Have you ever heard anyone say "he/she is cute to be dark skinned?" or "I don’t date dark skinned guys/ladies?" Have you ever made a joke about the darkness of someone’s skin?
Most Black people can answer yes to one of these questions. Although, these comments may seem harmless, they are part of a much deeper problem in the African-American community. Derogatory statements like these are examples of colorism, a problem that has existed among Blacks for centuries.
According to africaspeaks.com, colorism is defined as a "Black-on-Black racism, based on skin-tone." The discrimination is based on the ideal that a person’s worth is directly related to the color of his or her skin, valuing lighter hues over darker hues.
It’s commonly known that colorism plagued the Black community after slavery and through the early to mid-twentieth century. In the early 1900’s, many black organizations, including colleges, practiced the "brown paper bag test" when accepting new members. If a person’s skin was not lighter than a brown paper bag, they would be denied admittance.
Though the brown paper bag test is antiquated and frowned upon as a shameful moment in African-American history, the ideals behind the practice still lingers in the African-American community. Modern-day colorism rears its ugly head in the day to day lives of Black Americans every day.
A recent documented example of modern-day colorism occurred in 2003, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit against international restaurant chain, Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar & Grill. The suit was filed on behalf of Dwight Burch, an employee of the restaurant from December 2000 to March 2001.
Burch, a dark-skinned African-American, worked as a server in a Jonesboro, Georgia location of the restaurant. He claimed that his store manager, a light-skinned African-American man, made multiple offensive comments about his skin color during his time there. The man called Burch derogatory names, including "tar baby" and "Black monkey," and suggested that Burch should bleach his skin.
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. The EEOC ultimately settled the case providing Burch with $40,000 in damages. The case forced Applebee’s to amend its discrimination and harassment policy to include color as a basis of prejudice, further protecting future employees from such harassment.
Such cases are extreme and uncommon, but more veiled instances of colorism occur in the personal, professional, and romantic lives of many African-Americans.
Berman Matthews, an alumnus of Ohio University, is all too familiar with skin tone discrimination. As a dark-skinned African-American, he has endured jokes and comments about his skin color from friends his entire life. "It’s upsetting, especially coming from a fellow Black person," he said.
Matthews has observed that white people also tend to be more comfortable around lighter-skinned Black people. He noticed in college, if there is a white fraternity with Black members, the members are almost always lighter skinned.
"If I don’t get a position [employment], it’s always in the back of my mind that I didn’t get it because I’m a dark-skinned Black man."
Influenced by the past and perpetuated in the present, colorism remains an obstacle to unity in the African-American community. The only answer is to confront it.
"It’s important for us to recognize our own beauty," said Davon L. McMullen, a senior political science major at Howard University," and stop focusing on the beauty ideals of others."