Rachel Dolezal and the Problem of Colorism

Like many people, I’ve been fascinated (in horror) watching the Rachel Dolezal “passing” story unfold. I’m not going to rehash the various layers of how what she did was so very wrong or why “transracial,” as it has been used with respect to this story, is not a thing and should not be compared to Caitlyn Jenner or any other transgendered person. Those issues have all been artfully discussed and dissected ad nauseum, and there is little more I could add to them that hasn’t been said before. One thing I have seen very little discussion on, however, is how the discussion regarding Rachel Dolezal’s deception relates to colorism.

“Colorism,” for those who don’t know, is an intraracial form of bigotry, prejudice, discrimination, or supremacy based on the lightness or darkness of skin tone. Colorism does not really exist within the white community as an intraracial issue (as there is not as wide a range of skin tones among whites as there are in other races and ethnicities), though whites may exercise some bit of colorism against other groups, where they prefer the lighter-skinned of those groups to the darker [however, I would still classify that as just “racism,” rather than “colorism”]. Although the roots of colorism in the black community can be traced back to the benefits and status afforded blacks during slavery and Jim Crow, colorism continues to persist to this day. And it is a two-way street.

In 2013, OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network) ran a documentary called “Dark Girls,” in which dark-skinned black women discussed the ways their skin color has affected the way they have been treated and perceived, largely hurtful. This documentary was followed this January by “Light Girls,” which shared the stories of hurt and rejection experienced by light-skinned black women by questioning the belief that light skin makes for an easier life. Both documentaries have their fair share of acclaim and criticism, both of which is beyond the scope here. My issue is the idea of questioning someone’s “blackness” based on his/her appearance.

Let me make it crystal clear from the outset that I am in no way arguing that Rachel Dolezal can consider herself black. As I have previously stated, self-identification is important, but that self-identification must be rooted in reality. Unless Rachel Dolezal presents a 23andMe or Ancestry.com DNA report verifying some African ancestry [doubtful], there is no reality in which she can be considered a black woman in this country. I am only discussing those people who self identify as black or part-black whose reality and ancestry would support that claim.

Moving on…

One of the things that has disturbed me the most as this story unfolds is watching the amount of colorism spewing forth. From the black men who make comments insinuating Rachel Dolezal “can stay” because she’s hotter than most black women to the comments that people “should have known that she wasn’t black,” because she doesn’t look the part, this story has brought forth my uncomfortable feelings with colorism.

The latter charge feels like an assault on the claims of blackness by those who don’t pass a color check. During slavery and Jim Crow, lighter blacks exercised colorism against darker blacks by way of the “paper bag test” (those whose skin was darker than a paper bag were not allowed to enter) and the “comb test” (you “pass” if a fine-tooth comb can go through your hair without stopping). I don’t know where the color line is allegedly drawn by those asserting Rachel Dolezal doesn’t look black by any reasonable standards of blackness, but it appears that some combination of beige skin + light eyes + fine-ish hair + European features = you fail the Blackness Test. It is not 100% clear to me if, say, Rashida Jones fails because she’s more olive than tan or she passes because her dad is Quincy Jones. Or if she is over the color line, do we get to welcome Catherine Zeta-Jones to the tribe, too? Pete Wentz, yay or nay? How about Mariah Carey? What are black people going to do if we lose Mariah Carey? Does her 20+ year career now become cultural appropriation? And does Amber Rose retain membership to the black community based on that fantastic ass alone?

You see where I’m going with this. The possibilities are endless, numerous, and utterly ridiculous. It’s also hurtful. How dare someone else decide that your black isn’t “black enough.” If someone (rightfully) self-identifies as black or part-black, how messed up is it to say that they just don’t look the part enough to be who they were raised to be? And how ironic is it that the same people who would deny membership in Club Black because someone’s hair or nose is too straight or eyes are too light usually flock to those articles and blog posts about “people you didn’t know are black.” I guess now some of us are ready to kick them all out until we can further investigate their claims of blackness. Oh… We are…

Look, I’m not denying that someone who appears white to most white people is enjoying a great deal of white privilege that darker people of color will never share; but that doesn’t mean we throw away someone’s ancestry, their culture, their life experience, or their identity, simply because they have those privileges. Does it mean there are certain discussions to which they can’t relate because they have never and will never have those experiences? Of course. Does that make them any less black? No.

I guess the only solution here is we’re just going to have to start issuing Black Cards. If your children, siblings, or other loved ones are too light to pass the Black Test, make sure they know to carry their cards at all times when they are not with you until we can get this whole thing sorted out.


Never leave home without it
 
Or, you know, we can stop telling other black people that they are too white-looking to sit with us.

Originally posted on Blogger (http:/www.popculturemom.com) http://ift.tt/1G9TMzd

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