2007 HBCU Newspaper Conference

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"Colorism" Still Thrives

Joshua L. Halley/Southern Digest
African Americans at Southern University, like others, come in various shades.

Are blacks still judging their own based on their shade of skin?

No, maintains Raymond Lockett, chairman of the Southern University History Department. "Black discrimination went out in the '60s. After that, black became beautiful."

"Nowadays blacks, especially black college students, are more intelligent on the subject," Lockett said.

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Akia Moorehead, a sophomore mass communication major at Southern, disagrees.

"The idea that black is beautiful died in the mid-'90s," said Moorehead, who is from Little Rock, Ark. "Today, that's looked at as some kind of dying fad."

"A lot of it has to deal with how a person was raised," said Brent Page, a junior political science major at Southern. "A lot of guys have been brought up to think that a light-skinned woman with straight hair is what they need to shoot for," said Page, who is from New Orleans.

Over the summer, Matthew Harrison, a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, released the results of a study showing dark-skinned blacks at a significant disadvantage for employment.

Harrison studied 240 psychology students and found that even if they possessed higher educational achievement and had more qualified resumes, dark-skinned blacks were less likely to get the job than their light-skinned counterparts.

"The findings in this study are, tragically, not too surprising," Harrison said when the study was released. "We found that a light-skinned black male can have only a bachelor's degree and typical work experience and still be preferred over a dark- skinned black male with an MBA and past managerial positions, simply because expectations of the light-skinned black male are much higher, and he doesn't appear as 'menacing' as the darker-skinned male applicant."

In September, "A Girl Like Me," an eight-minute documentary produced by 17-year-old film student Kiri Davis, showed Davis duplicating the "doll test" used in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that outlawed legal segregation in the schools.

Among children in a Harlem, N.Y., day care center, 15 of the 21 children surveyed in 2005 preferred the white doll over the black one.

History tells us that during slavery, the tone of a black person's skin ultimately affected his or her status.

In general, light-skinned blacks received better treatment.

According to historians, the term for black-on-black discrimination is "colorism."

For people such as Phil Lester, a junior engineering major at Southern from Houston, colorism is something he was exposed to while growing up.

"My folks always used to tell me to try not to bring a dark-skinned girl home," said Lester, who is dark-skinned himself.

When slavery was abolished, some light-skinned blacks formed clubs and hosted "paper bag" parties that banned those who were darker than the shade of a brown paper bag.

Eventually, a way was created for black women to straighten their hair chemically, bridging the gap between women with naturally straight hair and those with naturally kinky locks.

Many black Americans strove to be as close to white as possible.

"That's a powerful thing to put into someone's mind," said Natasha Laskett, a freshman biology major at Southern from Birmingham, Ala. "I think it still exists way too much, and it's because of how strong the idea was pushed into the black person's mind."

"I think color of skin is definitely something that everybody thinks about," said Ebony Baylor, a junior political science major from Shreveport. "It's just not something that's always talked about."

Conyea Nave, a Southern University student, writes for the Southern Digest.

Posted Oct. 9, 2006

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

I would like to correct information [since deleted] that appeared in Conyea Nave's article "'Colorism' Still Thrives." Madam C. J. Walker did not "create a way for black women to straighten their hair chemically." I urge Ms. Nave and the Black College Wire editors to visit my Web site at www.madamcjwalker.com and to read my book, "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker," so they can fully understand Madam Walker's role in the early hair care industry, as well as her contributions as a philanthropist, entrepreneur and political activist.

When Madam Walker founded her company a century ago this year, her most popular product was a scalp treatment that healed the scalp disease that was so rampant among black women who had little access to indoor plumbing, shampoos and other products that we take for granted today. As Madam Walker's biographer and great-great-granddaughter (and as a veteran journalist with 30 years experience as a network television producer and executive), I assure you that my research shows that Madam Walker did not invent the hot comb and did not invent, create or sell chemical hair straighteners.

If you would like accurate information about Madam Walker, please feel free to contact me at [email protected]

A'Lelia Bundles

Washington, D.C.

Oct. 11, 2006



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