Wyatt O'Brian Evans

Colorism: We Ain't Talkin' Crayola Crayons Here

Filed By Wyatt O'Brian Evans | March 31, 2009 1:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: black-on-black racism, Blue Vein society, crayola crayons, paper bag test, skin color

Editors' Note: Wyatt O'Brian Evans is a Bilerico-DC contributor. This is part of the series "The Cancer that Slowly Consumes Our Very Souls: Racism" that we're running here on Bilerico Project.

photoweek4.jpgThe term "colorism" sounds innocuous, a little exotic--you think? Not by a long shot. Colorism is an insidious form of racism/discrimination Caucasians continue to wage against African-Americans. Born during the advent of slavery, colorism is the practice of using the differences in complexions to pit one group of oppressed people of color against another, a strategy of "divide and conquer." It was an effective "skin tone scheme" which the slaves had to adopt in order to survive.

Colorism is a form of racism/discrimination in which individuals are accorded different social status and treatment based on skin color. The term also is used to label the phenomenon of persons discriminating within their own ethnic groups--hence, Black-on-Black racism.

More precisely, colorism is a symptom or manifestation of this disease called Black-on-Black racism. When African-Americans level it against one another, what they're really doing is practicing self-hatred.

In other words, it's racism internalized. You see, these Blacks believe that anything white is superior, the best of the best.

But, let's delve deeper into the symptom/manifestation of this crippling, destructive malady.

Colorism is based on the ideal that an individual's worth is directly related to the color of his or her skin, valuing lighter hues over darker hues. Conservative African-American columnist/television and radio host Armstrong Williams stated, "This brand of racism is particularly insidious because it is subtle. Unlike the time when racists donned pointed hats and stomped down the streets, the colorist is subtle, their contempt concealed beneath the still waters of social etiquette."

In The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African-Americans, author Midge Wilson traced the origins of colorism, and laid out its devastating implications and ramifications. "To understand the root of this deviant behavior, we have to go back to when slavery was in full effect. Fair-skinned slaves automatically were selected for the better jobs, which were located in the master's house. After gaining the trust of their masters, many of these fair-skinned slaves traveled throughout the nation and abroad with their masters and families, therefore affording them the opportunity to be exposed to the finer things, and many became educated as a result."

Wilson continued, "Their darker-tone peers labored relentlessly in the fields. They were the ones who were beaten, burned and hanged, the ones permanently condemned to be the lowest of the low in U.S. society. For them, even the three 'R's'--reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic--were illegal. Consequently, these actions resulted in a caste system. It seems the closer you were to your master, the better off you were--'good' hair, good clothes, good jobs, and an education were an inevitable result from these actions." Prior to the Civil War, social status among Blacks was strongly associated with skin color.

Blue Veins and Paper Bags

Three years ago, the ABC News program 20/20 aired "Skin-Deep Discrimination: Colorism Shows We're a Long Way from a Color-Blind Society." The program reported that historians state that friction between Blacks of different skin tones originated during slavery because light-skinned Blacks--often the children of slaves and their white masters--received better treatment. "They were the ones who maybe worked in the house, as opposed to the darker-skinned Africans who worked in the fields who were beaten more readily," explained historian Anthony Browder.

The program featured Marita Golden, author of Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex, who stated that lighter skin began to be associated with privilege and beauty. She added that after emancipation, skin color continued to divide Blacks. And then, light-skinned Blacks formed exclusive clubs.

"These groups of people were called Blue Vein societies, because in order to 'belong,' the test of how light you were was could you see your blue veins through your skin? And if they could, you were in," she commented.

Golden also referred to the "paper bag test," a criterion one had to pass to get into some churches, fraternities, and nightclubs. "The paper bag would be held against your skin. And if you were darker than the paper bag, you weren't admitted," she said.

"Animosity had to grow out of that unfair relationship," Browder added. "Darker-skinned Blacks began to resent light-skinned Blacks who were given opportunities to succeed."

