DETROIT — Yasmine Toney describes herself as a “dark-skinned sista.” So when she heard about a recent club promotion in Detroit, allowing all-night free admission to black women with fair or light skin, she was incensed.
“It’s offensive,” Toney said. “It continues a negative stereotype.”
“I’m perceived to be aggressive, assertive, attitude-having ... a lot of things, because my complexion is darker,” said the 24-year-old receptionist.
The party was canceled last week after its promoter, who is black, received dozens of complaints. But for Toney and other black women, the issue reopened old, deep wounds as word of the party spread through the Internet.
How black women are viewed — and treat each other — depending on the hue of their skin, eye color, and the length and grade of their hair has long been a point of contention for many in the black community.
Many women with lighter skin frequently are accused of believing they are better than those with darker complexions. Many women with brown or dark-brown complexions complain that they too often are not treated as well socially or professionally as those with fairer skin.
“I think they get to slide in a little easier,” Toney, who is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling, said of women with lighter skin. “They are assumed to be passive and nice and sweet. I feel I have to do a little bit more. Number one, I’m black. Number two, I’m dark and I have short hair.”
Promoter: ‘I thought it was brilliant’
Ulysses Barnes, who goes by the name DJ Lish, says he canceled his “Light Skinned Women & ALL LIBRA’s” promotion after complaints rolled in from women, activists and organizations across the country.
“I thought it was a brilliant promotion at the time,” said Barnes, who has spent the last several days apologizing to people. “I didn’t anticipate any type of feedback. It was just a party thing.”
Barnes, 27, canceled future “sexy chocolate” and “sexy caramel” promotions and just wants the controversy to go away.
But Detroit author and anti-racism advocate Elizabeth Atkins believes it’s time for open, effective dialogue on how black women truly see and interact with one another.
“The celebrated standard of black beauty have been the Lena Hornes of the world,” said Atkins, referring to the fair-skinned singer and actress who became one of the most popular black performers in the 1940s and 1950s. “It’s been the fair-skinned, straighter hair, bigger eyes and pointed nose.”
Horne got her start as a dancer in the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. Most dancers at the nightclub in its early years had light or fair complexions.
Activist: Media feeds into stereotypes
Atkins and Los Angeles author and women’s movement activist Pearl Jr. say media portrayals of black women feed into the stereotypes that are perpetuated by blacks.
Women who should be embracing their shared racial and cultural heritage instead harbor suspicion and resentment, Atkins said.
“They might be talking about flowers, or the weather or a wedding,” she said, “but in the back of their minds they’re thinking: ’She’s looking at my dark skin or kinky hair.’ Whereas the lighter-skinned woman is thinking: ’She’s looking at my skin, or she’s looking at my eyes and my hair, and making all kinds of assumptions of how much easier I must have it.”’
Study: Skin color may affect hiring
There may be something to that perception.
A 2006 study by University of Georgia doctoral candidate Matthew Harrison shows skin color may play a role in hiring. Psychology undergraduates, most of whom were white, were given fake photos and resumes to make hiring recommendations.
Lighter-skinned women applicants were preferred over those with darker complexions but equal credentials. Light-skinned black men also were preferred over those with dark skin who had better credentials.
Such thinking is rooted in America’s slavery past, Harrison says. Lighter-skinned children of slaves and their owners were given better treatment and less strenuous household chores than darker slaves who toiled in the fields.
“That created a lot of animosity among slaves and began to replicate itself even after slavery,” Harrison said. “Once blacks were able to have their own groups, they too adhered to the whole system of lightness being better.”
One of the ways they did so was the “brown paper bag” test, in which blacks whose skin was darker than the bag’s color were denied inclusion into social events or organizations.
Not 'black' enough?
But lighter-skinned black women also complain they at times are accused of not being “black” enough.
Tamika Franklin, who works with Toney, says she was taunted as “white girl” by other black children. The 30-year-old administrative assistant has very fair skin, freckles and reddish-brown hair. She says whites appear to be more accepting of her than blacks.
“I’m closer to their shade, so they’re a little more comfortable with that,” Franklin said.
That’s because whites set the standard for what is considered attractive and acceptable, Pearl Jr. said.
“I believe they think the lighter you are and the straighter your hair, the more you resemble them and the better you are,” she said. “We have been taught as African-Americans to be less African, less dark.”
The issue is central to “Other People’s Skin,” four novellas released this month and co-authored by Atkins and three other black women. The fictional work looks at discrimination that results from “colorism” in the black community.
Atkins has a fair complexion and long, light brown hair. Her mother is black and father is white.
“People have mimicked me to my face ... that I talk white or proper,” said Atkins, who earned a master’s degree at Columbia University. “An ex-boyfriend told me I should talk more black and go to a tanning salon to get darker. Another man told me I should dye my hair brown if I wanted to do business with black people.
“We often face hatred within the race, and it’s more hurtful from your own people than the mainstream.”
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