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Skin Games Pt 2: The Skin We Live In

By Jimi Izrael

A dark-skinned African American man and a light-skinned African 
  American woman engrossed in conversation.In part one of "Skin Games," I talked about skin color, specifically as it manifests itself in the black community. There's a lot of history there, and many of the sources I cited, like the Kenneth Clark doll study, for example (the one that demonstrated how black children had problems with the image of their own black skin), were over ten years old. But is skin tone still a relevant issue in the black community? The question begged further examination.

As opposed to yet another essay loaded down with facts and figures, I decided it served the subject better to talk to two people and let them tell you how it is to be dark-skinned and light-skinned in America today.

Lynn is a 37-year-old single black professional woman; she is very light-skinned. David, 35 years old and a business owner, is a dark-skinned brother. I asked them about their lives in the skin they're living in.

Tell me about growing up in the black community.

David:  Well, you know enough about our people to know how hard it was for dark skinned cats, especially back in the late 1970s and 80s.


In school it was rough. Growing up in the suburbs, most of my friends were white because the black community rejected me for being dark. Sisters weren't interested in dating a dark-skinned brother. And when Roots was running on TV, man, dark-skinned brothers had it hard. I got called every kind of African Booty-Scratchin', Kunta Kinte - all the most ignorant s--t that you could imagine. This is back in the late 1970s.

Then the Eighties came. Nobody was checkin' for dark-skinned brothers in the Eighties. In the Eighties you had to have the "good" hair, pretty-boy thing goin' - you had to look like them brothers from Switch or forget about it. The DeBarge brothers had sisters on lock-down.

Lynn: I've never had any skin color problems with black folks. I've only had problems with white folks. When I was younger, I worked at this place with this white girl that everyone thought was my sister. She vehemently denied having any black ancestry. But she had the hair, the full lips and hips, and we were about the same color. I used to whisper to her, "Are you sure?" I was never offended but she always got mad.

When I was in private school, I had this white teacher who had five black girls in her class, including me. She found reasons over the course of the semester to put all five of us out in the order of our skin color. That is, the darkest one got put out first and I got put out last. It seemed that she put us out by increments of shades. Not based on our grades or behavior, but based on her own prejudices.

Did you have issues in your family around skin color?

Lynn: I have relatives that are of German and bi-racial origin, but our family has never taught me to believe that I was anything other than or better than black. My family was Afrocentric before it was in style. However, my grandparents thought it was inappropriate to discuss skin color because other members of our family were kind of hung up on skin color issues. Those were the ones that were passing for whites in their rural communities. I wasn't brought up to know that my skin color was something to be taken advantage of. I was brought up in a predominately black community, and I never tried to be anything that I wasn't.

David: I've never had any problems per se, but along the way I recognized that my family was extremely aware of my dark skin. I was dating this one dark-skinned babe, and my moms was like, "I hope y'all never have babies - if the electricity goes out, we'll never find 'em." I went off on her and ever since that day, our relationship has never been the same.

Speaking of dating, what kind of skin color issues have you faced looking for a mate?

David: Sisters are checkin' for me now, but I'm not sure if it's because of the dark-skinned phenomenon or because I'm making bank. It's hard for me to gauge my popularity with the sisters, because I have a woman (who happens to be white), so I'm not on the market.

I do like dark-skinned sisters, though - I just like them to look like sisters. Not all done up with orange weaves and conked-out. I want a natural black woman, with lox or an Afro, the full lips and hips, the whole nine.  And in Cleveland, you don't find many of those types of women. Sometimes brothers get accused of not being down with sisters, but I just don't want to date Shaniqua or Lil' Kim.

Nowadays, the dark-skinned guys are more desirable with the women because of the emergence of certain personalities like Michael Jordan and Wesley Snipes - New Jack City was pivotal in making dark brothers cool. The media at large basically gives dark brothers props. The black images that become fetishes for them become the popular images of the moment.

Lynn:  When I went to college, the big thing was that because I was the most light-skinned girl, I would get all the men. But I don't know if I got more or less men than my "doo-doo brown" sisters. Most brothers would rather date a white woman than date a woman as light-skinned as me anyway. You would think with all the hues that sisters come in, a brother could find a sister light enough to suit his taste. But a brother will run a light-skinned woman over to get a white woman. I know a lot of brothers that went out with me because I was lighter skinned and didn't want to be seen as less black by dating a white woman.

When I date, I date brothers all across the spectrum of brown. I would never date a white man. I dated a white man once, and to kick it with and stuff he was cool. But to have him as a part of my life.nah, not me.  I was afraid of him, perhaps afraid of his motivation. However, now as I get older, I may be forced to consider white men as an option. If I had my druthers, of course, I would choose a brother. But I'm not meeting the quality of black men I need to lately.

Has your skin color affected your dealings with whites?

Lynn: It has afforded me some opportunities. I believe that I have gotten jobs because of the way that I look - I am viewed as non-threatening. To white folk, when you come looking the way I look, you are automatically something other than black. I've gotten jobs based on the fact that I move around comfortably within a variety of communities. Black folks, Latinos and white folks accept me. I think it has less to do with my skin color than because of the grade of hair I have. Some light-skinned people are ashamed of their African heritage, but there is nothing about being black that I am ashamed of.

David: In my dealing with white people, I haven't had that many problems.  First of all, white folks see us all as niggas, period. Skin tone is really irrelevant to whites, unless you are really light-skinned and they don't know what the hell you are. If you sound like you got some sense, then they give you their respect. They're not interested in stuff like "good hair" and "bad hair." Whites have no idea what that s--t even means. I get a funny vibe, just for being black, not so much for being dark. Blacks focus more on skin tone and all that foolishness. That's our problem.

It's not just a black and Latino thing - people of color all over the world are color-struck to some degree or another. Pakistani, Africans, Jamaicans - anywhere that has been colonized by Europeans. Wherever the white man colonized the indigenous people, he set forth the standard of beauty.

Will we, as a black community, ever get over our problem with skin color?

Lynn: We are all in the same boat. It's a bourgeois discussion. We, as African Americans, continue to grow as an affluent community, but we also keep up this mess - what's the point? We know how white folks see us. To them, a slave is a slave is a slave.

David: I think we're growing out of it. I don't run across people that have problems with my dark skin.not so much anymore. I think articles like this are important, because maybe we get to see how stupid it all really is.

jimi izrael is an opinion writer and journalist based in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. He can be contacted at Photo: A dark-skinned African American man and a light-skinned African American woman engrossed in conversation. (Corbis Images).

Copyright All rights reserved. Reprinted at with permission.


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