This is part of the series "The Cancer that Slowly Consumes Our Very Souls: Racism." Originally published in Qbliss, the article has been modified slightly for online readers. For more information on Wyatt O'Brian-Evans, you can visit his website or check out his Bilerico-DC bio page.

Recent Entries Filed under Politics:

Leave a comment

We want to know your opinion on this issue! While arguing about an opinion or idea is encouraged, personal attacks will not be tolerated. Please be respectful of others.

The editorial team will delete a comment that is off-topic, abusive, exceptionally incoherent, includes a slur or is soliciting and/or advertising. Repeated violations of the policy will result in revocation of your user account. Please keep in mind that this is our online home; ill-mannered house guests will be shown the door.

It's the content of the character, not the shade of the skin. I don't think President Obama and First Lady Michele would discriminate against very dark black individuals like Mike Tyson and Michael Crawford. It is good sign that brown (black and white mixed) is the future. This includes Asian, Hispanics and anyone with brown eyes and olive skin like me.

Wyatt O'Brian Evans | April 1, 2009 6:56 AM


Even with the expert evidence and the documented history I've been presenting throughout this series, you still are just not getting it.

Now, let me leave you with this: if it were truly and only about the content of one's character, and not the color of one's skin, there would be no racism.

Charles, you really need to ponder that.

You are probably right. Michael Jackson is a good example of self loathing and internalized racism.
Any suggestions on how to change the cultural attitudes ?

Wyatt O'Brian Evans | April 1, 2009 12:47 PM


Thanks. Currently, my management and I are developing a national project to address this issue, as well as racism within the GLBTI community as a whole. I'll keep everyone updated. Also, future installments of this series delve even deeper into the subject of internal racism.

The Great Blacks in Wax museum here in Baltimore was founded to combat this sort of internalized racism. Dr Martin was a prof at Morgan ( I think) and a coach and sponsor of a little league baseball team. One of his players was upset that his skin was too dark in what Martin judged a perfectly nice photograph. The kid wanted the picture redone. The news spread through the team like wildfire with all the kids wanting their skin lightened. The distraught Martin set out to do something about the self loathing. Part of his response was the museum.

Question: I'm engaged in a research project for underserved straight spouses whose husbands or wives have come out. Many of the underserved are African American, Hispanic/Latino/Latina, Asian, Pacific Island, Native American, etc. A problem is finding an appropriate title for the project and survey that won't turn off prospective respondents.
We've rejected "Spouses of color" since many people don't want to identify themselves as belonging to a group subject to discrimination or in a minority status. Therefore, our current title is "Spouses of Diverse Cultural Backgrounds".

Any comments or suggestions?

Amity P. Buxton, Ph.D.

Wyatt O'Brian Evans | April 1, 2009 4:01 PM

Dr. Buxton

Thanks so much for reaching out! Your research project is substantive and much needed. You'll be giving this group a stronger voice, which sorely needs to be heard.

Now, about your working title. Actually, I like it.

However, I would include the words "ethnicities" and "races," to truly be reflective of the participants in your study. Including these two words are particularly essential in order to capture the full flavor and texture of the Latino/Hispanic participants.

So, my choice for a title is:
"Spouses of Diverse Ethnicites, Races and Cultural Backgrounds."

If you would, do keep me apprised of the project's progress. Much luck to you.

Ron Glenn | April 1, 2009 5:41 PM


It's nice to see that more and more people are bringing this issue to light. To someone such as myself, however, it's DEFINITELY not a new issue. I remember being ostracized and put down when I was a kid by my darker-skinned friends, and yes, even my own family members. Comments like "house nigger", "high-yellow", and "zebra" were often muttered in my presence - if not used directly against me. My mom, a darker-skinned black (dad's white), used to say that it was because I spoke and presented myself much differently than those other people, and that it either threatened them or they were jealous. Being that she was well-educated herself (and presented herself as such), she too experienced more than a few snide remarks and glares - from other blacks.

