After More Than 300 Years in the U.S., Blacks are Still Color-Conscious
by Hazel Trice Edney
This is the first of two articles on how one’s complexion still colors how many African-Americans view themselves and others in their community. The first part, about a dark-skin woman, and the second, about a light-skin woman, underscores the issue of perception. Each story begins by showing how, in the course of each woman going about her
daily routine, her life was interrupted and impacted by someone else’s perception of her – good or bad – based on her complexion.
- The Editor
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Atima Omara-Alwala had just left her office at the State Capitol in Richmond, Va. and was on her way to lunch when she heard a voice from a passing car scream, “Blackie!”
It was the kind of insult that she has come to expect but not accept.
A few years earlier, as a sophomore at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, 40 miles away, she heard some guys in a passing car laugh as one yelled, “Darkie!”
That anyone would stoop to that level of behavior was disappointing enough. But what made these insults doubly painful was that they were uttered by Black men.
“It’s not surprising anymore. But it’s still somewhat painful,”
Omara-Alwala admits. “I kind of wince or flinch on the inside. Even when I work in Black communities, I’m always conscious that there might be some reason that I’ll be picked on – not because of any fault in my personality – just the fact that I’m this complexion. And, of course, I’m no good if I’m this complexion.”
Omara-Alwala’s complexion is dark. She was born in Providence, R.I. to parents from Uganda in East Africa.
C. Yvette Taylor, a psychologist who counsels many women of color at the University of Virginia, and has heard many stories similar to Omara-Alwala’s, says stereotypes based on color are not unusual.
“Certainly they still exist and they are age old,” she says. “And they very likely will always be around. And the ramifications of them are myriad. Lots of people – women and men – struggle with the skin-tone issue.”
Taylor argues that light-skinned African-Americans are favored because they more closely resemble the White majority in the U.S., which is depicted as the paragon of beauty in photographs, television commercials and popular culture. She also traces it back to slavery and the favoritism the master showed toward light-skin slaves, some of whom he
had sexually exploited against their will.
“That is one theory as to the origin of it, the twisted mind of an evil White man who just wanted to separate and divide the Black race so that we were pitted against one another as opposed to working collectively together to overcome,” Taylor says.
Books, such as Delores Phillips' “Darkest Child,” published earlier this year, addresses the issue of prejudice among people who have been the object of prejudice for years. She observes, “Attitudes of prejudice have been adopted by its victims. And the resulting struggle of those who are darker complected is a struggle, not only against outsiders, but
against the closest of kin.”
Omara-Alwala knows about that struggle.
“I can’t remember the first remark ever made, but I can remember the snickering, the pointing,” she says.
She recalls an instance when she was in the sixth grade at Matoaca Middle School in Chesterfield County, Va.
“I would get on the school bus and I would try to find a place to sit,” she recalls, slowly. “It wasn’t like I couldn’t sit next to anybody, but if I tried to they would be like, ‘No, this seat’s taken.’ Or, ‘No, you can’t sit here.’ Eventually, some White kid would feel so bad for me that he or she would just let me sit next to them.”
That was mild, compared to some of the other insults she faced.
“There was a [light-skin Black] kid sitting by himself and I sat down. He picked his leg up and took his foot and like pushed me. I remember his foot against my back and he pushed me into the aisle. I didn’t know what to do and everybody was like, laughing at me at this point. And the bus driver was saying, ‘I’m not leaving until she sits down.’
“I found another place and I think at this point, one of the kids saw me coming. He kind of acted like I was the creature from the Black Lagoon, for lack of a better phrase. And he jumped over the back of the bus seat into the next seat. And everybody’s like laughing and screaming and it’s like the biggest joke ever and I sat by myself and I just sat there and
you know. This was on my way to school. This was like the start of my day every day.”
With her voice almost cracking, she says, “I cried for the longest time.”
Fortunately, the bus route was changed so that Omara-Alwala could board first, but that did not end the cruelty. After a string of similar incidents that followed her to college, Omara-Alwala eventually sought professional counseling.
Sandra Cox, director of the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals in Los Angeles, says the perceptions of African-Americans of themselves has changed little since the studies of husband and wife team, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, founders of the Northside Center for Child Development in Harlem.
They conducted an experiment in which Black kids were offered the choice between a Black doll and a White one. Invariably, the children selected the White one.
“Nothing has changed among African-American people. You give a kid a doll in 2004, you’d find the same thing that Kenneth and Mamie Clark found over 50 years ago. In fact, it’s probably worse,” says Cox, a psychologist.
She explains, “All you have to do is pick up Ebony and JET or Essence or any of those magazines that appeal to African-American people, specifically women. You’ll see it as clear as it was over 50 years ago. We are doing everything to not look African and to look as White as we possibly can,” Cox says.
Not Danielle Smith, a dark-skin cashier for a national grocery chain, in Washington, D.C. Customers in her check-out line can also check out the “Black & Beautiful” tattoo that she wears proudly on her wrist.
“I was always self-conscious of my complexion when I was younger,” Smith says. “Everybody wanted to talk to light-skin girls and they called me, ‘Black girl’ or made little names to make fun. It was like it was this disease or something because of my complexion, like it was bad to be dark-skinned.”
Even some family members contributed. Smith recalls, “They just teased me, called me ‘little Black girl.’”
Omara-Alwala has been called that and worse.
“You realize how racism and discrimination, even within your race, has shaped your experience and your life,” she says.
Like Smith, she hasn’t let the bad experiences erode her self-esteem. When not working in constituency services for Gov. Mark Warner, Omara-Alwala is busy helping other women who might have had similar experiences. She is vice president for publications for the Virginia Chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and is active in many feminist and political causes involving the rights and issues of women.
“I was Black to the White community, so that sort of made me an outsider,” explains Omara-Alwala. “And I was too Black for the Black community. And so, I found myself developing my own individual characteristics.
“Although some people would say that feminism is gender parity, it’s also a basic need that women have to be completely who they are, not defined by anything, but just who they are. I intend to work hard and to be a mentor to a lot of my younger women of color.”
Smith’s hard work on her self-esteem has paid off. “I’m happy with my complexion now,” she says. “Black is beautiful.”http://www.amsterdamnews.org/News/Article/Article.asp?NewsID=3292&sID=3