Most conversations about race in the United States focus on tensions between blacks and whites or between people of different racial groups. But skin color and complexion can divide members of a single race, too. Kojo talks with author and activist Marita Golden about enduring forms of prejudice and colorism within the African-American community.
- Marita Golden President and Founder of the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Foundation; also author of "Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex" (Doubleday)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was a parallel conversation taking place on social media. While millions of Americans were watching the Olympics cheering on gymnast Gabby Douglas as she became the first African American to take home gold in that event a debate was raging about a seemingly superficial topic, her hair, which in the eyes of some black viewers was too unkempt, too nappy for such an important global stage.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFor author Marita Golden, it was just another example of a deeper ongoing color complex plaguing the African American community, a different shifting color line that has long divided black communities, separating people with light and dark complexions. Maria Golden says it's more than a cultural quirk. It's a crisis that is doing real damage in communities around the country and around the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMarita Golden is president emeritus of the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Foundation. She's also author of the book "Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex" and several other publications. She will be convening a workshop on the topic of the color complex and colorism this weekend. Marita, good to see you.
MS. MARITA GOLDENThank you. Glad to see you again, Kojo.
NNAMDIMarita, when we talk about race across American history we almost focus on dividing -- always focus on dividing lines between races and ethnicities, between white, black, Hispanic. But race has always been much more complex than white and black and a different color line has always existed within our, the African American community. I mentioned the Gabby Douglas story but this is actually something you grapple with firsthand in your book titled "Don't Play in the Sun." Please explain that title.
GOLDENWell, the title comes from something that my mother said to me when I was a kid growing up here in Washington, D.C., growing up on Harvard Street in Columbia Heights. And one day she came out of the house -- it was I think July or something -- and she said, come on in the house. Stop playing outside. It's too hot. Get out of that sun because you're going to have to get a light-skinned husband for the sake of your children anyway. And, you know, that was really kind of a very defining psychological moment for me.
GOLDENAnd it wasn't really until I wrote the book "Don't Play in the Sun" about six years ago that I think I really forgave my mother for saying that to me.
NNAMDIYou use the term color complex. The other term commonly used is colorism. What is colorism?
GOLDENIt's one of those isms like sexism, racism, which defines the belief system that posits intelligence, beauty and value to those people who are lighter complected and who have more European features. And the thing about the color complex is its global. It's not a phenomenon that you find only in the African American community. It is in Cuba, it is in Brazil, it is in Thailand.
NNAMDII can testify it's in Guyana.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Have you noticed dividing lines along color within your own family or within your own community? If, how so? 800-433-8850 or you can send email to email@example.com. This summer during the Olympics Americans of all races were rooting for the American women's gymnastics team as it wrapped up medals at the London Games. Pretty hard to comprehend the amount of pressure being put on these young athletes based solely on the athletic challenges that they face.
NNAMDIBut in a different sort of conversation that was taking place on the internet about this team, people were judging them on something completely different, their appearance within the black community. Facebook and Twitter were on fire about Gabby Douglas and her hair. What was going on here?
GOLDENWell, in the African American community for African American women our hair is actually more than our pride and joy. Hair in all cultures, like so many aspects of femininity and masculinity, is politicized. And in the way that black hair has been politicized it is simply called bad hair. And African American women have been, for generations, modifying the texture of their hair, modifying the length of their hair to make it more like "white" hair as a way of becoming more accepted to the dominant society.
GOLDENAnd so that when Gabby Douglas won, you know, at the Olympics her hair was kind of a mixture of her natural hair but she had a little ponytail on that was, you know, kind of like a little weave, a little add on extension. And in the extension of all this energy and sweat, blood and tears you could see that Gabby Douglas really didn't have good hair.
GOLDENAnd in the African American community I just have to say, African American women are a little psycho about our hair. We spend millions of dollars on our hair. We spend more money than any other group in this society. And we're generally less pleased with the results once we spend all that money. So pride -- so hair becomes a repository of self esteem that we can buy, beauty that we can buy, acceptance that we can buy. And when, to some people in the community, Gabby revealed that she did not in fact have the same kind of hair as her white compatriots on the team, many people just couldn't handle it.
GOLDENBut I was very pleased, Kojo, that that crazy conversation was smacked down pretty quickly.
NNAMDIIndeed it was, but the process of the conversation is what fascinated me because it was reported in the media that it was trending on Twitter that a lot of people were criticizing Gabby Douglas' hair. And because it was trending on Twitter it was picked up by the mainstream news media, which now routinely reports on topics that are trending on Twitter.
