It’s high time we confront the source
Inthe land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, and in a country that rejects blackness, whiteness, or lightness, reigns supreme. Why have most Americans heard of Rosa Parks’s refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, a decision that sparked a successful boycott of racially segregated public transportation in 1955, but not Claudette Colvin, a 15-year-old pregnant Black teenager who refused to give up her seat nine months earlier? While many factors could have contributed, I would argue that one of the reasons is colorism, and another is respectability politics. If Colvin had a fairer complexion and had not been pregnant at the time of her protest, she would likely have become the face of the movement. In an award-winning book, Phillip Hoose quoted Colvin as saying that Rosa Parks had the “right hair and the right look.” She also added that “her skin texturewas the kind people associate with the middle class” and “she fit that profile.”
“She fit the profile,” in this case, meant that Rosa Parks had a lighter and, therefore, more marketable complexion than Colvin. Colorism, a form of discrimination based on the color of someone’s skin, wouldn’t be so prevalent if American society didn’t place such a high value on whiteness.What Colvin hinted at was this invisible yet powerful color line. While white supremacy is centered around this racist idea that White people are superior to Black people and other racial outgroups, colorism is driven by proximity to whiteness. When whiteness is treated like a gold standard, then being close to that standard, a sort of silver standard is thereby created. This is why some Black women and men who could pass for white were often afforded opportunities and privileges deprived of brown and dark-skinned Black people. As I wrote in ZORA, “We wouldn’t have a world where ‘passing’ occurred if there were no incentives associated with ‘Whiteness.” Colorism isn’t hatred in a vacuum.
While anti-Black racism exploits the power disparity between White and Black people, colorism exploits the power disparity between light-skinned and dark-skinned Black people. As Taylor W. Hargrove, a sociologist, wrote in her…