In Alice Walker’s 1983 book, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose, she coined the term “colorism” to define a form of discrimination: “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on the color of their skin.” Folks from African-American, Asian, Latinx communities are often reluctant to acknowledge this form of prejudice, knowing full well that it invites comments such as: why the big to-do about our discriminating against them, they discriminate against their own!
While colorism refers to in-group discrimination, it is but another form of racism based on white supremacist beliefs. My personal experiences (and documented by ample empirical research) confirm that the lighter a person’s skin, the likelier they are to be viewed as more attractive, more intelligent, higher achieving, easier to get along with, less threatening, and the list goes on. Notwithstanding that people often say “I don’t see color,” the first or second observation we make about an individual is their skin color and whether they are male or female. And whenever we cannot easily place someone into clearly defined categories the “what are you?” question often follows. Those recipients of the question typically find it uncomfortable and offensive.
There is nothing wrong with observing these differences and it is something we all do instinctively. Growing up I loved hearing the story as told by my mother about her brother Rodolfo who ran all the way home from the train depot in the tiny town of Realitos, Texas (population 200) where they lived, and excitedly telling the whole family about two men on the train – Mamá estaban mas prietos que yo (they were darker than me).
The big reveal was that this was the first time Rodolfo had seen Negros (the name African Americans were called back then). The South Texas world into which my parents (and I) were born was as segregated as the Jim Crow South, only ours was a brown and white world, where brown people were relegated to subservient status. Back then most South Texans were of Mexican ancestry and our physical appearance could range from dark skin and indigenous characteristics to fair-skinned and blue-eyed gueros. In some instances European ancestry took front and center stage.
Rodolfo was the darkest of my mother’s brothers and sisters. As children, Rodolfo and his siblings toiled in the hot South Texas cottonfields, where they got even darker. Tio Rodolfo’s work as a carpenter, was mostly done outdoors, so he retained the status as the darkest in the family his whole life.
Like Tio Rodolfo, I was darkest in my family and with it came terms of endearment – la prieta, la morenita – along with plenty of teasing from siblings and cousins. Smile, so we can see you in the dark. The migra is going to keep you and send you to Mexico. My parents’ advice -- ignore them – lo prieto no duele – being dark doesn’t hurt. Sometimes my mother would put up her hand, and spread her fingers wide open, todos diferentes, one isn’t better than the other, they are all just different.
Even as we were told that our skin color didn’t matter, it was common to hear comments like, ‘such a pretty baby, her skin is so light.” “That Jorge is such a nice and smart boy, ay . . . but too bad that he is so dark.” “Don’t stay in the sun too long, otherwise you are going to get too dark.”
As Mexican-Americans we were second-class citizens, and our citizenship could always be called into question. This was particularly so for those of us with darker skin. Every few weeks we visited our grandmother who lived on a ranchito that bordered on the Rio Grande River in Escobares, Texas. The 135-mile drive from my hometown of Alice, Texas required us to pass through a permanent immigration checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas – 70 miles from the Mexican border.
We usually left Escobares early in the evening and we kids fell asleep in the old station wagon. We woke up when the car came to a complete stop and the immigration agent swept his flashlight beam into the car’s interior. The beam stopped for a brief second or two on each of our faces. Whether true or imagined, it seemed the flashlight lingered longer on my face.
Then came a series of questions addressed to my dad. Where are you coming from? Where are you headed? Are you folks US citizens? Where were you born?
My mother made a point to carry my birth certificate in case anyone questioned my citizenship. Decades later, alone as I approached a checkpoint near San Diego, this memory that I hadn’t thought about since childhood led to sweaty palms and an increased heart rate. A similar set of questions and I was waved along.
I just finished reading Ibram X. Kendi’s excellent book How to be an Anti-Racist, and Chapter 9 is simply titled Color. Although not news to me, here’s some of what he covers: White children attribute positivity to lighter skin and negativity to dark skin. White people usually favor lighter-skinned politicians over darker-skinned ones. Dark immigrants to the United States, no matter their place of origin, tend to have less wealth and income than light immigrants. Dark African Americans receive the harshest prison sentences and more time behind bars. Dark female students are nearly twice as likely to be suspended from school as white female students. And the list goes on and on. I’ll be writing more in future blogs about Kendi’s work. Another of his books, Stamped From The Beginning: the Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, won the 2016 National Book Award. I recommend both these books to anyone who is interested in addressing racial inequality in our country.
If you want to learn more about colorism, check out this article in Time magazine titled, The Difference Between Racism and Colorism,
https://time.com/4512430/colorism-in-america/. Please note that Prof. Kendi views colorism as a form of racism, a view I share. A few quotes from the Time article. "Skin color matters because we are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present . . . It cannot be overstated that if racism didn’t exist, a discussion about varying skin hues would simply be a conversation about aesthetics. But that’s not the case.”
“Colorism is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of this nation that we are all implicated and infected by its presence. And the sad thing is, for many people the lessons of color bias begin in the home.” What messages did you grow up hearing about skin color?
Check out this 13-minute HuffPost video conversation with four women addressing how racism and colorism influences the casting of Black, Latinx and Asian-American roles." It is well worth watching, click here.
My one-woman show Why Would I Mispronounce My Own Name? which is very much about identity and assumptions people make about us, depicts some of my experiences with colorism.
One last chance to catch my show this year at Marin County Civic Center, October 13 @ 7 pm as part of The Best of SF Solo Series. Tickets available through link at my website: irmaherrera.com.