Later in life, of course, I learned much more about black-on-black racism and its origins in the pre-Civil War era, but it didn't ease the sting of harsh words I heard as a kid. Wisely, my mom, the only person in her family (before myself) to graduate from high school AND college, ALWAYS encouraged a strong sense of self-fulfillment through reading and education, so I found that books and libraries were much better friends than the people I was supposed to be able to identify (and form bonds) with; this held true throughout high school, college, and graduate school. I admit that I have met a better quality of black people in my college experiences, and they range in shade from "passable" (love THAT term...) to ebony. What made the difference was the mentality they each displayed; the values their families brought them up to believe, coupled with exposure to diverse groups of people affected them in a profound way that people I grew up around could probably never understand - and it was a refreshing experience.

I've recently found out that many of the same people that used pick on how I talked and acted have been saddled with the kind of lives that fit an uneducated, small-minded, antiquated way of thinking. In that respect, I've come to realize, living well really IS the best revenge...

P.S. To this day, I still don't feel comfortable around most (not all) darker skinned blacks. Does that mean I'm practicing colorism as well?

Wyatt O'Brian Evans | April 1, 2009 6:48 PM


First, thanks so much for taking the time to comment. You certainly bring value to my series.

Secondly, sharing your heartfelt comments in such an eloquent is so moving. And I know it ain't easy to do.

Your pain is very legitimate--and valid.

Of course, I cannot presume to tell you how to feel, what to feel. However Ron, what I can tell you is that forgiveness is an awesome cleansing force. And, try not to have preconceived notions about people. Give each individual a chance.

Actually, forgiveness is crafted for the "forgiver"--forgiveness affords the forgiver peace of mind, and frees the heart.

I can relate to what you've been through--I've gotten crap from both "sides of the racial aisle," so to speak. And it doesn't feel good.

Please keep reading this series. I continue to explore internal racism, and racism within our Community as a whole.

The best to you.

coloredqueer | April 1, 2009 7:22 PM

Good analysis. It is so noteworthy that fair skinned blacks who were closer to their masters enjoyed finer things in life that their peers couldn't. Same holds true in white gay orgs today. They pick one person from each ethnic background who is to be used as a "token" and is also asked to shun their own community. Many times this "token" is in an interracial relationship with a white person which makes them appealing and less threatening to white gay organizations. Ofcourse in order to survive and to be near the "master" and to gain their trust that "token" has to show their loyalty to master rather than their own community. This analysis holds true even in 2009 and will continue for a few more decades until racial issues becomes neutral. We have seen how it operates in the gay rights movement.

Wayne, I hope your chapter on racism in the LGBT rights movement includes a survey of "leaders" and their rise to those positions. How race/class played a role in appointing those leaders even though many have no qualifications? I know that would be very bold since it may expose you to criticism and make you a target of some orgs but that would be a meaningful way to make these white orgs address their implicit and explicit racism and would benefit the larger gay community and other minorities.

Wyatt O'Brian Evans | April 1, 2009 7:50 PM


Welcome back! Thanks again for commenting.

Keep on reading. I think you'll find answers to at least some of what you've written about.

Also, as I stated earlier, my management and I are developing a national project addressing racism within our Community, and the horrible ramifications of this disease of the mind, character and soul.

Many achievers in America were "light skinned" blacks not to be dismissed as priviledged. Being an innovative business leader takes intelligence, foresight and dedicated purpose no matter the shade of "black". Pam Spaulding's (www.pamshouseblend.com} grandfather was a great humanitarian and civil rights leader, and at one time the wealthiest African American in the U.S. Below is a biography of Charles Clinton Spauding. Very black men have also made a mark on American society, Nat King Cole for example.


Ugh. How we find ways to divide ourselves against one another.


You continue to amaze the readers with your well written ideas and thoughts on such a catastrophic plague that has swept our country and world. Black-on-Black racism is so sad, as one would criticize and discriminate against their own race.

Everyone needs to stop and think about this plague and what they can do in their OWN lives, their communities and in this great country to try to keep it from growing. It will never cease, but we need to do our part in helping control it.

Thanks again, Wyatt, YOU ROCK!!!