It Starts at Home

Coloration is the tradition among minority people valuing or devaluing individuals by skin color within their ethnic group.  The lighter the complexion the more valued, worthy, smart, good-looking and better the person is perceived by the group.  The darker the complexion the less desirable and acceptable the person is considered to be.  In the case of African-Americans along with light skin color, Caucasian features and hair were also the preferred qualities in terms of attractiveness or lack of beauty. This way of thinking began in slavery times and has had hundreds of years to fester in our collective memories manifesting it in present times.

Every country colonized by Europeans carried their “caste” system based on coloration and how similar the natives looked like the European invaders.  That Eurocentric attitude allowed for several advantages for the new conquerors.

  1. Europeans would divide and conquer the natives by comparing their advantages against the conquered natives and pitting the native population against itself.
  2. Changing the demographics and lightening the population was seen as a desired effect of rape.
  3. This mind pollution made management and treatment favor the conquering group.  It seemed more desirable to look like and imitate the Europeans in power.

In my experience coloration has played a major role in my self-acceptance, self-esteem, and ability to win favor with my family members.  In my matriarch-oriented family being color-conscious starts before birth.  My maternal great, great-grandmother was from Ireland.  Her name was Harriet and she married a man of color in Virginia in the year 1879.  Harriet had to declare herself as bi-racial in order to marry a colored man due to the laws prohibiting marriage between different races.  As a result Harriet was disowned by the rest of her Irish immigrant family and blamed her ostracism on her husband and children.  Her distaste for colored people spread through the family.   The generation after Harriet was determined to get lighter and therefore have a better chance at winning and success in America.  All of the offspring married light-skin mulatto children as was their custom.  The word mulatto is offensive because it comes from the Spanish for mule, mixing a horse with a donkey getting a hybrid creature.  The Spanish were the first Europeans to settle in the New World and the first recorded mixed blood child was in 1629 starting a tradition followed for centuries.

Hands on brown bag

How do we measure our worth?

My great-grandmother, Fannie, married a biracial man and their children were treated or mistreated according to what shade of color they were.  There are children that start life out lighter and later darken in color over their developing years.  This changes their status in the family, thereby confusing family dynamics.  At the turn of the 20th century my grandmother was born and as the first offspring it was hoped that she would be light-skinned, and she was.  As for her six siblings, they came in a variety of colors, from light bright to caramel.  To my great-grandparents credit they offered all seven of their children the opportunity to go to college and most of them attended and graduated with a college degree regardless of their hue.  My grandmother married a brown-skinned man and left Virginia before my mother was born. Grandma was in fear of her child being darker than a paper bag.  The paper bad method was used in social clubs, sororities, and in churches and other organizations.  That was one measure used to determine if one could join whatever group one wanted to belong to.  If the individual was darker than a brown bag she/he was not allowed to participate in the organization.  Some churches and social groups had a comb outside their door to determine if one could become a member.  If one had hair too coarse to get through the fine toothed comb one was not allowed to join.  After my mother returned as a baby to the home in Virginia she was marginally accepted but as she grew darker in her formative years she was less valued with every shade she grew darker.  My grandmother moved to New Jersey with her brown daughter, her lighter skin son and Grandma’s new light-skinned husband.  My mother knew she was not the right hue and once she came of age to court she kept her focus on only very light skin men who could pass for white.

Looking at my history one would think that I would have married a light-skinned man but I didn’t.  My husband was brown-skinned and my “sin” was to marry and have a child by him. I took the heat from my family for doing that.  It was the 1960’s when I began to court and I did not discriminate over color.

Looking at my own experiences I know that white people do not see me the same as they do blacks with more melanin.  The 1/16th rule is still alive and well so whites lump me into the black masses with all the rest of us black folks.  Some blacks mistake me for all kinds of minorities…Hawaiian, Latin, and Italian, just to name a few.  Once blacks get to know that I am black and my roots go back to Virginia since 1797 I am just one more “yellow gal” looking for love and acceptance.  My belief is many white people see all minorities as “shadow” people and will not see us as anything other than “other.”  It is interesting how we all look the same to those whites.  Every black person I know is seen as someone else of color.  Some white people think I look like Oprah and I sure wish I had her money!

Will this epidemic of self-hatred continue into the 22nd century and beyond?  I guess that depends on how we raise these next generations and consciously monitor our attitudes and opinions as to coloration.  It will start at home, with us, and with media changing what is right, bright and okay.   My son is brown and I am proud of him, love has no color.

By Harriet Courtney Maddox


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