Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Ebony and Ivory: Relationship between African American Young Women's Skin Color and Ratings of Self and Peers

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development

Ebony and Ivory: Relationship between African American Young Women's Skin Color and Ratings of Self and Peers

Article excerpt

Many individuals face discrimination because of their skin color; however, skin color of African American young adults has not been studied in detail. This study examines relationships between skin color and perceptions among African American college women. The study yielded a positive correlation between personal values and self-rated skin color and a perception of peers with medium-brown skin as less desirable than their counterparts with either lighter or darker skin.

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Skin color, the shade of skin with which an individual has been genetically endowed, has proved to be one of the most sensitive facets of life faced by many African Americans (Helms & Cook, 1999; Robinson & Howard-Hamilton, 2000). For example, many of these individuals have faced countless attacks from other African Americans because of differences in skin color. Discrimination based on skin color is firmly rooted in slavery, when the naturally dark pigmented color of African American skin became lightened as a result of miscegenation. Since slavery, African Americans have experienced ostracism, neglect, assault, and slander perpetuated by European Americans as well as by other African Americans on the basis of skin color. As a result, many African Americans have longed for the lighter complexion that has continually been rewarded in American society. This phenomenon, however, has been mediated by racial identity development as an important factor in self-perception. In addition, this trend is not exclusive to adults, because African American adolescents display this same affinity for lighter skin (Anderson & Cromwell, 1977; Robinson & Ward, 1995).

Little research has been completed on skin color and African American young adults (McKenry, Everett, Ramseur, & Carter, 1989; Robinson & Ward, 1995). Furthermore, little is known about their self-perception of skin color and its relation to their perception of peers with similar or contrasting skin colors; what is known is grounded in several studies. For example, in one study of African American adolescents, Robinson and Ward found that students who rated themselves as darker or lighter had lower levels of satisfaction with their skin color than did students who considered themselves to fall between the light and dark categories. The preference to not be at either end of the skin color continuum is a resounding reality (Bates, 1994), yet if given a choice, preference veers toward the lighter end of the continuum (Bond & Cash, 1992; Hall, 1995; Harvey, 1995; Robinson & Ward, 1995). Although research has shown that both sexes express the preference for lighter skin, women are perceived to be rated more favorably when their skin is lighter (Bond & Cash, 1992; Robinson & Ward, 1995). Given this propensity toward lightness, the dark-complexioned African American woman may be faced with a reality she cannot alter (Perkins, 1996; Wade, 1996). She is left to ponder only what could be, unable to seek out what is. With little research conducted about African American teenagers on this topic, the question of how skin color influences the determination of beauty and female identity is a difficult one to answer.

Boyd (1993) spoke to the "if only" (p. 41) dance that women play. Women ask themselves how different things could be "if only" and fill in the blank with sometimes impossible hopes and dreams. The consistent message sent to African American girls and women has been that they are more beautiful if their skin is lighter. This evokes the question of how many African American young women have danced this same dance, asking themselves how different life could be if only they were lighter or, for some, if they were darker. Do African American young women still buy into the belief that they are not fine just as they are? Do African American young women curse their skin color, wishing they were endowed with a different shade? Such questions are addressed in our study, in which we examine the interplay of individuals' skin color and their perceptions of themselves and their peers representing varying shades of brown. …

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