When learning about the civil rights era, not often is the issue of colorism addressed. Colorism can easily be defined as something like a sub-category of prejudice based on skin color. It originated during slavery when slaves with darker skin were placed in the fields to do work while lighter-skinned slaves were placed in the house to work. Similarly, lighter-skinned slaves tended to be more preferred by the slave-owners who would placed certain favoritism over them. This mentality continued over years and years, even into the Civil Rights time period. A common phrase amongst African Americans was, “If you are light, you are all right. If you are brown, you can stick around. If you are black, get back."
Alvin F. Poussaint, media director at the Judge Baker Children's Center in Boston and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains "Colorism was venomous because it did so much damage to the psyche.” In a society where African Americans were already belittled because of their race, it did much more harm than good that within their own communities they were criticized for being a darker color.
Poussaint continues saying, "It may seem like nothing now, but I can remember how difficult it was for people to use the word 'black' to describe themselves. It felt derogatory. Even some leadership would not use the word 'black' because they thought it was a derogatory term. We have come a long way to get rid of colorism."
While colorism became less of an issue after the Civil Rights Movement, recent studies have shown that colorism affects income and marriage rates even today. It holds an underlying place in black communities where it quietly resides and still has negative and damaging effects on people.
There has been recent controversy in the media and advertising over Beyonce’s L’Oreal ads in which her skin is noticeably lighter. Critics attacked L’Oreal for making her look for Caucasian, but the company has insisted that they did nothing to alter the image of Beyonce. Even still, it shows that there is an ongoing issue of colorism in today’s media.
The issue of colorism relates to what we have recently discussed in class about the Black Power movement and the “black is beautiful” mentality. Society had held that it was more appealing to look for “white” by having smooth hair and lighter skin. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, however, many African Americans celebrated their “blackness” by leaving their hair natural or wearing afros. Light or dark skin didn’t matter, because it was all beautiful and celebrated. James Brown became a voice for this mentality saying, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud!”
While colorism still has undertones in African American communities and the media today, it does not play a significant role in these communities or society as a whole. In the civil rights era master narrative, there is no mention of colorism, and it is just one of the many conflicts that were a part of race relations, especially amongst African American communities.