Three prominent black Americans made the cover of the latest issue of Newsweek. Each is accoutered in a dark, well-tailored suit and bears a look of calm dignity. The caption reads, "The New Black Power: Ability, Opportunity and the Rise of Three of the Most Important CEOs in America."
It is nice that black Americans have pushed so far into the mainstream. Plainly these three men - Franklin Raines, Barry Rand and Lloyd Ward - have seared through the competition to take possession of wealth and prominence.
So why am I hung up on the fact that each one is fair enough in complexion to pass for white?
Perhaps because there still resides in this culture a perception that the European aesthetic is ideal. Perhaps because we have been conditioned to believe that lighter skin equals success. Perhaps because - even in this modern, multicultural and multiethnic society - some black Americans continue to hate their dark skin, their hair and their lips. And perhaps because people of color continue to savage one another with pernicious little distinctions between dark and fair skin - a strain of prejudice dubbed "colorism."
Deborah Mathis, a syndicated columnist, recalls an early taste of colorism. After graduation from high school in 1971, she applied for a sales position at a posh jewelry store. "You have such a light complexion," the employer effused with obvious delight.
"I was disgusted," recalls Mathis. "I remember thinking, what do you want to do, phase in integration a little drop at a time?"
Time and again Mathis has witnessed colorism snaking its way through the workplace. "I just think that there is an unspoken cultural attitude among white and blacks alike," observes Mathis, "that if you have a fair-skinned black in there, they are probably more like white people than are darker skinned blacks. ... I think white people feel more comfortable around fairer skinned black people..."
Felipe Luciano, a reporter for the New York affiliate of Fox 5, has smacked directly into that sort of cultural conditioning. "I appear on black forums all the time, but I've never been invited on a Latino forum," says the mocha-skinned Latino. "On radio, but not on TV. I've even had ad executives say that I was too dark and that wouldn't sell."
This brand of racism is particularly insidious because it is subtle. Unlike the time when racists donned pointed hoods and stomped down the streets, the colorist is subtle, their contempt concealed beneath the still waters of social etiquette.
To some degree this fair-skinned fetish is hangover from slavery, when light-skinned blacks and, in particular, mulatto children were granted more privileges than the other slaves were. Over time, a hierarchy of sorts developed around the idea that fair skin was more socially palatable.
This yearning by blacks to seem like their oppressors was perfectly embodied by the narrator in Maya Angelou's, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings": "Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass Momma wouldn't let me straighten? My light-blue eyes would hypnotize them..."
For decades, the notion that lighter skin equals success continued to be reinforced through our popular culture. "If you look at the first people who were on the air in television, you didn't have the dark-skinned black anchor on there," snorts Mathis. "Even today, every time they want to portray a big, black menace, he is really big and he is really black."
"Are there any Latino pop stars, movie stars, or TV stars that are black?" wonders Luciano. He pauses for a moment, then answers his own question: "Other than subsidiary roles of maids or crooks, there are essentially none. All the soaps on Spanish TV have protagonists with straight hair, light skin and European features."
To some degree, the '70s birthed a countermovement amongst people of color that eschewed the European aesthetic in favor of a more self-consciously African model. Groups like The Black Panthers, SNIC, and Nation of Islam demanded that one's blackness was a source of pride, not to be repressed or twisted inward. Sadly, says Luciano, the movement also birthed resentment toward the European aesthetic that manifested itself in a form of reverse racism directed at fair-skinned people of color.
So how precisely does a minority succeed in this world and still manage to keep its unique identity intact? Does one assimilate and consciously try to go about things as Caucasians do? Or does one shake one's fist at the ruling class, utterly embrace his unique heritage and all but guarantee that he remains marginalized and the social hierarchy remains unaltered?
These are tough questions. The answer is twofold: It begins with a certain pride in one's own unique heritage. It is sustained with intelligence. The combination of the two can largely murder colorism. There must also be a dedication on the grassroots level to pressure advertisers into reflecting the full spectrum of the community.
With pride, academics, and some not-so-subtle shifts in our popular cultural myths, we may finally move beyond such destructive and arbitrary judgments as to whether one is too light or too dark.