Skin-Deep Discrimination

We all know about racism, about whites discriminating against blacks. The prevelance of "colorism" -- black on black discrimination, is less known, but it's an open secret in the black community.

Imagine this. You're asked to look at photos of faces and then give them a score of 1 to 5 to rate how smart you think the people in the photographs are. But there's a trick.

Mixed in with the 60 photos are pictures of the same person, but the photos are altered to make the person look darker skinned. Will that affect whether someone is rated smart? You bet.

There is still plenty of discrimination by skin color in this world, and in test after test like this one, the lighter-skinned people are perceived to be smarter, wealthier, even happier. It may surprise you that among those who rated differently, both whites and blacks give lower scores to people with darker skin. In our test, on average, the lighter faces were rated smarter.

While many blacks do not discriminate against each other by color this attitude is not unique. The fact that blacks often treat other blacks differently, based on the shade of their skin, is an open secret in the black community.

Comedian Paul Mooney talks about it on stage. In one of his routines he said, "At home where I come from, Louisiana, we have the saying for it: 'If you brown, hang around. If you yellow, you mellow. If you white, you all right. If you black, get back.' "

Yet Spike Lee was criticized for being so honest about colorism in his 1987 movie, "School Daze." In the film, light-skinned and dark-skinned girls faced off and called each other names like "tar baby," "Barbie doll," "wannabe white" and "jigaboo."

Students Say They Grew Up With 'Colorism'

I spoke to University of Maryland students who say they've grown up with colorism.

"My mom said they used to always call me, um, chocolate baby," said Shondra. "African-Americans went out of their way to make sure that I knew that me being black was something that wasn't to be seen as beautiful," said Ted.

"The worst insult a dark-skinned boy as a child, ever got is to be called African," Jason said. "You can call me anything in the book when I was younger. Just don't call me African," he added.

Jason said people equate Africa to "savage."

Erica said one of her friends told her she was "pretty for a dark-skinned girl." By contrast, some lighter-skinned blacks I spoke to say colorism helped them.

"I guess I've benefited from the colorism, because I'm light skinned, because I've always had the long, straight hair," said Markita, another University of Maryland student. "I thought I was just pretty."

'Blue Vein' Societies and the 'Paper Bag' Test

Historians say the friction between blacks of different shades began during slavery because light-skinned blacks, often the children of slaves and their white masters, got better treatment.

"They were the ones who maybe worked in the house, as opposed to the darker-skinned Africans who worked in the fields who were beaten more readily," explained historian Anthony Browder.

Lighter skin "began to be associated with privilege and it became associated with beauty," said Marita Golden, author of "Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex."

After slavery, skin color continued to divide blacks. Light-skinned blacks formed exclusive clubs, Golden said.

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