NNAMDIAnd at the time I said, when something is trending on Twitter like this the stupid people are leading the conversation. And people who are trained as professional journalists should be able to make a distinction between what's trending on Twitter when intelligent people are leading the conversation and what's trending on Twitter when stupid people are leading the conversation and shouldn't report on that. But that's just me.
GOLDENVery good. Very good.
NNAMDII remember there was a speaker who used to say -- an African American speaker who used to say that the only bad hair is no hair, because he was bald in those days. But now that bald is in there is really no bad hair at all.
GOLDENExactly. Well, you know, African American women are doing lots of things these days with their hair. You have a whole group of women who are going bald. You have young African American women who formerly had used chemicals and weaves and extensions, choosing to go natural and use -- and have dreadlocks. Viola Davis created some controversy when she appeared at the Oscars with her hair natural. And to many of us in the community she was absolutely beautiful. But to Wendy Williams, the paragon of, you know, intelligent cultural conversation, she felt...
NNAMDIFor those of you who don't know, talk to our host Wendy Williams, television talk show host.
GOLDENShe said that to wear her hair natural at the Oscars was wrong because a natural isn't formal enough for an occasion like that. And Viola Davis recently said herself that when she has to wear a wig, she really feels that she's apologizing for her hair.
NNAMDIWell, I guess you're not formally dressed to be in this studio since you're wearing your hair naturally. I'm going to have to call security to have you evicted. You're not proper. As we speak, a movie is in production about the life and music of jazz icon Nina Simone. And many fans are up in arms about casting, specifically producers of the film selected actress Zoe Saldana to play Simon. Saldana's not a musician herself but more to the point she has a much lighter complexion than Nina Simone did. And she conforms much more closely to Hollywood's notions of beauty than Nina Simone ever did. This would seem now to be Exhibit A. that these issues are always kind of festering beneath the surface.
GOLDENWell, I think that what's happening is that we're really at a watershed moment in the discussion of this topic because you have now really important image activists like Michaela Angela Davis, Esther Armah, like me, Bill Duke whose wonderful film "Dark Girls" was released earlier this year.
GOLDENAnd for example when Andre Braugher played Benjamin O'Douglass in a film for TV, you know, there was no conversation because Benjamin Douglass was very light, Andre Braugher's very dark. But this conversation about Zoe Saldana and Nina Simone is a manifestation of the increasingly confident dialogue that many people who are cultural activists in the black community feel that they now have the right to question and to challenge a lot of these decisions in Hollywood. It's really not about Zoe Saldana. It's about the whole structure, definitions of beauty, that is really being discussed there.
NNAMDIWe should also note that some critics are questioning Saldana's authenticity since her parents are Puerto Rican and Dominican and not African American. I don't think that's (unintelligible) .
GOLDENI don't think that's the issue either.
NNAMDIYeah, that's for, like, people who question Barack Obama because he's not descended from slaves so to speak.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Don your headphones, please, Marita, because a lot of people would like to join this issue, starting with Jennifer in Silver Spring, Md. Jennifer, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENNIFERHI, Kojo. Thank you for having me on. I instinctually roll my eyes a bit when this topic comes up because as an African American female I'm so used to hearing about it. You already talked about how with the Gabby Douglas controversy that a lot of stupid people were leading the conversation on Twitter. And I'm really glad you said that because I felt that the aftermath of that discussion was a few stupid people leading that conversation when that story broke to the mainstream media, it was a lot of, oh why can't you black women love yourself and look what you're doing, blah, blah, blah.
JENNIFERAnother reason that you should feel bad about who you are is that you can't love each other. And while I understand that there is that in our community, again we're not a monolith and not -- most of the response I heard after Gabby Douglas won was, oh my gosh, Gabby just won. I'm so happy for her. I'm so happy for my daughter to see her. It wasn't everyone, you know, hating on her hair. So that was my comment.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Marita?
GOLDENYeah, I'm really glad to hear that and I second, you know, what the caller said. But I just want to say that another reason we're at a watershed moment in the discussion of colorism is because around the country and around the world there are a whole group of scholars who are now studying colorism the way racism and sexism is studied. And the jury is in, the quantitative analysis has been done so that we now know that colorism isn't just about Gabby Douglas' hair. It's not just about Zoe Saldana maybe "more attractive" than Viola Davis.
