The War at Home

The War at Home

Dr. Yaba Blay discusses the history of 'the color complex' and how we can work to destroy it

Chris Williams

by Chris Williams, February 20, 2013

The War at Home

Dr. Yaba Blay

The "color complex" has remains a source of great controversy and pain in the African American community and across much of the African Diaspora. As one of the leading voices and scholars on Black racial identity, Drexel University assistant teaching professor of Africana Studies Yaba Blay continues her arduous, groundbreaking work on the topic. Her One Drop Project has been featured on CNN’s Black in America series and expanded the discussion around how Blackness is defined in today’s society.

EBONY recently sat down with Dr. Blay to delve into the history behind colorism and how it has helped to shape Black racial identity in the United States.

EBONY: In the Black community, we seem to continue the tradition of lighter skin and straighter hair being 'better.' Why is the train of thought still prevalent in our collective mindset?

Yaba Blay: I definitely think it’s something we’ve internalized. Historically, just through observation we’ve seen that people with more European aesthetics and phenotypes were getting more privileges in this society. And again, for me, it’s really about us thinking about the framework from which we’re operating, like where are these ideas coming from and being able to acknowledge that they operate from outside of our community. These are conceptualizations that have been projected onto us and we see those things being affirmed in our society. It’s been called “the White ideal.” So -- it constructs a spectrum of sorts where if I look at you and I can see that you potentially have European blood, I can assume that in comparison to someone who has darker skin, kinkier hair, and a more African phenotype that you’re better than them. It’s the idea that European genetics are your saving grace.

It is something we’ve internalized historically, but it’s something that is continuously affirmed within our society. When we look at print media, internet, and television media, who are the Black people that are in positions of power? Who are the anchors? And we see for the most part, particularly women, are lighter skinned with more European phenotypes. Who are the women who are positioned as beautiful love interests in movies and music videos that we’re watching? More often than not, they’re lighter skinned. When we look into the context of politics in the Black community, who has historically been in the positions of leadership---including the President of the United States--- so it’s this visual coding going on that we don’t even have to think about. You make these observations and you see who is in power and you make the connections of what phenotype is more powerful and valuable in this society. It’s one of those things that we didn’t create, but we continue to operate from it.

We talk about this age old cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but who is training that eye? You got that from somewhere.

EBONY: What are some of the discussions that can be conducted inside and outside of the classroom about the color complex to bring a greater understanding to why this continues to a problem in our society?

YB: Well, as an educator, what’s important for me to do in the classroom is to facilitate critical thinking. So – the ways I do that when I talk about colorism is to situate it within a history. Before we can start talking about the contemporary realities, you’ve got to talk about where this idea comes from in a historical sense to make this issue even possible. You must begin with the context of enslavement, the ways in which light skin has been valued in this society, and give them the foundation so they can move forward. Once you’ve achieved that, you can get to a space where you can begin asking questions to help them connect the dots. For example, when I’m teaching, I’ll put on a video and I’ll ask them ‘Why do you think the light skinned woman is positioned as the object of interest?’ and getting them to connect it to a larger framework because often times students will say things like ‘Oh, I don’t see a problem because that’s just someone’s preference.’ But it’s getting them to see that there’s a fine line between preference and pathology. So how did you come to formulate this is a preference?

On the one hand, we talk about this age old cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but who is training that eye? You got that from somewhere. You get them to see that we’re people of African descent and much of our culture is connected to African cultural ideas and evaluations. Showing them pictures of what beauty looks like in various African cultures whether it’s dark skin, natural hair or women with particular body modifications and saying ‘How do we go from this to this?’ It’s almost like that Malcolm X speech where he said, ‘Who taught you to hate yourself?’ It’s getting them to see

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