“Facial and Free Bleaching For Scars, Oily and Dark Pigmentation.”
This phrase is etched in bright red letters on a yellow flag more than five feet tall. Amid the black-and-white posters of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and the dark, worn furniture, it is the first thing that catches the eye in this tiny office. The flag is an advertisement for skin lightening bleach from Manila, Philippines. The final two words, “dark pigmentation” create an image of impressionable Filipino girls tirelessly scrubbing this product on their skin in hopes that it will transform their dark tone to one like Nicole Kidman’s milky white complexion.
The ad belongs to Ronald Hall and exists as a reminder of a problem that affects everyone from Filipinos in Manila to blacks in the United States. Hall, an associate professor of social work at MSU, researches intraracial discrimination based on skin color, or “colorism.” Intraracial discrimination means when someone discriminates against another person of the same racial group, and it affects almost every minority group in America and globally. However, many of these groups stay silent about colorism for fear of seeming hypocritical for racism still existing within their communities, when they have fought for equality with other races for so long. Hall has studied colorism for more than 25 years and said the black community is the most outspoken about intraracial discrimination.
[slappey]In 1992, Hall co-authored Color Complex, one of the first books to critically examine colorism within the black community. Last month he published his ninth book, Racism in the 21st Century, which looks at intraracial discrimination’s impact on all people of color. It was Hall’s childhood experiences that got him interested in intraracial discrimination. “In my neighborhood, the lighter-skinned kids didn’t always congregate with the rest of us and had a little more financially, but I didn’t think much about it. It wasn’t until I started researching this that I found a pattern that wealth in the black community is dominated by lighter-skinned blacks,” Hall said.
The dichotomy of light versus dark and “good hair” (naturally straight, curly or wavy hair) versus “bad hair” (thick and coarse hair) dates back to slavery when slaves adopted a “divide and conquer system.” In order to control slaves and keep them from running away, slave masters treated the light-skinned slaves better than the dark-skinned ones. Lighter-skinned slaves usually worked in the master’s house and had more access to better clothing and food. Nevertheless, they were all slaves, and many were raped by slave owners and overseers or had relationships with them, resulting in biracial children.
Today, a kaleidoscope of skin tones exists within the black community. The notion of whiteness as beautiful has persisted through many generations and continues to be prevalent today. “Girls don’t really approach me because I’m not light-skinned or the pretty boy type,” accounting sophomore Tyrell Slappey said. “I think it’s harder for darker-skinned blacks, because if I were competing for a job against a light-skinned black guy with the same credentials, he would get picked over me because I’m too dark. They’re closer to white.”
What Slappey is saying may not be too far from reality. According to a 2006 University of Georgia study conducted by doctoral student Matthew Harrison, light-skinned black males with a bachelor’s degree and average work experience were more likely to be hired over dark-skinned males with an MBA and managerial experience. On a rate of one to seven, one meaning “not hire at all” and seven meaning, “definitely would hire,” light-skinned males averaged 5.35, while dark-skinned black men with an MBA, on average, rated only 4.5.
“It’s sad. I don’t think skin color should impact who gets hired. It should only matter who’s better for the job,” microbiology junior Donnie Cooper II said. Cooper, who is dark-skinned, thinks the reason is because mainstream society sees darker-skinned blacks as more threatening. “If you’re dark or the darker you are, there are the stereotypes. People think you’re mean especially if you don’t smile. I’ve been labeled unapproachable because I don’t walk around with a smile on my face all day, every day,” Cooper said.
Many darker-skinned blacks think their skin tone has been a hindrance, but some light-skinned blacks have had the same experiences. For sociology freshman Stephen Vines-Harvin, his light skin means he is constantly trying to prove his identity. “Maybe when it comes to getting a job I have an advantage over someone who’s dark, but within my own community, you get a lot of hating,” he said. “It’s worse when you’re younger. Because I was light and I had light brown hair, kids were always like, ‘You’re not black. You think you’re white.'”
[ramsona]Black women cope with colorism just as much as their male counterparts. America is a nation obsessed with beauty, especially when it comes to women, and curves, coarse hair and dark skin are not hallmarks of the American standard of beauty. The underrepresentation of black as beautiful in advertisements targeted toward females causes black women to think they do not have a place on the spectrum of beauty. “Every time you turn on the TV, you’ll see commercials selling products that feature white women with the long, flowing hair, and it seems innocent. It’s not saying outright this is the standard of beauty, but if that’s all you see since you were a kid you know. That’s why it’s so dangerous because you don’t even realize it,” Hall said.
Apparel and textile sophomore Ashley Ramson agreed that the media has perpetuated an idea of beauty that is light, not dark. “You see a lot of light-skinned black women or Latinos in commercials. If there is a dark-skinned woman she has ‘natural’ hair or if she’s light-skinned she has curly hair, and it doesn’t represent what most black women look like,” Ramson said.
Growing up, Ramson’s very light complexion became the center of kids’ jokes. “The first time someone called me yellow was in the first grade. It was just something that was always noticed,” Ramson said. “If a girl didn’t like me she would say ‘you think you’re all that because you’re light-skinned or your hair is curly.’” There was even animosity within her family. “My mother was teased by her family because she was the lightest and they’re Jamaican and dark. My mom is not even that light. I would hate to think what they would say about me and my siblings,” Ramson said. Ramson was teased as a child, but as she has aged she has noticed how her features and skin color attract the eyes of many black men. “I do think guys prefer light-skinned females. A lot of guys I know prefer them and I think that’s because they’ve been made to think that light skin and curly hair is beautiful.”
Major black Hollywood celebrities like Beyonce, Rihanna and Halle Berry all have light complexions and typically white features. They are often considered the epitome of beauty among people of color. Other black celebrities like Angela Bassett, Nia Long and Gabrielle Union do not receive as much press as their lighter-skinned peers. “This whole issue of skin color discrimination, it’s a reality, but nobody wants to talk about it in public. Blacks are embarrassed by this because we accuse whites of doing the same thing so it lessens the accusations against them. It’s still an underlying pain, and we keep suppressing that pain when we don’t talk about it,” Hall said. Until the issue is talked about openly and accepted as a problematic part of our society, the tensions between white and black and light and dark will continue to color our worlds.

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