UNF Professor JeffriAnne Wilder Explores the Impact of Skin Tone on the Everyday Lives of African-American Women; THE 'COLORISM' PARADOX

By Thompson, Rhema | The Florida Times Union, January 18, 2016 | Go to article overview

UNF Professor JeffriAnne Wilder Explores the Impact of Skin Tone on the Everyday Lives of African-American Women; THE 'COLORISM' PARADOX


Thompson, Rhema, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Rhema Thompson

JeffriAnne Wilder always knew African-Americans came in many shades. She saw it in her own family, from her light-skinned older sister to her two dark-skinned brothers. Her complexion fell somewhere in the middle.

"I saw the variation at home, but I didn't place any value on it," she recalled.

Around age 10 that began to change. She noticed the light-skinned girls in her predominantly black Cleveland elementary class seemed to be treated differently. Other students seemed enamored by their creamy complexions and wavy hair.

Decades later, that sentiment hit closer to home when she became pregnant with her daughter.

"I had lots of people just assume because my ex-husband is biracial and light-skinned with green eyes that she was going to be light-skinned, too," she said. " 'Oh, you're going to have the prettiest daughter. She's going to be so pretty. She's going to be light and blah, blah, blah,' and I remember telling people 'What happens if she's not light-skinned? What if she ends up like me?' "

Now, an associate sociology professor at the University of North Florida and director of the school's new Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations, Wilder is sharing her observations and the experiences of 66 other black women in her first published book "Color Stories."

The book, released late last year, looks at the ways preference toward certain shades of skin within the black community impacts the lives of young black women on a daily basis. It's a phenomenon known among race scholars as "colorism," and it's a timely topic in the age of the "Black Lives Matter" movement, Wilder said.

At a time when issues of race have reached a fever pitch in America, Wilder said issues of skin tone are bubbling just below the surface.

"Racism is a focus, now ... but people don't recognize that the darker your skin tone is, the more likely you are, whether you're a man or a woman, to have a longer sentence in jail, the more likely you are to be racially profiled," she said.

Through a series of focus group discussions with black women between the ages of 18 and 45 from April 2005 to October 2007, Wilder set out to find out how black women today experience colorism, exploring its impact on various aspects of life from family interactions to intimate relationships as well as the history behind it.

"The central argument of my research is that (skin) color matters for black women in the same way that race, class and gender matters," she writes.

The preference for lighter hues and finer, longer hair has roots in American slavery and a common practice among white slave-owners of giving darker-skinned slaves more labor intensive work, while often tasking their lighter-skinned counterparts with less strenuous house chores, according to Wilder. …

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