GOLDENIt really is about distribution of power and so that everything from the kind of sentence you receive if you get caught up in the justice system, can and often is affected by your complexion and skin tone, to the amount of money you make, to your mental health. So I'm very glad to be part of a group of people who are activists around this issue. And, as I said, the scholarship is being done that says this is not just about beauty. It's about power and privilege.
NNAMDIYou said this is actually a cultural and potentially mental health crisis that is being under diagnosed. What do you mean by that?
GOLDENExample. I got an email a couple of days ago from a young woman who said, can you please help me. In my family everyone says to the little kids, come on out of the sun, you don't want to grow up to be like, you know, this young woman. All my friends tell me I'm black and I'm ugly. I've tried skin lighteners. I was suicidal at one point. Can you help me?
GOLDENSo I, you know, gave her some advice, and then listen to the email that I got in return. My husband said to tell her -- because she included a picture of herself and she was an attractive, darker-complected woman, but like many young, darker-complected woman, she had a weave, and she had -- was revealing a lot of cleavage. So my husband said when he looked at her face he could see her beauty. He said, tell her that something must be wrong with her vision if she looks in the mirror and thinks she's not pretty.
NNAMDIYou go, Joe.
GOLDENExactly. So when she responded, she says oh, laugh out loud, I've gotten over my color complex, it's just that my friends keep telling me I'm black and ugly. I've gotten over it, but I just wish one day I could look in the mirror and see myself as beautiful. You know, I'm glad she's gotten over it, okay?
GOLDENSo that you hear the turmoil. This is not an issue of the past, it's just that in our community there's tremendous denial.
NNAMDII mentioned earlier that Marita Golden will be convening a workshop on the topic of color complex and colorism this weekend. It will be taking place at the Thurgood Marshall Center at 1816 12st Street Northwest. You can find links at our website kojoshow.org. We're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If the lines are busy, go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Marita Golding. We're talking about color complex or colorism in the black community worldwide. Marita Golden is president emeritus of the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Foundation, author of "Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex." She'll be convening a workshop on the topic of the color complex and colorism this weekend.
NNAMDIBefore we go back to the phones, Marita, do we have a double standard on speech? Do we tolerate things coming out of the mouths of African-Americans that you would find deeply offensive if they were said by people of a different race?
GOLDENOh, definitely. I think that that's one of the things that we're going to be talking about my workshop this weekend is how to create healing conversations where we can talk back to what I called colorist verbal drive-bys. If white people make racist statements, we got that, okay. We know how to respond to that. But so often people will be in groups and settings and someone will say something blatantly colorist, and that remark will be met with silence.
GOLDENAnd it's met with silence because we feel so much shame, okay, about the persistence of this form of interracial discrimination, and we feel, well, I don't want to be overly sensitive, yet we're not overly sensitive to racism. And there's just enormous, enormous hesitance to talk about this issue, even when people acknowledge it. Okay. Okay. Yeah, let's move on. And just as racism is confronted, you know, one individual, one conversation at a time, same thing with colorism, and there's a way we can do that.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Edwin in Washington, D.C. Edwin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
EDWINHi, Kojo. Always listening to you and very interested in the speaker you have today. I am a psychotherapist. I've been a psychotherapist since 1955, and I teach at different universities. But when I teach African-Americans -- I'm a member of the Association of Black Psychologists. When I teach African-American potential therapists how to conduct some of the therapeutic process or make a diagnoses, I ask them, I say, just like we have a difference in terms of age, who's the oldest child, middle child, and you develop syndromes for those different places in which you are chronologically within the family.
EDWINI ask, what complexion and hair texture is your father, what complexion and hair texture is your mother, and where do you fit in that in terms of your siblings, and you'll be surprised how much pain comes out of that. And it has nothing to do with the way I look at you, it has to do with the way that you look at me. There are some people who are -- you'd be considered brown skin, and in their family, they're the light one, and they get privilege. They get privilege.
EDWINAnd then -- and you have another family where people are -- others would look and say fair skin, but you could be the dark, one in that family and you catch hell. You don't get the privilege.
NNAMDIEdwin, I'm glad you brought that up. The notion, Marita, of dividing the black community along skin color lines has deep roots in American history going back to slavery, but it probably took hold most strongly with the rise of the black middle class in cities like Washington D.C. and Philadelphia after the Civil War. Talk a little bit about that history and why skin color became so important.
GOLDENWell, one of the most interesting I most recently read was that before emancipation, two-thirds of the enslaved people in the south where considered mulatto, you know, one white parent, one black, had been freed, okay?
