Colorism is not just bias that is found within the African American community based on a person’s skin tone or hair-type, but in fact, it exists in all cultures of color around the world. Assumptions based on a person’s color can come from members of their own race, as well as members outside of their race. When it comes to black people, those of lighter shades have historically been treated favorably by those outside their race, according to scholars. The debate about Colorism has fragmented unity within the African American community and is one that Xavier University students decided to tackle at its Black History Month forum titled Colorism that was hosted by Xavier’s chapter of the NAACP.
“Colorism really stems from our people being oppressed,” said Terrioues White, a member of Xavier’s NAACP’s executive board who participated in the panel on Thursday, Feb. 16 in the Norman C. Francis Science Complex. White joined other students and Xavier staff member Duane Cruse Jr., the director for St. Michael’s Residence Hall, who also was a former president for the NAACP chapter at Tuskegee University from 2008 to 2009. Taylor Thornton, a Xavier student and treasurer for the Student Government Association; Ashley Gragg, a sophomore, History major; and Imagine Moore, a sophomore, Psychology major rounded off the panel, which engaged a student audience of roughly 45. The conversation started with the panel; however, audience members also joined in on the discussion.
While the historical context of slavery created the basis for Colorism, today it is images fed through media that enforces Colorism in society, panelists said. The media, be it through advertisements of products, or lifestyles, portrays lighter skin people of color more attractive or more competent than darker-skinned people of color, White and other members of the panel said. U.S. consumer culture has therefore commodified skin color, they said.
“Fox isn’t us, CNN isn’t us . . . that’s not us,” White said, as he explained how both the news and those who tell the news do not reflect people of color. Media portrayals on television and film disproportionately paint pictures of people of color that are not based in reality. Cruse asked the audience if they thought that there were more African American men in prison than in college. With the majority of the audience responding in the affirmative, Cruse corrected them that they were in fact wrong. According to Cruse, there are thousands more African American men in college than in prison. But if the public were to gauge this fact by media representations of black people alone, they would assume that black men are mostly incarcerated, as there are few depictions of black men in college in the media.
However, it’s not just that the media favorably portrays black people of lighter skin, than it does those of darker skin, but it starts at home and in the community, the panelists said. Black people are socialized from a very early age to see a hierarchy of color, with the very light at the top, and the darker skin being inferior, the panelists said. Xavier students said they personally experienced or knew of dark skin “struggles” when asked by Cruse. For black women, the audience said that the phrase “You’re cute to be dark skin,” was a common one that plagued the dark-skin women, as they were taught to think they are not as beautiful as light-skin women. Cruse shared how negative treatment from Colorism goes both ways. As a ‘fair’-skin man, he recalled times when he wished he was not light skin. Growing up, he encountered situations where he was not black enough, or too white to fit in. Colorism, the panelists said, presents itself in all social spheres from schools to work to even church.
It was important that through dialogue and other action, that this generation work to reverse Colorism, the panelists said. From empowering people of all shades beginning with education campaigns in schools, the audience suggested that it was possible to create unity among people of color torn apart by Colorism.
The more social and economic issues are addressed within the black community by all shades of black people, the more the African American community could come together, students said. Even starting with institutions like Xavier, students are in a place to network or even turn to the person next to them for a business partner, Imagine Moore said Xavier’s NAACP hopes the forum would be the beginning of ongoing dialogue that would see its monthly meetings become a place for debate, problem solving, activism and healing.