is “dark skin” the same as bad? I visited the Lawndale Art Center at 4912 Main for the exhibition, “Paper or Plastic” by Nathaniel Donnett. It left me reflecting on what should never have existed, and should most certainly be in the past, but unfortunately lives on. The exhibition reveals the naked truth about a major problem in our African American world today.
This stigma is one that is very rarely talked about among two groups of African Americans. It revolves on the tension between light skinned and dark skinned African Americans. This division is very real and undeniably painful. The origin of this very real problem goes as far back as the early 1700’s.
A slave master from the Virgin Islands came at the invitation of some southern slave owners to teach them how to better control their slaves. He told them that they were losing valuable stock by killing their slaves. He instructed them to make one group believe that they were better than the other group. The slave master took the African woman and produced an offspring that look significantly different from the rest of the Africans. This mixing of the genes yielded a lighter offspring, with lighter eyes and straighter hair and thinner lips. Some of the offspring from this genetic crossing were sometimes allowed to live closer to the slave master’s house and sometimes lived in the house.
At the turn of the 20th century, after slaves were supposedly free, the light skinned Blacks believe what they had been taught by the slave master and treated the dark skinned African Americans discriminatory. The “Paper Bag” test was the determinant factor, if your skin color was the color of the brown paper bag or lighter you were given access to certain privileges and conversely if your skin was darker than the paper bag you were denied those same privileges.
This same sick thinking is alive and strong in the African American society today. If an African American is dark, has thick lips, and their hair is more tightly curled they are blatantly discriminated against by their lighter skinned counter-part. This is Intra-racism. It is the discrimination against people within their own race because there is a distinct difference in their appearance. It is based on the possession of more melanin. This arbitrary test whose only criteria was based solely upon the color of a person’s skin in comparison to the brown paper bag has influenced access to social, educational and employment opportunities.
The museum exhibition brought back memories of Spike Lee’s 1988 movie, “School Daze.” The movie’s setting was a black college campus and one of the focuses was the “Jigga boos and the Wannabes”. The “Jigga boos” wore their hair natural and the “Wannabes” wore their hair processed and straight.
It also reminded me of two more recent events that I personally experienced. While on a bus trip to Natchitoches Louisiana, there were two women sitting next to each other, the dark skinned one was looking across the vast fields of corn and soy beans and imagining how hard her ancestors toiled in the hot sun. She stated to the light skinned female that she could only imagine the arduous jobs they had to perform out in the fields as slaves, the female of the lesser melanin stated that her “people were in the house”. The darker skinned woman felt devastated by this comment.
The lesser melanin versus melanin rich skin is one of those verboten issues that is not talked about. I interviewed some young women at an HBCU (Historically Black College or University). The response was jaw dropping when some these young women revealed to me the pain and hurt they felt about being dark skinned. They would say that the guys would call them a pretty dark girl, and that was as far as it would go. The guys regardless of their skin color, wanted what we term a “high yella girl”. The psychological impact upon the girls, boys, women and men of all ages, who are made to feel less than another group is devastating. They are made to doubt their self worth, question their beauty and have self hatred.
The exhibition captured the ostracism and marginalization which has resulted from the light skinned, dark skinned separation. The racism resulting has been devastating to the psychological well being of African Americans in this country and has been used to minimize wages and maximize profits. One of the works was titled, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, ain’t nothing fair about this at all!”