"Dear Faye. I know you'll be graduating from school soon. But just because you'll have a college degree won't mean that you're better than your mother."
I was sitting in my dormitory room at Howard University, on the verge of becoming the first college graduate in my grandmother's family, but as I read those words, my heart sank. How could my grandmother--the person I was closest to in my whole family--doubt me? How could she believe I would ever think I was better than my mother? My grandmother was telling me, "Don't get so big that you forget where you came from and who helped get you there." This core message had been drilled into me, as it had in to so many other African Americans who rose in class through education. We were viewed suspiciously, at risk for becoming too big for our britches, proud, arrogant and disdainful of those we "left behind." After I read my grandmother's letter, I worried about how other family members perceived me. I resolved then and there not to talk "white" with my family. I was mortally afraid someone would accuse me of being uppity.
As I strained to imagine on what evidence my grandmother might have built her fears that I would snub my mother, I was hit with a terrible realization. In our family, going back for generations, profound differences did exist in how we treated one another, but it was based on skin tone. My dark-skinned grandmother was physically and verbally abused by the lighter members of her family, and had been taught to believe that she deserved such treatment because she was "ugly." It had shaped my grandmother's whole life, from how she felt about herself to how she felt about, and treated, her own daughters. Her mother had also been the dark one growing up, and had been similarly mistreated. My own mother, while not abused, had absorbed the message that she was "ugly" because she was the darkest in the family. It had been right in front of me my whole life, but I never put words to it until then. My grandmother's worry was not just that I would reject my mother--and, of course, her--because I had entered into a new class as a college graduate, but because my skin was a shade lighter than my mother's and her own.
Internal family racism is a topic that often renders me inarticulate. I choke on my own sadness and pain at the terrible burden my people still carry--and the truth that we continue to enslave ourselves with this multigenerational legacy that is supported by racist ideals of beauty and worth in the larger world. This issue is harder to talk about than any other family issue for African Americans because the hierarchy of skin tone in our families evokes a mix of love, pride, disappointment and hope. Since slave days, light skin has always meant extra privileges, which could mean the difference between survival and death. A mulatto or light-skinned African slave was chosen to work in the house or kitchen instead of being sentenced to the exhausting labor of the fields. Light-skinned blacks held on to their privilege because it meant better food and less torment from overseers. Even today, light skin in our families is equated with promise and potential. The persistent, racist message about the inferiority of black intelligence has led to teachers (white and black) who often favor lighter-skinned black children, seeing them as inherently more intelligent and worthy of attention. In my family, as in every single African American family I have ever known, including those I have treated in therapy, skin tone has become our own, internal compass of self-worth and worthiness in others--as well as resentment and suspicion ("Is he trying to pass? Does she think she's better than I am because she's got lighter skin than I have?").
We ended up believing what the white oppressors told us: lighter is more beautiful, lighter is smarter, lighter is more desirable, lighter is more successful, lighter is the ticket out of poverty. …