GOLDENTwo-thirds of the mulatto people who were enslaved had been freed. And so even before emancipation, white blood was associated with the possibility of freedom, the possibility of emancipation. And so once African-Americans created our own societies, our own communities after slavery, the same hierarchies of color prevailed there so that many African-American men who wanted to rise into society sought out lighter-completed women who became in the vernacular, quote "trophy wives."
GOLDENYou had the blue vein societies. You had the paper bag test where people literally could not enter churches or parties if their skin was darker than a paper bag or if a comb could not easily go through their hair. Fast forward to the '60s, which saved my emotional life, and I got black, proud, and loud.
NNAMDIAt American University.
GOLDENAt American University. But even in the '60s, we never really, really talk about colorism. We talked about racism and how beautiful it was to be black, but we still did not really want to talk about colorism. So this has as long history, but I do want to say that lighter-complected African-Americans can be marginalized. There is so much anger and resentment that darker-skinned African-Americans often feel, that they will tell lighter-skinned African-Americans you're not really black.
NNAMDIYep. That happens quite a bit. And I wanted to get back to the point Edwin, our called, raised for a second, because the color complex you described manifests itself deeply within families as Edwin was saying. One parent can have a different complexion than their daughter or their son, can even find themselves wishing that their child will have a lighter complexion than the parent, which I guess is what your mom was doing.
GOLDENOh, yeah. I mean, my mother was telling me -- this is the same mother who told me I was going to write a book, okay?
NNAMDIAnd you did.
GOLDENAnd I did. I obeyed her. So on one hand, she gave me enormous self-confidence, but in the world that she had grown up in and lived in, she knew the score, okay? She knew the currency and the value of light skin. The irony is that my first husband was very, very, very, very dark, and the son that I had with him was lighter than me, okay? And so this sort of fluency that people think they have about the gene pool is basically nonsense.
NNAMDII'd like to take the conversation in a slightly different direction. Edwin, thank you for your call. We'll start with Marie in Columbia, Md. Marie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARIEHi Kojo. I listen to your show regularly. I was just going to state that when it comes to the colorism, it also goes outside of the African-American community in the Asian community. I'm Indian-American, and I've seen that firsthand within my own family and our culture where they prefer you to be lighter than darker, and there are preferences where they're worried that you won't be -- the female specifically won't be able to get married or be successful if they're not lighter skinned. How did it stem from just being in one area and also going -- it's crossing like race lines. How did that go about?
NNAMDIWell, before she responds to that, Marie, I have a couple of more examples of that, one in an email we got from Emily who said, "I work with an Indian doctor and the frequently speak on how makes an effort to stay out of the sun. We had a long discussion about a Hindu caste system the other day, and how skin color is emblematic of your caste." So Marie, thank you very much for your call, but before Marita responds to you, let's hear from Greg in Detroit, Mi. Greg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GREGIt's a great topic. It's a real old topic. Actually it's been discussed for many, many decades. What bothers me about the topic though is this pathology -- this pathology begins and ends with white people. White people created the (unintelligible) . White people created this whole vicious, nasty, ugly pathology of colorism, and to lay all this blame on people of color who have to suffer through this madness of white racism, I think is a little bit over the top.
GREGI mean, Hollywood, and all the ethnic groups in Hollywood, from the white Jewish people who purchased whiteness, it wasn't even perceived as whiteness. Now they're considered white. To have this situation in Hollywood, to have this constant -- I mean, the whole Twitter thing is run by white people, this whole Gabby Douglas other thing has come out of the white people. Most black people I knew loved what she did.
GREGSo I'm offended when I hear black people try to make me the reason for colorism. No. It begins and ends with white racism. They created this pathology, they created the (unintelligible) , yada, yada, yada.
NNAMDIOkay. Well, I think in a way, you are absolutely correct. It begins with white supremacy, and as Marita was just to say, it is spread by colonialism. But what I think she's also trying to say, and she will say it more eloquently than I do, is that at some point we have to take responsibility for our consciousness. Marita?
GOLDENWell, the young lady who asked about Asia, you know, and colorism in Asian communities, that of course is a direct result of, you know, colonialism. And in India, which is one of the most deeply colorist countries in the world, there are even skin lighteners for women's private parts. I mean, this blew my mind when I got an email about that. And I think that in response to the last call, I really agree with the caller that definitely we can trace the roots of colorism to our enslavement and to the continuance of white supremacy.
GOLDENBut we get our first wounds from our families. Whenever people start talking about colorism, it's something their mother told them, something their father said, something their brother told them. And so that we have the power to confront this, change it, and challenge it, we don't have to just say it's such a big problem like white supremacy, we can't do anything about it.
NNAMDIGreg, thank you very much for your call. We move onto Paul in Sterling, Va. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULThank, Kojo. I'm fascinated by the topic. I'm a middle-aged white guy. I learned about this in college back in the late '80s, took a novels of social protest course (unintelligible), an African-America writer. Read Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, but we also watched Spike Lee's "School Daze," and I went to a Catholic school and there weren't many African-American students there, but a bunch of them were in that class, it just opened my mind.
PAULIt fascinated me that this was such a huge issue, and the women in the class very thoughtful, very emotional at times talking about the subject. And now followed it watching Chris Rock's recent movie on the subject. I'm curious -- and then following up on Greg's comments, you know, how do we raise awareness to raise sensitivity to this issue? Hollywood drives a lot of the imaging, but what about films and documentaries that talk about this subject? It just doesn't seem to be understood well by white America, not that, you know, we can be more sensitive to it, but just some commentary on the media and the history of the topic.
NNAMDIWell, Paul, I'm glad you brought that up because it's more -- it's I guess important to understand the source of it, but more important than pointing fingers and saying where the original cause of it was is what people are doing about it. I mentioned the workshop that Marita Golden will be having that takes places at Thurgood Marshall Center at 1816 12th Street Northwest this weekend. But you were telling me earlier about Hollywood and how some African-American women of darker complexion are making space for themselves in Hollywood.
GOLDENYeah. And the work that I'm doing is a workshop for women of color. But we were talking during the break about the fact that...
NNAMDIMan, I was going to shop up. But go ahead.
GOLDENThat -- for example, if you look at the example of Issa Rae, the very talented young woman who is behind the video situation comedy "Awkward Black Girl."
GOLDENShe's a very tall, very dark, afro-wearing...
GOLDEN...black woman. Very attractive, to my eyes, anyway, who is very funny and simply decided to make a space for herself on the Internet. She's wildly popular, being pursued by HBO, blah, blah, blah.
NNAMDIShe'll be the star of her own television series shortly.
GOLDENExactly. In the film -- the new film that's come out, "Middle of Nowhere," by Ava Duvernay, which I highly recommend, a moving film about a woman whose husband is in prison, the three main actresses in that film are all darker-complected black women, which you don't often see. Viola Davis simply persevered long enough, even though she grew up in poverty, grew up with enormous self-esteem problems, and she simply took her space so that because of the Internet, because of how cheap it is to make movies, because of a lot of things that are happening in the world today, women are now simply creating the spaces they need to tell their stories, whether it's a story of lighter-complected woman, a brown-skin woman, or a darker woman.
NNAMDIAnd Paul, thank you very much for your call. Onto Remay (sp?) in Washington. Remay, you're on the air. We only have about a minute left. Go ahead, please.
REMAYYeah. I'm glad, you know, that this is forth to the surface, but generally in a family you have the dark-skinned father or the dark-skinned male and the fair-skinned mother.
NNAMDII don't know if that's generally true, but go ahead.
REMAYWell, no. I'm gonna get around -- there's a different dynamic when the father is fair-skinned and the mother is chocolate.
GOLDENYeah. Oh, definitely.
REMAYAnd it's shocking sometimes to hear one family member berate the other one because they're darker. I mean, it's really shocking to hear that, and there's a lot of pain involved in that. You say my own...
NNAMDIRunning out of time, please. Allow me to have Marita explain that a little bit.
GOLDENThe color complex is crazy and it's totally complex. I've heard young African-American women who are lighter complected tell lighter-skinned men they don't date light boys. They only want dark boys. So that everyone is guilty in this thing, and I'm glad that he mentioned the whole thing of the lighter-complected father and the darker-complected mother. Darker-complected mothers have told me that they've been mistaken for nannies when they took their kids out.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Marita Golden is president emeritus of the Zora Neale Hurston-Richard Wright Foundation. She's author of "Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex." She will be convening a workshop on the topic of the color complex and colorism this weekend. It is for African-American, or women of color.
GOLDENWomen of color, yes.
NNAMDIIt is for women of color, and it's at the Thurgood Marshall Center at 1816 12th Street Northwest. Marita, always a pleasure.
GOLDENThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.