Wyatt O'Brian Evans

That Open Secret

Filed By Wyatt O'Brian Evans | April 07, 2009 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: 20/20, African-American, black, john stossel, LGBT families, race

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.

In faces.jpgthe African-American community, Black-on-Black racism is an open secret. According to that ABC News program, the subject has been a part of popular Black comedian Paul Mooney's routine. "'At home where I come from, Louisiana, we have the saying for it: 'If you brown, hang around. If you yellow, you mellow. If you white, you all right. If you Black, get back.'"

Famed director Spike Lee tackled the controversial issue in his 1987 movie, School Daze--and was criticized for his honesty. In the film, light-skinned and dark-skinned girls went toe-to-toe, throwing slurs at each other like "tar baby," "jigaboo," and "wannabe white."

John Stossel, the host of that edition of 20/20, talked with students from the University of Maryland who said they'd grown up with colorism. "'My mom said they used to always call me, um, chocolate baby,' said Shondra. 'African-Americans went out of their way to make sure that I knew that me being Black was something that wasn't to be seen as beautiful,'" said Ted.

"'The worst insult a dark-skinned boy as a child ever got is to be called African. You can call me anything in the book when I was younger. Just don't call me African,'" Jason said.

Stossel continued. "Jason said people equate Africa to 'savage.'

"Erica said one of her friends told her she was 'pretty for a dark-skinned girl.' By contrast, some lighter-skinned Blacks I spoke to say colorism helped them.

"'I guess I've benefited from the colorism, because I'm light-skinned, because I've always had the long, straight hair,' said Markita, another University of Maryland student. 'I thought I was just pretty.'"

Coppin' a Job--and I Do Mean by Any Means Possible

Brent Staples, an editorial writer for the New York Times, penned an illuminating August 22, 2008 column entitled "As Racism Wanes, Colorism Persists." In it, he recounted how colorism has been used since slavery to deny countless African-Americans, based on complexion, a "leg up." But at the very same time, it has been used to give others that leg up.

Staples recounted that "Chock full o' Nuts," the once-famous New York lunch-counter chain, had advertised for "light colored counter help"' in the tabloids.

He elaborated, "I knew that employers had once ruled out Black applicants with ads that listed whiteness as a job classification. I knew from growing up in a Black community during the 1950's and '60's that my lighter-skinned neighbors (and even one of my relatives) got jobs at dress shops and other businesses that turned away darker-skinned applicants.

"And I also knew of Black families in which siblings of the same parents came into the world with dramatically different skin tones, which often meant that they experienced the color-coded world in entirely different ways."

According to Staples, "Even so, I was surprised to learn that the longstanding preference for lighter-skinned Black people had been laid out in 20th Century newspaper ads."

He wrote that he'd "begun to find those ads in the archives of old newspapers near the Pennsylvania factory town where I grew up. The skin labeling was so common in the '40s that Black job seekers used it when advertising their skills.

"In the 'situations wanted' section, for example, cooks, chauffeurs, and waitresses sometimes listed 'light colored' as the primary qualification--ahead of experience, references, and the other important data."

Staples went on, "They didn't do this for a lark. They did it to improve their chances and to reassure white employers who, even though they hired African-Americans, found dark skin unpleasant or believed that their customers would."

He added, "The fetish for light skin and Eurocentric features is no longer brazenly spelled out in the want ads. But a growing body of research suggests that the preference plays a huge role in decisions of all kinds. Researchers tell us that it affects how people vote; who appears in Hollywood movies and television news shows; who gets hired and promoted in corporate America; and even who gets executed for murder."
Flabbergasting stuff, eh?

The U.S. is drifting away from the type of "blunt-force" racism that hammered African-Americans. "But we have entered a period of secondary discrimination--or 'colorism'--that will be difficult to overthrow," according to Staples, who pointed to the 1995 report by the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission entitled "Good for Business: Making Full Use of the Nation's Human Capital."

The report read, "Though it is mostly covert, our society has developed an extremely sophisticated, and often denied, acceptability index based on graduations in skin color. It is not as simple a system as the Black/white/colored classifications that were used in South Africa. It is not legally permissible, but it persists just beneath the surface and it can be and is used as a basis for decision-making, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously. It is applied to African-Americans, to American Indians, to Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, and to Hispanic Americans, who are described in a color shorthand of black, brown, yellow, and red, respectively."

Hiring experiments bear out these findings, according to Staples. "Work by T. Joel Wade and his associates at Bucknell University shows that light skin can have a powerful impact on hiring practices--at least when men are doing the hiring. White participants in one study recommended hiring lighter-skinned subjects more often than darker-skinned subjects when the two had identical qualifications." (Remember the experience of my friend NaNa, a dark-skinned Black, in Part Three of The Cancer that Slowly Consumes Our Very Souls: Racism).

