IN GENERAL, AMERICANS no longer pay much attention to the fact that some of us have light skin while others are somewhat darker. Most observers agree that we have made considerable progress in this regard since the 1960s. However, even though there has been some reluctance on the part of African-Americans to divulge their feelings on this subject candidly, shades of color are a pervasive concern within the black community.
How much importance do blacks put on differences in skin color? When assessing the attractiveness of the opposite sex, do black men place more importance on color than do black women? Is relative color now emphasized more or less than it used to be? Answers to these questions appear to be gaining some clarity.
Historically, mulattos usually fared better than did darker African-Americans. Lighter colored slaves were the ones most likely to be taught to read, receive preferential treatment, and be granted freedom. Following emancipation, lighter skin retained its correlation with elevated status. Black literature and song lyrics have a long tradition of referring to different shades of color, and most blacks are familiar with various terms used to identify these shades (quadroon, red-boned, high yellow, octoroon, etc.). Many black sororities routinely rejected candidates who were considered "too dark." For years, Ebony ran numerous advertisements for skin lighteners. Since the 1930s, there has been a steady stream of social science research on the relationship between the relative darkness of black youths and problems with self-esteem. It also is not unusual to hear older blacks recount tales of being belittled by lighter classmates in their segregated schools.
As the Negro Education Review reported in 2003, black male students at Livingston (N.C.) College, responding to an opinion survey conducted on campus, said they preferred women of their own shade. Another survey in the Journal of Negro Education reported that black college women say they do not accept a Eurocentric standard of beauty. Questionnaires concerning delicate personal matters, such as "Do you prefer members of the opposite sex who are lighter than you?" or "How do you measure your own attractiveness?" are notoriously unreliable. How respondents answer often has more to do with what is politically correct than with how they actually feel and, more importantly, how they behave. The researchers who conduct these studies of collegians do not hang around to observe with whom respondents usually interact, date, and marry, so it is likely that we may be getting an idealized and inaccurate picture from such surveys. Moreover, since political leaders and preachers continue to admonish black audiences to stop judging each other by skin color--pointing out that this long-standing tradition only serves to divide the African-American community and imploring their listeners to "Get over it"--there appears to be a considerable amount of color prejudice among blacks.
If so, what happened to the goals of the black identity movement (black consciousness, black is beautiful, black power, and black roots) of the late 1960s and early 1970s? Back then, black college campuses were a sea of Afros, dashikis, and African artifacts, symbolizing the importance of an African heritage and a shared identity. Proclamations that all African-Americans are brothers and sisters, regardless of what degree of European ancestry they might have, enthusiastically were received by most, or so it seemed at the time.
Young blacks today seldom express a strong identification with Africa but, rather, are inclined to express racial pride by their devotion to black performers (musicians, actors, and athletes). Distinctive clothing styles remain important in this regard, but these, too, have lost any reference to Africa. Speech patterns also seem to play a role in asserting racial identity. It is not unusual for light skinned black men to flaunt all of these symbolic markers, perhaps in a compensatory effort to "darken" themselves. …