Skin-Deep Discrimination

ByABC News

March 4, 2005 — -- 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."

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."

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.

"These groups of people were called Blue Vein societies, because in order to quote "belong," the test of how light you were was could you see your blue veins through your skin? And if they could, you were in," she said.

Some had to pass the "paper bag test" to get into some churches, fraternities and nightclubs. "The paper bag would be held against your skin. And if you were darker than the paper bag, you weren't admitted," Golden said.

"Animosity had to grow out of that unfair relationship. Darker-skinned blacks began to resent light-skinned blacks who were given opportunities to succeed," Browder said.

The Black Power movement was supposed to change those attitudes, and it did change some things. Suddenly there were some dark-skinned male stars who played the "hero" -- Richard Roundtree played "Shaft," and other stars followed, like Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, and Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Jamie Foxx.

But the acceptance of darker skin seems to apply mostly to the macho guys. The part of the successful, educated black almost always goes to someone with lighter skin.

Actor Mel Jackson says light-skinned men like him tend to get the role of the "business executive."

"If the character's supposed to be more successful or more, more articulate or have a better background, they'll easily cast me in that character," he said.

Actress Wendy Raquel Robinson has noticed the difference. "I've never been offered, you know, the crackhead or the distressed mother," she said."I play the very upscale, educated young lady," Robinson said. "I do have some peers that are a lot darker than myself. They don't get the opportunities."

For a black actress to become a leading lady, she'd better be light. Or maybe Hispanic, like Eva Mendes, Will Smith's love interest in the current hit, "Hitch." The light-skinned Mendes has played Denzel Washington's wife in two films.

Colorism is especially prevalent in music videos. Kids we talked to on the street noticed that. And said they liked it.

"They all light skinned and they all look good," one boy said. "There's a lot of dark-skinned girls that are pretty, with long hair, bad, but they're not in the videos though, it's just the light-skinned ones that's in the videos," another added.

"The darker the woman takes on what I refer to as a "Ho" complex. She is the prostitute," said Karen a University of Maryland student. "The lighter a woman is, well, she's the goddess. She's the untouchable. She is the woman that all the men in the video aspire to have," she said.

Markita sees it as a straightforward message: "If you want to be successful, this is what you have to do. You have to become more white. You have to assimilate yourself to the standard of beauty," she said.

Golden said we need to "face up to the fact that colorism is still very much with us."

It's one more thing to think about when we talk about a color-blind society.