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COLORISM : In American Society, Are Lighter-Skinned Blacks Better Off?

April 24, 1988|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

Between the hard-driving beat of a rap record and the sugared sensuality of a rhythm-and-blues tune, listeners to KDAY-AM's "Love Connection" hear a sociological drama being played out most weekday mornings. "It's the skin game," laments disc jockey Russ Parr as he screens calls from the station's audience of mostly black adults, 18 to 25, detailing the physical features of their ideal date.

"Why don't you describe yourself to the ladies out there?" Parr asks a caller named Eric.

"I'm brown-skinned," the 19-year-old says.

"What you got going for yourself?" asks Parr, a quick-witted, 31-year-old black man whose on-air comments are frequently laced with sarcasm.

"Everything," Eric responds. "I have brown skin, light-brown eyes, a curl (hair style) . . . ."

"What's your name?" Parr asks another caller.

"Iceman," he answers. "I'm 5-foot-9. I'm light-skinned. I've got green eyes. I got a long, long curl."

Are his eyes really green? Parr asks derisively.


"Those aren't Oprah Winfrey contact specials?"

"Ah, no-no-no, buddy. I was born with these," the Iceman says.

Parr takes another caller, then announces, "OK, ladies, if this sounds like your cup of tea, give me, Russ Parr, a call."

Parr says he constantly tells his audience that "your skin complexion is irrelevant." "We have had (on-air) debates on this whole issue," prompted, he says, by Spike Lee's recent film, "School Daze," which satirizes color and class conflict among blacks. But it has been to little avail, the disc jockey says.

In Lee's controversial film, blacks are divided between the "Wannabees"--mostly light-skinned, middle-class blacks with long, straight hair who want to totally assimilate--and the "Jigaboos"--darker-skinned blacks who generally come from the working class or underclass and want to maintain their black cultural identity.

The film, released this year, is unusual in that it exposes an issue many blacks thought long dead. Whites may be surprised to find that it is an issue at all. Well aware of the discrimination in American society by whites against blacks, many whites have never considered the possibility that at least some blacks have the attitude that it is better to marry and associate with those who have lighter skin, straighter hair, sharper features--the attributes the larger society values.

This dilemma long thought moot has generated new, provocative research: from the cataloguing of 140 labels that African-Americans use to distinguish gradations of skin color among themselves, to a recent study that found that the social and economic gap between light- and dark-skinned blacks is as great as the disparity in quality of life between whites and blacks in America as a whole.

The issue of colorism--defined by writer Alice Walker in a 1982 essay as "prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color"--is a conundrum whose roots are as deep as the blues-based music played on KDAY.

It can be traced back to the American slave epoch when the lighter-skinned offspring of slave masters and slave women were given preferential treatment on plantations as house slaves as opposed to field slaves, or freed, forming the basis of the early black middle class in America. Colorism, many social scientists contend, continues to this day, perpetuated by continuing discrimination by whites against blacks on the basis of race and complexion.

In the uproar that surrounded "School Daze," blacks variously complained that the film exaggerated the problem of color bias among blacks, that the problem doesn't exist or, conversely, that Lee was airing the race's "dirty linen."

Colorism has certainly diminished among blacks since the black pride movement of the '60s and '70s, in the opinion of Winthrop D. Jordan, the eminent historian of race relations who authored "White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812," winner of the National Book Award and Bancroft Prize for history. But it still exists, he says. In Jordan's opinion, it's not much discussed among blacks because it threatens unity.

But at KDAY, Parr's young black listeners have no such compunctions.

Later in the morning, Lillian ("But everybody calls me Lace") phones in a description of her persona for a caller named Darryl. "Well," Lillian says, "I have real black hair--it's long of course. And I'm light-skinned and I have really soft brown eyes."

"That light-skin stuff really turns you on, huh man?" asks Parr.

"No, not really," says Darryl.

But Lillian is definitely the type of woman another caller named Sean wants.

The 23-year-old warehouse dispatcher, interviewed by phone after the show, asks that his last name not be used. "I must admit," Sean says, "I did say I want a fair-complected black woman. Brown skin," which he describes himself as being, "is all right." He just doesn't want a woman who's too dark. And his parents don't want him dating one, either.

A Mother's Warning

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