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CNN’s ‘Who is Black in America?’ on colorism and racial identity – updated

UPDATE: If you tuned in, what did you think of “What is Black in America”? You can’t cover all of the intricacies of this complex subject in an hour, it’s just an overview (much of the Black in America series feels like this) meant to spur discussion.

Quick impressions:

1) How the U.S. Census perpetrates colorism and confusion about racial identification. Becca (born to Egyptian parents, considers herself black), admits to Soledad that she checks white on college applications for acceptance, but also because the census considers those of Middle East and North African (read: not sub-Saharan Africa) descent “white.” I wonder how viewers felt about Becca after that last revelation?

2) Toxic colorism starts young. The pretty little 7-year-old brown-skinned girl telling her mom that “I wanna be light skinned” and “dark skin is ugly.” This is tragic. The use of the brown paper bag test during one segment with a class of young people was particularly painful and eye-opening.

3) You are what you look like, unless… The biracial young woman who lives with her white father and is unsure of how to identify (and has a sister who culturally identifies as black) I found kind of sad, but hopeful for. She desperately wants to claim her whiteness, though honest to god, there’s no way in my mind that she could pass as white if you saw her walking down the street. At the end of her poetry slam class she eventually identified as a black woman, which for her she felt was a milestone.

How sad is our culture that light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks torture themselves because of the one-drop rule still perpetrated officially and socially by the dominant and minority culture.

I absolutely cannot wait to see Soledad O’ Brien’s “Who is black in America?” — it is premiering on CNN on Sunday at 8PM ET. As someone who used to routinely got “what are you?” questions (when I lived in NYC and my hair was chemically straightened; I was often mistaken as Puerto Rican), an examination of this topic is healthy and necessary. Kudos for O’Brien and the newschannel for exploring the third rail of race to spur discussion.

Colorism and racial identity are going to be explored in this installment of the Black in America series. From a relevant article at the WaPo:

Colorism began during slavery when darker-skinned blacks were relegated to field work and lighter-skinned blacks, often the children of slave masters, were given housework. For years after, many blacks, some say, internalized the declaration that the lighter one was the better one. Nobody wants to talk about colorism. And yet everybody talks about it.

…Among black women younger than 30, there is “a premium associated with light-skinned complexion,” [Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and public policy at the New School in New York] says.

“There is a well-established literature of colorism, a preference for lighter-skinned individuals,” according to a report called “Shedding ‘Light’ on Marriage,” which was co-written by Hamilton; Arthur H. Goldsmith, a professor at Washington and Lee University; and William A. Darity Jr., a professor at Duke University. “We find that the light-skin shade as measured by survey interviewers is associated with about a 15 percent greater probability of marriage for young black women, and light-skin shade as measured by self-reported biracial status is associated with the presence of better educated and higher-earning spouses for married black females.”

My mom, who was fair-skinned, experienced the phenomenon and shared the brown paper bag test story with me. Her exposure to the “test” occurred in the 1950s, while living in Brooklyn, NY, she was dating a young gentleman, who was brown-skinned. She was invited to a party in the neighborhood and brought her friend to the dance. At the door, the host leaned in to my mother and said that he could not be admitted with her. She was upset and asked to step inside to discuss the matter. The host was uncomfortable that my mom didn’t get the “secret signal”, but brought her in (while he waited outside), and was told point blank “He doesn’t pass the brown paper bag test.” He was too dark, and there was to be none of that going on at this party.

And aside from colorism working insidiously in communities of color, for some white folks it doesn’t matter what your shade is, if you present as a person of color, you’re still automatically under suspicion. After the Trayvon Martin gundown exposed open racial fears, paranoia, anger and denial at levels I haven’t seen in some time, my brother had this experience in his own neighborhood while heading to teach class at the University of Delaware:

My brother and his family came for a visit over the weekend and we talked about the Trayvon Martin case. It led him to share a recent experience that he had that was both enraging and depressing. He’s 43, and a professor at UD. On a recent walk to campus, in jeans (no hoodie!) and a knapsack slung over his shoulder, he was stopped by a white woman and asked what he was doing there. In his own neighborhood. Naturally, he did nothing to inflame the situation (recalling, no doubt, the training our late mom gave him years ago), and went on his way, but what does that say about the woman who perceived him as an outsider — enough so to actually approach and challenge his very presence? Is the good news that she didn’t automatically dial 911? Hey, the KKK was doing recruiting door-to-door in his county in  2011.  It makes me sick because I know this is what young men (and apparently not-so-young) men of color face on a regular basis. Soul-draining.

And pitifully, I’ve had to endure bizarre episodes in my time, coming from both the black, white and LGBT communities at various times because straddling multiple communities that have experienced oppression makes some uncomfortable, as if they feel you have to “choose sides” for some reason. My personal favorite was being called a “half-breed” gay for not being 100% behind Obama’s policies, in that case my “cultural” and visible blackness was erased by my gayness.

Of course I had to laugh at “half breed” on a couple of levels. 1) I’m not biracial, I’m the product of two parents who are black (and neither of them were/are biracial), something that people seem to have a hard time grasping is possible these days. It’s only been in the last decade or so that people have even raised the question about me, so I attribute it to more biracial people asserting their status than anything else.

So that blended background seems to agitate some people who want to easily answer that “what are you” question. Soledad addresses this — here with Yaba Blay, Ph.D. of the (1)ne Drop Project:

O’Brien: At screenings for “Black in America” I’ve heard people say, “Well you know I never thought you were black until you did Katrina and then I thought you were black.” And I’d say, “That’s so fascinating. What was it that made you think I was black?” And then someone else would say, “Yeah, but she’s married to a white man.” And I’m like “OK, so does that make me less black and how in your mind does that math work? That there’s a certain number and if you get below that number because you get points for who you marry and you lose points for where you live and how you speak?”

But even just going back to the questions consistently, I thought it was just illuminating. I thought it was just so fascinating to really open up a conversation about race. Now we’re up to “Black in America 5” and we’re having that conversation.

Blay: So what makes a person black?

O’Brien: I certainly don’t think it’s skin color. And I certainly don’t think it’s how well you speak the language. And I’m not sure I can answer that question thoroughly because my consciousness about race was really implanted in me by my parents. I would say I’m black because my parents said I’m black. I’m black because my mother’s black. I’m black because I grew up in a family of all black people. I knew I was black because I grew up in an all-white neighborhood. And my parents, as part of their protective mechanisms that they were going to give to us made it very clear what we were.

My mother would say, “Do not let anybody tell you you’re not black. Do not let anybody tell you you’re not Latina.” And I remember thinking her comments were so weird, like “What is she talking about?” There weren’t people coming over to my house saying “You’re not black!” We stuck out!

But now I understand what she was going for. And I am very grateful for those conversations because I think it implants in your head sort of the perspective that my parents wanted us to have. We were raised that way in a place that was often not particularly hospitable and sometimes out and out hostile to people of color. I guess my parents taught me very early that how other people perceive me really was not my problem or my responsibility. It was much more based on how I perceived me.

As with all of my posts on race, I encourage people to step outside of your comfort zones and comment. Silence in the face of the fact that our country is still so polluted by ignorance and fear  about race– of defensive reactions and hostility — is self-reinforcing of the problem. All sides need to have civil discussions when it isn’t about a Trayvon Martin-type incident when tempers are flared and people run to defensive corners or lash out. A program like this should facilitate sane conversations about race and racial identity in a browning nation.

* Skin and the color of money

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding