COLORISM : In American Society, Are Lighter-Skinned Blacks Better Off?

Times Staff Writer

Between the hard-driving beat of a rap record and the sugared sensuality of a rhythm-and-blues tune, listeners to KDAY-AM’s “Love Connection” hear a sociological drama being played out most weekday mornings. “It’s the skin game,” laments disc jockey Russ Parr as he screens calls from the station’s audience of mostly black adults, 18 to 25, detailing the physical features of their ideal date.

“Why don’t you describe yourself to the ladies out there?” Parr asks a caller named Eric.

“I’m brown-skinned,” the 19-year-old says.

“What you got going for yourself?” asks Parr, a quick-witted, 31-year-old black man whose on-air comments are frequently laced with sarcasm.


“Everything,” Eric responds. “I have brown skin, light-brown eyes, a curl (hair style) . . . .”

“What’s your name?” Parr asks another caller.

“Iceman,” he answers. “I’m 5-foot-9. I’m light-skinned. I’ve got green eyes. I got a long, long curl.”

Are his eyes really green? Parr asks derisively.


“Those aren’t Oprah Winfrey contact specials?”

“Ah, no-no-no, buddy. I was born with these,” the Iceman says.

Parr takes another caller, then announces, “OK, ladies, if this sounds like your cup of tea, give me, Russ Parr, a call.”

Parr says he constantly tells his audience that “your skin complexion is irrelevant.” “We have had (on-air) debates on this whole issue,” prompted, he says, by Spike Lee’s recent film, “School Daze,” which satirizes color and class conflict among blacks. But it has been to little avail, the disc jockey says.

In Lee’s controversial film, blacks are divided between the “Wannabees”--mostly light-skinned, middle-class blacks with long, straight hair who want to totally assimilate--and the “Jigaboos”--darker-skinned blacks who generally come from the working class or underclass and want to maintain their black cultural identity.

The film, released this year, is unusual in that it exposes an issue many blacks thought long dead. Whites may be surprised to find that it is an issue at all. Well aware of the discrimination in American society by whites against blacks, many whites have never considered the possibility that at least some blacks have the attitude that it is better to marry and associate with those who have lighter skin, straighter hair, sharper features--the attributes the larger society values.

This dilemma long thought moot has generated new, provocative research: from the cataloguing of 140 labels that African-Americans use to distinguish gradations of skin color among themselves, to a recent study that found that the social and economic gap between light- and dark-skinned blacks is as great as the disparity in quality of life between whites and blacks in America as a whole.

The issue of colorism--defined by writer Alice Walker in a 1982 essay as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color”--is a conundrum whose roots are as deep as the blues-based music played on KDAY.

It can be traced back to the American slave epoch when the lighter-skinned offspring of slave masters and slave women were given preferential treatment on plantations as house slaves as opposed to field slaves, or freed, forming the basis of the early black middle class in America. Colorism, many social scientists contend, continues to this day, perpetuated by continuing discrimination by whites against blacks on the basis of race and complexion.

In the uproar that surrounded “School Daze,” blacks variously complained that the film exaggerated the problem of color bias among blacks, that the problem doesn’t exist or, conversely, that Lee was airing the race’s “dirty linen.”

Colorism has certainly diminished among blacks since the black pride movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in the opinion of Winthrop D. Jordan, the eminent historian of race relations who authored “White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812,” winner of the National Book Award and Bancroft Prize for history. But it still exists, he says. In Jordan’s opinion, it’s not much discussed among blacks because it threatens unity.

But at KDAY, Parr’s young black listeners have no such compunctions.

Later in the morning, Lillian (“But everybody calls me Lace”) phones in a description of her persona for a caller named Darryl. “Well,” Lillian says, “I have real black hair--it’s long of course. And I’m light-skinned and I have really soft brown eyes.”

“That light-skin stuff really turns you on, huh man?” asks Parr.

“No, not really,” says Darryl.

But Lillian is definitely the type of woman another caller named Sean wants.

The 23-year-old warehouse dispatcher, interviewed by phone after the show, asks that his last name not be used. “I must admit,” Sean says, “I did say I want a fair-complected black woman. Brown skin,” which he describes himself as being, “is all right.” He just doesn’t want a woman who’s too dark. And his parents don’t want him dating one, either.

A Mother’s Warning

Last year, the one time he did bring home a dark-skinned girl, his mother took him aside and said: “Don’t let it go too far. We don’t want any dark people in our family.” Both his parents are light brown, Sean says.

“My sister has two beautiful light-skinned children,” and that’s what he wants, too. “I don’t want to marry a woman who’s African dark, even if she’s really nice. Uh, uh. Nope. I’m going to be truthful.”

Deejay Parr has more. One light-skinned woman called and told him that she never wanted to be seen with a “burple-looking” person. “That’s a person between black and purple,” he says, shaking his head.

The term is familiar to Curtis Banks, a Howard University psychologist studying color-consciousness among blacks. He has discovered “140 labels” African-Americans use to describe skin color--everything from the well-known “yellow, red and red-boned” to “skillet.”

As in “as dark as?” he is asked.

“Yes,” Banks said. “We suspect that’s the origin.”

But prominent Washington, D.C., psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing--reflecting an oft-heard view in the black community--has little patience with debates about the existence of color distinctions among blacks.

Roots of Racism

“It is absurd for any black person to be talking about this without talking about white supremacy,” says Welsing, the controversial author of “The Cress Theory of Color Confrontation and Racism (White Supremacy),” which traces the roots of white racism to a fear of genetic annihilation of the planet’s white minority.

“It is white people that keep saying and imposing that if you look like an African you should be at the bottom of the choice spectrum.”

That is what the two white Virginia psychologists, who examined the relationship between skin color and life chances among black Americans, believe to be the origins of the problem, too.

They found that the social and economic gap between light- and dark-skinned blacks is as significant as “one of the greatest socioeconomic cleavages in America,” the schism between the income and status of all blacks and all whites.

The study, “The Significance of Color Remains: A Study of Life Chances, Mate Selection, and Ethnic Consciousness Among Black Americans,” was written by Michael Hughes and Bradley R. Hertel, professors in the department of sociology at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

Using data from the 1980 National Survey of Black Americans, conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, and 1983 census data, Hughes and Hertel found that:

--While all of the 2,107 blacks in the national survey had approximately the same level of education--12 years--dark-skinned blacks earned only 70 cents for every dollar a light-skinned black earned.

--Between all blacks and all whites with the same approximate level of education--12 years--light-skinned blacks earned about 58 cents for every dollar a white person earned.

But “most telling,” says Hughes, are the percentages for both groups showing who is employed in professional and managerial occupations--high-status jobs.

Almost 29% of all whites hold such jobs, the study found, while blacks hold only about 15%. “That’s nearly a 2-to-1 ratio,” says Hughes, ironically the same ratio as for light-skinned blacks (27% of whom hold such jobs) compared with 15% of dark-skinned blacks who were employed in these positions.

Significantly, when Hughes and Hertel compared their findings to studies done between 1950 and 1980 on the relationship between skin color and socioeconomic status they concluded that nothing had “changed appreciably.” The effect of “skin color on life chances of black Americans was not eliminated by the civil rights and black pride movements.”

The psychologists reject the argument that, since the black middle class has been predominantly light-skinned for historical reasons, light-skinned blacks are merely reaping the benefits of their families’ higher educational and economic status.

“We adjusted for socioeconomic status of parents,” Hughes says. Part of the relationship between darker skin color and socio-economic status “is due to parents.” But there is something else going on, he says.

That something, he and Hertel speculate, is that skin color, like gender, operates as a “diffuse status characteristic.” For example, a man is believed “more competent to pilot a plane than a woman, when in fact there is no evidence that gender has anything to do with ability,” Hughes says.

Skin color works this way, he says, and that’s how whites respond to it. “We focused on whites because white people are the ones who are generally responsible for making upper-level management and personnel decisions. They are more likely to decide whether people get through educational institutions.” And when they look at a darker-complectioned black person, Hughes and Hertel believe, they think they are seeing someone “less competent”--someone less like them than a fairer-complectioned black person.

This is “more serious than overt racism,” Hughes asserts. “This happens even among people who have liberal attitudes.” They would deny it, he says, but “they unconsciously make these assumptions.”

Contrary to their conclusions, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a noted Harvard psychiatrist and consultant to “The Cosby Show,” doesn’t believe that lighter-skinned blacks are still given substantially better treatment by whites.

According to Poussaint, it’s simply that when Affirmative Action opened doors for blacks, “the middle class, which tended to be more fair, moved in more quickly.”

If you look at Harvard Medical School, says Poussaint, who is black, “you see black kids across (the color) spectrum.”

In terms of student selection at the university, he says there “may be some subtle advantages” to a lighter complexion, “but it can work both ways. Some candidates look too light-skinned. If they don’t look black enough, people don’t want them,” because they don’t appear physically representative of the race.

In areas less related to intellectual ability and professional competence, however, lighter-hued blacks may have some advantages, Poussaint believes.

“I think that light-skinned females have an advantage because the beauty standards in the country are white.” Look, he says, at Miss Americas Vanessa Williams and Suzette Charles. Their winning, he believes, “had something to do with their being light-skinned and almost looking white.”

Williams, now a professional actress and singer, says, “Of course I’m a bit defensive on the subject. . . . a lot of people didn’t even see the pageant.” They don’t know that “I won on my merits.”

Cautioning that she is speaking only for herself and not for all fair-complectioned black women, Williams admits to being “naive” about the issue of colorism among blacks--until she won the 1983 Miss America Pageant.

After that, however, she remembers “being on a lot of talk shows in the beginning and feeling the heat and feeling hurt that some of the black community wasn’t behind me, but doggin’ me. I remember one person saying, ‘Well, the only reason that Suzette Charles was runner-up was because she was more black’ than I was. And I immediately said both my parents are black and that’s not the case with the first runner-up, so please, don’t even start.”

Williams, who was dethroned after sexually explicit photos of her were published in Penthouse magazine, was replaced by Charles, whose father is Italian-American and whose mother is West Indian.

Poussaint, pointing to current images in movies and the mass media, says, “Look at what they’re pushing: Vanity, Apollonia and all these light-skinned types. Even Jackee on ‘227,’ Felicia Rashad and Debbie Allen. They all tend toward fair. You don’t see many Cicely Tysons.”

Adam and Eve

A small brouhaha over a Jan. 11 Newsweek cover may illustrate his point.

The art for the cover story on the woman anthropologists believe to be the common ancestor of all humans--a sub-Saharan African woman they call Eve--depicted Adam and Eve as brown-skinned people with the type of curly hair most blacks only possess by chemical alteration.

Illustrator Braldt Bralds says his initial concept for the cover was “much more pure.”

To reinforce the basic ideas in the story, “I thought it would have really made sense . . . to make a black Adam and Eve. Meaning to me a real African, Negro look, rather than making the skin (tone) half and half . . . .”

But Bralds says he was told by Newsweek’s cover art director, Ron Meyerson, that they needed an illustration that would be “more appealing to a wider variety of people.”

Although Bralds says he thought the art should reflect the text of the story, he didn’t push the point. “I understand the things they have to consider.”

Meyerson says he has no rebollection of a conversation with Bralds in which he specifically rejected the idea of an African-looking couple. The magazine was seeking a “contemporary” black look, he says, to update the original Flemish painting of Adam and Eve.

Since they were seeking a contemporary look, why didn’t the magazine depict contemporary Africans? “That’s an understandable argument,” responds Rick Smith, Newsweek’s editor-in-chief. “But it wasn’t an argument we ever had.”

In the world of high fashion and advertising, the current preference is for black models who have a “softer, lighter-skinned look,” like Shari Belafonte-Harper, says Jan Stewart, head of the New Faces division of the Elite Model Agency in New York. Elite represents Belafonte-Harper and Iman, the African-born model seen in print ads, commercials, feature films and television shows.

But even the ubiquitous Iman, says Stewart, “doesn’t represent” what the industry prefers now. It’s just that “she is in a class by herself--so exotic, 6 feet tall . . . . There are not many women who look like her.”

But “if a dark, black-skinned woman who photographed beautifully came into my agency,” she would not be rejected, Stewart says. “It just happens that the lighter-skinned blacks coming in have had much softer, less severe features,” which is what the market wants.

Eileen Ford, owner of the Ford Model Agency and the grand dame of model representatives, says she doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.

The fact is that “very, very black skin is hard to photograph” and that the “stereotypical black look is simian.” It would be more “insulting” to perpetuate that stereotype by only using darker models with less keen features, she says. Sharper features on anybody, “black or white,” photograph better. A black person shouldn’t be criticized for having the “temerity” to be born with sharp features and fair skin, says Ford, or the fashion industry chastised for using them.

E. B. Attah, a sociologist on the faculty of Atlanta University, casts a more jaundiced eye on the media’s preference for light-skinned role models.

The real issue, Attah and others say, is that while all blacks suffer discrimination in America, the darker one’s skin the more one’s humanity is ignored.

And, although blacks are quick to point to white racism as the underlying reason for color prejudice, they still seem unwilling to acknowledge the extent of the problem in the African-American community, says the Nigerian-born Attah.

“You know an organization called the Links?” asks Attah. “Well, I had a member of the Links (an elite, black social service organization much like the Junior League) showing me pictures of different chapters. When she encountered a dark-skinned woman in a picture she’d say: ‘How did she get in there?’

“I am very dark-skinned and anybody in this country who is dark-skinned can tell you about encountering situations of lighter-skinned people devaluing you as a human being because of your darkness.”

Spike Lee’s film, Attah says, “just scratched the surface.”

In the Newell household in Riverside, Leah Newell, 23, is shaking her head. It’s not just men her age who prefer lighter-skinned women, she says. “I think if my dad walked in a room, the first woman he’d look at would be a light-skinned person. And he is 48 years old. I don’t think it ever changes.”

“No, no, he’s changed,” says her mother, Evelyn Newell, a medical technologist. She is slightly lighter in complexion than her elder daughter, with baby-smooth skin. Only her slightly beleaguered manner suggests her age, 50.

“He may have changed,” Leah and her sister, Jamie, say of their father. “But not enough,” claims Jamie, 18, a woman with a red undertone to her brown skin and large, carefully made-up eyes.

“Oh, here’s Walter,” says Leah, pointing to her brother. “He’s got an opinion.”

“I like all kinds of women,” says the lean, 6-foot-4 Riverside Community College freshman, joining the rest of the family around the dining room table. But he wants to know, “What do you mean by dark?”

What does he mean?

“Hey, there is a limit to dark. I would say I do prefer lighter women. But it depends on how dark the dark one is.” Anything “African dark ain’t it.”

His brother Chris, 14, says his choice just depends on the person. “It really doesn’t matter.” Unless you mean “super dark. Like this one girl in school, she’s got a big Afro. We call her Umfufu.”

His mother and sisters fall off their chairs laughing. But Leah adds sourly between the laughter, “You thought you had a healthy one there for a moment.”

“Yeah, Umfufu,” says Chris. “I call her that cause she looks like the girl Eddie Murphy described in ‘Raw.’ If she was any blacker, she’d have a bone in her nose.”

Leah, who majored in women’s and men’s studies at USC and will go to Africa this year to work in the Peace Corps, says her father’s preference for things fair, even though his own wife is not, influenced his male children’s perception of what an attractive woman is.

Their oldest brother, Sean, is married to a white woman.

Evelyn Newell says her husband used to tell Sean to “go ahead and get what (Miss) Ann has,” a colloquial term for a white woman. “Oh, we’d get into an argument about that all the time.”

When the father, who was at work during the interview, was contacted later, he said: “I don’t care what my children say, they’re tripping.”

Banks, the Howard psychologist who has discovered the 140 terms blacks use to describe skin color, maintains that color-consciousness doesn’t necessarily indicate low racial self-esteem.

Extensive research on the subject of black self-esteem “consistently shows that approximately 70%” show no self-hatred and “25% actually show the opposite--self-preference,” he says. Only “5% show the pattern that is know as self-hatred.” But that 5% does not reflect reality, according to historian Winthrop Jordan, and Michael Barnes, a psychologist who recently duplicated Kenneth B. Clark’s 1947 landmark study of color preference among children.

“I immediately distrust anything that says 5% because it suggests an accuracy of assessment that doesn’t exist about a painful matter that does exist,” says Jordan, a professor of history at UC Berkeley for 19 years and now a history professor at the University of Mississippi.

Social scientists trying to measure self-esteem are probably not getting “honest responses,” says Jordan, who describes himself as a “Yankee and a WASP.”

Barnes, the psychologist who duplicated Clark’s color preference study among children, concurs. “That 5% figure is absolutely correct. But the tools they are using are not sensitive enough to give rise to accurate information.”

Further, most of these studies are not looking specifically at the issue of self-esteem, says Barnes, a professor at Hofstra University in New York. His study wasn’t looking for that either. “We were looking at what do they prefer. And when we got these negative, self-abnegation responses from the kids, that’s what really bothered people and what bothered us,” says the 36-year-old professor, who is black.

In the original study, Clark, a retired professor of psychology at the City University of New York, asked black and white children, ages 3 to 7, to choose among four dolls, two black and two white. Two-thirds of the children preferred white dolls. The findings were so alarming, they were cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision.

When Barnes repeated the study this year, two-thirds of the children again choose the white dolls.

Unlike adults who may deny feelings of racial self-hatred on a questionnaire or to an interviewer, these children “have no sophistication about holding things back, Barnes says. “ They just came straight out and said: ‘Look, I don’t want that doll with that nappy hair.’ Period. ‘I don’t want that ugly black doll. The white one is better.’ ”

But after the first series of tests, researchers spent hours with the children emphasizing positive things about the black dolls. When they were retested, two-thirds of the children--black and white--preferred the black dolls.

Barnes says his research indicates that it is the parents, “middle- to upper-middle-class blacks,” who have the greatest identity problem.

These black adults “have a hard time discerning how much they have bought into the system.” They are the ones sending negative signals to these children either “overt or subtle,” says Barnes. “They have to decide if they want to buy the whole assimilation package or just the economic security part and salvage what is culturally ours.

“It’s a tough issue.”