Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Lori L. Tharps Confronts Colorism in America

Lori L. Tharps, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families (Boston: Beacon Press: 2016).

Calida Garcia Rawles, Same Difference (2010).

Tess Gerould (l) and Lori Tharps (r) at Elkins Park Library 02.22.17

"God is the color of water." James McBride, The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother.

I commend journalist Lori Tharps for tackling a difficult subject in her new book Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families. Race and color and class, light-skin, dark-skin. Colorism is defined by Alice Walker as "prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color." Race is actually a scientific fiction, whereas different skin-colors are real, and usually stand as a proxy for race. Inside African American, Latino, Asian, and mixed-race families in the US there exists a large spectrum of skin-color. Unfortunately, people are treated differently by their family or society according to their skin color. Tharps tells the history of skin-color politics in these four communities, and then shares the often painful personal testimony of many people as the light or dark member of their family or community. Discrimination by skin color is a type of racism that is still pervasive.

Lori Tharps is a Temple University Professor of Journalism who lives in Mt. Airy, my old Philadelphia neighborhood. Colorism is a personal issue for her. She is African American and her husband Spanish (ie Caucasian), and their three children are mixed-race with all different skin tones. She and her husband are faced with the real problems facing Mixed-Race families, which are somewhat different than those facing other minority families. The light-skin child is doted on by the local dry cleaner, whereas the darker-skin child is ignored. Lori's husband finds a new dry cleaner to patronize. Lori gets asked if she is the nanny of her light-skin daughter when they walk in the park. My wife Tess had the same experience when we moved to suburban Elkins Park from Philadelphia 25 years ago. Our elderly neighbor assumed Tess was the nanny since my wife has brown skin, and our young daughter was light-skin. Tharps finds herself relieved when her second child is darker, visibly sharing mommy's skin tone. Are we all confined to our designated clans? Are times changing?

Skin color and race are two different things, although entangled in complicated ways. Africans were brought to the US as slaves to labor for European (ie Caucasian) settlers, who dispossessed the indigenous people as well. A strict racial hierarchy was quickly instituted so that African-Americans would remain chattel slaves permanently. But of course, from day one, there were sexual relations between black and white whether consensual or non-consensual. By the wonders of the genetic lottery, their children had all different skin tones and phenotypes. A light-skin privilege developed in the African American community, and a similar story was true for Asian, Latino, and mixed-race communities. The light-skin offspring of the White slave master and enslaved African women often became the house servants rather than agricultural laborers. This first privilege afforded them some access to education and assimilation into the White world. Tharps notes that after Emancipation, light-skin African Americans became the economic elite and the leaders of their community. She says, "many historically Black colleges, including Howard University and Spellman College, had unofficial but well-known admission preferences for light-skinned students who came from wealthy, professional families." This also held true for many professional societies and social groups, even churches. This the origin of the so-called "paper bag test." If you were darker than a brown paper bag, you could not join said organization. The racism of the dominant White culture got reproduced in the Black community.

Skin-color politics in the Latino and Asian communities have different narratives. The Latino community in the US derives from the Caribbean, Central and South America, and ultimately motherland Spain. They bring with them the legacy of Spanish colonialism in Latin America. The Spanish and the Portuguese enslaved the Native Americans and Africans just like the British colonists, but were more tolerant of interracial relationships and marriage. As a result, "a large portion of the Spanish-speaking world has African roots." The problem is the ruling class in Spain and Latin America  was reserved for those with "pure Spanish blood" only. This produced a skin-color hierarchy in Latino societies that persists to this day. The Latino population in the US does not fit neatly into black-white census categories. In 1970 the term "Hispanic" was introduced to resolve this dilemma. Nonetheless, light-skin or white Latinos still dominate Spanish-language media and business. Anti-Black sentiment is commonplace. A crude example was Univision host Rodner Figueroa comparing First Lady Michelle Obama's appearance to that of a cast member of "Planet of the Apes" in 2015. Ouch.

Tharps had some difficulty ferreting out the root of colorism in the Asian community. The largest Asian groups in the US come from China, Philippines, India, Korea, and Japan. Each has its distinct culture and history. Initially her East Asian subjects denied any skin-color prejudice in their native cultures, but later acknowledged it. Whether due to European colonialism or something older, there is a premium for  pale skin in East Asia, particularly as an ideal for feminine beauty. Foreigners were also disfavored. The Pearl Buck Society was formed after WWII to find homes for mixed-race children from the war that were outcast from their societies. My wife grew up mixed race in Japan in the 50s, and her mother and aunties were always admonishing her to get out of the sun so she didn't turn too dark. Skin-color is also a defining issue in South Asia where it is linked to caste and class. Again the upper class tends to be light-skin, and tends to be the immigrant class to the US. They bring their attitudes with them to the complex racial landscape in the US.

So much for the histories of colorism. Most of Tharps’ book is devoted to how skin color impacted peoples lives. In general light skin conferred privilege and opportunity in a racist society. Some parents were oblivious to their children's struggles; others were more sensitive and protective. Some light skin subjects testified they felt neglected or excluded because they weren't black enough. Teenagers (and grown-ups) can be very cliquish. What if the Black kids, the Asian kids, and the White kids sit at different lunchroom tables, and you don't fit in anywhere? This can cause enough pain and confusion to last a lifetime. Skin color impacts educational choices, choosing a romantic partner, finding a job, picking a neighborhood. It is formative.

Tharps notes that skin-color politics and race are "close cousins." In fact, in an increasingly multi-cultural society, perhaps skin color is the only way to classify people if society insists on racial categories. With Donald Trump's election, nativists in the US are attempting to reverse the tide of immigration and intermarriage. I think they will fail. Lori Tharps voices the growing awareness of the injury colorism causes to people and communities. It is no longer taboo to examine skin color politics. She blogs about identity politics, parenting and pop culture at and her professional site at She pushes all of us to overcome our tribal allegiances and embrace our common humanity. That can't be so hard.