Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Highpoint
October 9, 2003
By Courtney Gaillard
.This is the final article in a series about the experiences of light-skinned African-Americans and the prejudices they face.
My 4-year-old niece, Maddie, recently told her mother, “You’re white, daddy is black, and I’m both. So what’s the big deal?”
When my sister-in-law Deborah shared this with me, we both laughed but then agreed that she had a valid point – “out of the mouths of babes.”
If only it were true. If only there was no “big deal” to be made about race or skin tone or complexion in this country and abroad. But there is a “big deal,’”as was made evident in the previous stories in this series.
Cedric Herring, professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago would like to see a colorblind society evolve eventually, but he believes we are far from it happening. He writes about the fact that race and skin color are very much still a big deal today in a book titled “Skin Deep: How Race & Complexion Matter in the ‘Colorblind’ Era.”
“We all aspire to have a society where not only does race not matter but color doesn’t matter. We now have this ideology that’s prevalent in our society where people quote Dr. Martin Luther King’s statement of judging not by the color of your skin but by the content of your character. The problem is that you still have whopping differences (between whites and blacks) in terms of earnings, educational attainment, discriminatory treatment – all of these kinds of things that are still clearly there,” Herring said.
In “Skin Deep,” he and the other authors tackle race and colorism in American society. Colorism, which refers to the differential treatment among people of the same race, is just another extension of making racial distinctions, Herring said. He also pointed to findings from the most recent U.S. Census, which for the first time allowed people to check all races that apply to them and not just the “other” box. He argued that this new option on the census is proof that many still feel the importance of distinguishing themselves in terms of race and color.
“When you look at African-Americans, estimates are that 75 percent of African-Americans are of mixed ancestry some way or another,” said Herring, who is also a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “What that does is it changes the psychology. In other words, a person who comes of age under this new system will not necessarily have formulated an identity that is so rigid that they will say that they are black and nothing else.”
He argued that whites perpetuate stereotypes about color as much as blacks do, although many whites today claim to see no racial differences between the races. Herring said this belief system held by some whites prevents them from seeing skin tone discrimination among blacks.
“We’re not at a point where we’re a colorblind society at all….The reasons for passing have gone away in that the penalty for being black isn’t nearly as high as it once was now that we have civil rights laws,” Herring said.
One way to move beyond the fascination and fixation with skin tone is for people to accept the fact the we all are inherently different, said Earl Smith, dean of Wake Forest University’s sociology department.
“I think moving ahead is the quintessential question, and it’s built around black people accepting that there are a variety of skin colors and belief systems,” Smith said. “All of us are not alike, but not being alike doesn’t make any set of traits better than another set of traits.”
Since the Black Power movement of the 1960s ended, said Smith, the trend of embracing black culture began to fade as well. He argued that it’s no longer important to “look black” or “act black.” The dominant ideology places more value on white skin and “white behavior” as being the keys to success and achievement in this country.
“Blacks are just a part of this nation, and they have so many intertwined histories, and miscegenation plays a big part in that, and until you accept that, then there’s going to be problems,” Smith said. “That reasoning comes from the way the larger society treats blacks who are of different skin color, and it’s real, it’s very real.”
The fact that many people of African ancestry choose to ignore their heritage and “pass” for white is also very real. Passing is something that all the people profiled in the “Black Like Me” stories said they never considered doing, although some of them were light enough to pull it off if they wanted. Passing has always been an ugly little secret in the black community, a secret that will be coming to the light, no pun intended, more in the near future.
The movie “The Human Stain” starring Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins tells the story of a college professor who hides the fact that he is black. The movie is based on Philip Roth’s novel, which is based on a true story.
Brooke Kroeger also tackles the issue of passing through the stories of “six present-day passers” in her new book, titled “Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are.” She argues that so long as racism and prejudice exists there will be people passing.
“These are not people who didn’t want to be who they were; it’s that they found themselves in social situations, institutions and environments that didn’t allow them to be who they were if they wanted to achieve the ends they set out to achieve,” said Kroeger, who is an associate journalism professor at New York University.
The difference between the passers of today versus passers during the pre-Civil Rights Movement era, said Kroeger, is the absence of shame and consequence when and if identity is revealed.
“I think the response today to an exposed passing is different. It’s kind of a big ‘so what,’” Kroeger said.
David Matthews is one of the present-day passers whom Kroeger chronicles in “Passing.” He tells Kroeger in her book that he passed for white-Jewish for a period of time because he didn’t want his life to be a social agenda struggle. For Matthews, who is the son of a black father and Jewish mother, passing was the only way to secure friendships in his youth growing up in Baltimore.
He was raised by his father, Ralph Matthews, who was a well-known writer for the Afro American newspaper, based in Baltimore. Ralph Matthews divorced his wife after she gave birth to their son, and she spent the rest of her life in Israel.
A portion of the chapter from “Passing” on David Matthews
Matthews’ story is one of many passing stories in Kroeger’s book. She also speaks of other situations where people passed – for other religions, sexuality, class and gender – in recent times.
Kroeger points out that passing is no longer just about hiding race. But it remains about concealing a truth that many still believe is better off hidden from the rest of the world.
For National History Day contestants. Upcoming — January 30: Iona College. February 4: Sagamore Hill. March 27: Ephemera Society of America. April 4: Avon-on-Sea Public Library, Avon CT June 4-6: “Métiers et professions des médias (XVIIIe-XXIe siècles),” Université de Lausanne. Link to past appearances.
Coming March 2020: Front Pages, Front Lines: Media and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage, Linda Steiner, Carolyn Kitch, Brooke Kroeger, eds.