What about the legal ramifications resulting from this behavior? According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "Color discrimination occurs when individuals are treated differently from others who are similarly situated because of the color of their skin. Color discrimination also exists when all brown-skinned persons are treated differently from persons of other colors regardless of their race. An example is an employer who does not hire anyone darker than café au lait (coffee with cream), but does hire light-skinned and/or white persons of all races."

In 2003, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against Applebee's, the international restaurant chain, on behalf of Dwight Burch, an employee from December 2000 to March 2001. Burch, a dark-skinned African-American, worked as a server in a Jonesboro, Georgia location of the restaurant.

Burch claimed that his store manager, a light-skinned Black male, made multiple offensive comments about his skin color during his tenure there. The manager called Burch derogatory names, including "tar baby" and "black monkey." He even suggested that Burch bleach his skin. And when Burch expressed his distaste for his manager's comments and threatened to report him to officials at Applebee's Kansas headquarters, he was fired.

However, the EEOC ultimately settled the case, with Burch being awarded $40,000 in damages. The case forced Applebee's to amend its discrimination and harassment policy to include color as a basis of prejudice, in the attempt to further protect future employees from such harassment.

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.

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For this one, thank you.

Another aspect of this is what has hit me my whole life -- other people decide my race for me, as a light skinned woman of many colors.

I have felt the sting of it from all the parts of my heritage -- and those were the most brutal.

Wyatt O'Brian Evans | April 7, 2009 6:01 PM


Actually, I thank you for taking the time to comment, and for candidly sharing your experiences.

Researching and writing this series--coupled with sharing with all of you my own experiences on how racism has impacted my life--have taken me on one incredible journey.

Chitown Kev | April 7, 2009 8:47 PM

Good piece Wyatt.

I been on both the giving and receiving end of colorism. I can remember being admonished by an 8th grade teacher for embarrassing one of my classmates by yelling out, "Man, you are BLACK." The teacher, who was also darker-skinned reminded me (and not nicely) that I was black too.

On the receiving end, the most offensive racial comment ever made to my face was from a lighter skinned (and gay) black guy a few years ago. In the middle of an argument about something I don't remember, he actually implied that I was jealous of him because he was lighter skinned. He went on a racist rant like this for a few minutes. I was both offended yet perplexed, not even a white person had ever attacked me racially in that way.

One thing that I have used, I think, to compensate for my skin color is my use of language. But...that is another story.

Good piece

This is interesting, and I suspect cases that deal with colorist discrimination on the job would be a lot harder to prove than those based on racism. How can you make a disparate impact claim without pulling out the swatches and noting where every employee is?

Wyatt O'Brian Evans | April 8, 2009 7:25 AM

Kev and Alex

Kev, thanks for commenting and sharing. Much appreciated.

Alex, I hear you. You make a very good point; I wiah I had an answer.

What I can say to the both of you is that
racism/white supremacy is insidious and hugely destructive, with many ramifications. As you see, it has breeded so many social/psychological ills, including colorism (internal racism).

A. J. Lopp | April 8, 2009 1:32 PM

It is interesting to point out that a form of "colorism" exists among whites also --- and it works in reverse, since it is possible to be "too white". It is fashionable to be able to get a tan, but jokes abound about whites who are "alabaster white", who sunburn in under 15 minutes, or who are covered with freckles. Conan O'Brien makes a joke about his Irish complexion several times a week.

Among whites, though, unless one is a clothing model, it is just a joke. It rarely if ever becomes a socio-economic determinant as it does among dark races. And I expect Conan gets a nice fat paycheck for making all those freckle jokes.

beachcomberT | April 12, 2009 9:18 AM

Colorism exists within Caucasian and South Asian cultures, and it's hardly a joke. Check out the Indian caste system, which is still a powerful force although illegal. Top-caste Brahmins tend to be very light skinned, while bottom caste "untouchables" tend to be very dark. Lighter skinned North Indians have had greater political clout than the darker South Indians. Nearly all the Bollywood stars, especially the women, are very light skinned.
Among U.S. whites, very swarthy people frequently are quizzed rather rudely about their ethnic roots ("What are you, Jewish?"). The unspoken question may actually be: "Are you a mulatto?" How often do blue-eyed blondes get asked: "What are you, Swedish?". Light skin and blue (or hazel) eyes are still the hallmarks of beauty for many Caucasians and blacks alike. Fortunately, we're making headway as Jennifer Lopez becomes a beauty role model for many teenage girls, Latina and non-Latina. Among black actresses, dark performers like Whoopi Goldberg have had to make it as comedians or character actors. The beauty parts still go to Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, et al.

Great research Wyatt,

You always seem to have your T's crossed and I's dotted. Really shows you are committed to this awful plague of racism.

Isn't it a shame that it matters to others what color someone is? what shade someone is?? We are supposed to be made alike and equal, but that is out the window.

Keep up the great work, Wyatt. You are going places!!!