In the early 1900s to the 1950s, African-Americans (who had by now internalised white society’s preference for lighter skin), held ‘paper bag parties’, pinning a brown paper bag to the front door; anyone whose skin was darker than the bag was denied entry. This ‘test’ was even used to determine admission to historically black universities and colleges.
The implication is clear. The closer to white you are, the more intelligent, the more beautiful, the more acceptable.
This internalisation of the preference for whiteness was highlighted in the famous Clark Doll experiments of the 1940s, in which dark-skinned African-American children were presented with two dolls and asked to choose which dolls were prettier and smarter, and which doll was ‘bad.’ Overwhelmingly, the kids chose the white doll in the first two categories and the black doll in the last. When asked why this doll was bad, they responded ‘Because she’s black.’
In the Arab world, from were my own family hails, the discrimination is not as historically entrenched but there is no doubt that a shara, or fairer, light-haired (and preferably coloured-eyed) woman is considered more beautiful than an olive or brown-skinned samra. My own fair-skinned mother frequently implores me not to spend time in the sun should my already olive skin get darker.
Mylinda Morales, now a yoga teacher in Florida, tells me a similar story. When Mylinda got married to a keen waterskier and joined him on boating trips, her mother would, ‘get so upset. Every time I would visit her, she would make an awful face and say I “look so dark.’”
And where does white society fit into all this?
Consider a study that found white people misremember intelligent black men as being lighter-skinned than they actually are.
Colourism is oppression within oppression within oppression.
This internalisation of white as the beauty ideal, as the most intelligent and desirable form of humanity, has led to communities facing their own battles with discrimination and alienation in a bid to access the few privileges white society is willing to grant them.
It’s difficult not to think that the spectre of slavery and colonisation will always haunt us, especially when so many still refuse to acknowledge the ways in which the past informs the present.
Iyanla Vanzant reminds us that, ‘The first step to solving any problem is to admit there is a problem.’
Extracts from a Daily Life article by Ruby Hamad (original). Published 3 February 2014.