The Color Complex: How Skin Color Affects African Americans

Topics: Black people, African American, Race and Ethnicity Pages: 10 (3571 words) Published: June 28, 2013
Popular phrases such as, “the Blacker the Berry, the Sweeter the juice,” and “If it’s White, it’s gotta be right,” have held opposing views in the African American community on the concept of skin complexion. This idea of a “Color Complex” has psychologically altered the way many African Americans perceive beauty, success, and their personal identity. Although some would disagree, there seems to be a strong connection between skin color and social status in the African American community. It may appear that African Americans are dispelling this theory of “light-skinned and dark skinned” to become a more cohesive group, but the politics of skin color and features still remain. Skin color variations among African Americans play a major role in how they perceive beauty standards, social status and themselves. Intra-racial discrimination has been an ever-present issue for African Americans. It dates as far back as the antebellum period in America when African slaves were raped by their White masters. This new “race” multiplied in numbers to create the new “black bourgeoisie,” which served as a buffer between the African American community and the Whites, and further placed dark-skinned people as the lower inferior group (Frazier 215-17). The light complexion of this group allowed Whites to feel comfortable, yet never overlooking their African ancestry. The dark-skinned slaves thought that their light-skinned counterparts felt they were superior, so they developed hatred towards light skinned blacks, as well as a growing hatred for their own dark skin. In Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry, the protagonist, “Emma Lou” comments on a new acquaintance, “Hazel,” as she registers for classes at the University of Southern California: Emma Lou classified Hazel as a barbarian who had most certainly not come from a family of best people. No doubt her mother had been a washerwoman… innumerable relatives and friends all as ignorant and ugly as she. There was no sense in any one having a face as ugly as Hazel’s, and Emma Lou thanked her stars that though she was black, her skin was not rough and pimply, nor was her hair kinky, nor were her nostrils completely flattened out…No wonder people were prejudiced against dark-skin people when they were so ugly, so haphazard in their dress, and so boisterously mannered (Wallace 43).

This passage shows how “Emma Lou” views dark skinned blacks. In the first lines, it demonstrates how she associates dark skin with a lower socieconomic status and unattractive qualities. She has already linked European features, such as straight hair, light skin, and a thin nose as the standard of beauty, and in turn created a self-hatred for her African features. A privileged class of African Americans known as “mulattoes” arose due to the racial mixing of blacks and whites during slavery. The term “mulatto,” which is Spanish in origin, means “hybrid,” yet due to its association with slavery has held a negative connotation. It also holds a dual meaning: “The word ‘mule’ is similarly derived from the Spanish for ‘hybrid,’ and came to serve as a metaphor for a cross between the refined White plantation owner (thoroughbred horse) and the lowly, inferior Black slave (donkey)” (Russell, Wilson & Hall 7). As miscegenation, or race mixing, became more frequent, there began a need to find a way to distinguish between light-skinned people that had African ancestry and pure Europeans. This is when the “one-drop rule” came into being. The one-drop rule simply meant that a single drop of African blood in a person’s lineage automatically made that person black (Gatewood 149-52). Even though whites created this theory, African Americans have strongly adopted this “rule.” Especially today, this idea is so strongly reinforced by the African American community that to deny full credit to one’s African ancestry is to be stigmatized a “sell-out” (Davis 168-69). Some White...

Cited: Allen, Walter, Margaret Hunter, Edward E. Telles, eds. 2001. “The Significance of Skin Color among African Americans and Mexican Americans.” African American Research Perspective. 7(Winter):173-184.
Davis, James F. 1991. Who is Black? University Park: The
Pennsylvania State University Press.
Frazier, E. Franklin. 1957. Black Bourgeoisie: the Rise of a New Middle class. New York: The Free Press.
Gatewood, Willard B. 1990. Aristocrats of Color: the Black Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Ione, Carole. 1991. Pride of Family: Four Generations of
American Women of Color
Johnson, Kayla, Tracey Lewis, Karla Lightfoot, Gina Wilson. 2001.The BAP Handbook. New York: Broadway Books.
Ross, Louie E. 1997.“Mate Selection Preferences among African American College Students.” Journal of Black Studies. 27(March):554-569.
Russell, Kathy, Midge Wilson, Ronald Hall, eds. 1992. The Color Complex.
Thurman, Wallace. 1996. The Blacker the Berry. New York: Simon & Schuster.
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