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 the 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.