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.
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 that you’ve been taught these things. They’ve been bombarded with these images from media sources that are so-called Black. This is just a start, but we have to start having honest conversations.
EBONY: How do we begin the process of healing and loving the skin and hair we’ve been given and overcoming colorism?
YB: It’s a challenge. There’s a frustration that people feel especially with my work because it’s like, ‘Here she goes again. She’s talking about colorism. How long are we going to talk about this?’ When I check social media and see the different links that people are sharing, even with the Black in America documentary, it’s the idea that people don’t want to talk about this anymore because there’s no solution. I get it. It’s frustrating, but for me, I don’t have a solution other than for us to talk about the issue. We have to talk about it in different ways.
We’re all Black and we’re all having an experience inside a racialized society that teaches us many things about our own value and our own skin color whether we’re light skinned or dark skinned. For me, it’s about having a different kind of conversation because while we’re pointing the finger at each other, White supremacy gets off scot-free. When people think of solutions, they tend to say ‘How do we get rid of White supremacy?’ That’s not really my framework or the direction I’m going in. We’re in a space now where we can’t avoid living in a White supremacist society. We can’t control White supremacy, but what we can control is our participation within it. It’s about learning how to ask different questions. We can’t ever stop talking about colorism. We have to stop internalizing and imploding and start holding other people accountable.
EBONY: What are some other projects you’re working on focusing on colorism?
YB: As part of my work on skin bleaching, I’m co-producing a documentary on transnational skin bleaching. The documentary will be directed by Terence Nance, award-winning director of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty. The doc will examine skin bleaching in West Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, and the United States, and will pay particular attention to the economic dimensions of the phenomenon via manufacturing and export/import policies and practices.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.