Light or dark, black women in New Orleans have felt mistreated: Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, | The Times-Picayune
By Jarvis DeBerry, | The Times-Picayune   on June 29, 2013 at 10:45 AM, updated June 29, 2013  at 10:47 AM
Yaba Blay, a professor of Africana studies at Drexel University who was born in New Orleans, said Wednesday that her rejection by light-skinned people in New Orleans made her resentful of them. When I asked for your responses to the Bill Duke documentary “Dark Girls” and the issue of colorism in general, Blay’s experience was confirmed.  Light-skinned women from New Orleans reported being judged and dismissed by their darker peers. Those darker women reported being rejected by those lighter women.
Blay said that one consequence of having dark skin is never having her racial identity or authenticity questioned. She is the artistic director a project called (1)drop that compiles stories of people who embrace their blackness even if their appearance causes other people to question it.
Few topics, if any, have generated more responses than discussion on colorism has.  Some women who responded were more comfortable with their names being used than others. What follows is a sampling of the responses. They have been edited for grammar, clarity and length.
Anonymous: I am a fair-skinned black woman, born and raised in New Orleans who caught hell as a child because I was rejected by both blacks and whites. Blacks get angry with us “Creoles” thinking we are being uppity or snooty; but the facts, as I experienced them, are that black girls did not want to play with me and tormented me with names like “white girl,” “passe blanc,” “high yellow,” and on and on. Whites, on the other hand, were fine with me – until they realized I was black.

“Dark Girls,” a Bill Duke documentary about color prejudices within the black community recently aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network

In 1963, I was enrolled in a predominantly white kindergarten. I was the only African-American in my class. Having light skin and long, straight hair, I blended right in – until someone found out I was black. While walking through the hallway with my mom I heard the word “nigger” for the first time when a white mom, holding the hand of her blond-haired child, whispered something to her daughter. The daughter exclaimed, “But she can’t be a nigger. Her hair is longer than mine!”
When my parents put me in an all black elementary school for 2nd grade, I caught hell. I was a quiet, reserved child, and the tormenting I received from the black girls was miserable. As a result, I spent every recess in the school’s library reading.
I have not yet watched the documentary. I did, however, look at the clip you attached to the article. I find it interesting that the ladies had such low self-esteem because they were dark, and yet, in my younger days, I felt the same way because I was light! They beat up on me because of their own insecurities over being dark!
Kimberly Clark: I am a light skinned woman. To the naked eye I look biracial, maybe Hispanic. But I’m a black woman. I have Creole in my ancestry. Even though dark-skinned women get the short end of the stick at times, so do we light-skinned women. I really do feel bad for darker-toned women. I’ve dated men who said they preferred light-skinned women. I got teased a lot by black kids when I was young. I’ve heard everything from “white girl, albino, snow white…” It’s sad how blacks abuse each other (killing each other, colorism, etc) but then again that’s what we’ve been taught since our ancestors were brought here.
Anonymous: Here’s a story from the summer of 2007, as best I can recall: My daughter – blonde, blue eyes, as white as can be – had just graduated from high school and had several good friends who were of darker complexion than she. One particularly dark girl invited my daughter to a day of shopping on the West Bank. When my daughter returned home, I asked her – as a mother would do – whether she had a good time. Her response was that yes, she and her friend had a good time, but she didn’t like shopping on the West Bank, because the clerks in all the stores kept following them around. I asked whether her friend had been annoyed by that, and she said that her friend didn’t see anything amiss.
The conclusion was obvious and a real life lesson for my daughter: It wasn’t the West Bank, it was the friend. Or rather it wasn’t the friend, it was how the store clerks treated the friend. Dark Girl, indeed.
Sade Daniels: I am not from New Orleans. However, my grandmother is. She was the darkest girl out of her siblings and was tormented for it. She was consistently verbally and physically abused more than her sisters. The way in which she was raised was passed down to her daughters and lastly, to us.
I was in my grandmother’s care until I was 13 and placed in foster care. Through my years with her, it was embedded in me that I wasn’t good enough because of my dark pigmentation. I was called a variety of names from shadow and tar baby to burnt toast. I remember scrubbing myself to the point of bleeding, trying to make the darkness go away.
Now, I’m a 25-year-old woman, with a bachelor of social work degree, currently working with adolescent-aged foster youth in California and sexually exploited minors. I’m an independent woman with a decent career; yet I’ve never been able to fully rid myself of the insults and pain inflicted upon me by blood relatives, in foster care, my community, and society as a whole. My skin has always been considered a hindrance, and even as an adult, with a more stable sense of self, I’m still often reminded of the shame and inferiority often attributed to this skin.
I’m learning though.
ShaKeta Berrie: I did watch “Dark Girls” last night, and I wept for my sisters all over the world. I can never say I will understand the struggle of the dark-skinned woman, like the European-American will never fully understand what it means to be black. I have been thinking about my own experience as a lighter skinned woman of color, and I realized this colorism effects us all negatively.
I have two beautiful daughters. Both their father and I are multiracial and self identify as black only. In the past, I have caught grown women looking at my oldest daughter (who is 12 and stands 5’5) with a look of disgust. They don’t know her so I can only attribute their reaction to her light skin and/or her grey eyes. She tells me girls at her school say things to her such as “You ain’t black,” and “Don’t think you cute cause you light-skinned with good hair.” She is being treated poorly for her looks. Something she has absolutely no control over. I understand that these young girls are deflecting their own poor self-image onto the one they want to be like. WHY?! This is the question. Why, as mothers, do women say, “I just hope she don’t come out black (like her father)?” or “She is so cute for a dark-skinned girl?”
I also remember more than one conversation with black men and women about my reasons for dating outside my race. I have been accused of only wanting “light bright” babies. One friend from Africa told me that he knew I would never give him a chance because he was too black. It wasn’t the fact that we were different spiritually and had different goals and education, but that he was too dark. Oh, okay. The women come at me in an accusatory manner like NOT having darker skinned children is my sole reason for choosing whom I choose to love. This is the furthest thing from my mind. In fact, I have recently become engaged to a darker (than me) man and found myself hoping our children will be darker so people might get off me. Then I thought about how ridiculous that is and have come to my senses.
This issue will fade as others have. I did like the part of the film where the woman explained that we haven’t been out of slavery and treated equally very long when you compare it to the amount of time we were enslaved. There are lasting scars that will take time to heal. How often do you see the person who inflicted a wound help heal it? Never. We are the only ones who can change the perceptions. We are the ones who must stop it.
Christina LeBlanc Butler: I am a 30-year-old female born and raised in New Orleans until about a year post Katrina. My mother’s side is Creole, and my father is Italian and black. My three siblings and I are all very light in complexion and have been told we generally don’t have features that are typical of “being black.” Primarily on my mother’s side, we were raised with an appreciation and constant reminder of our history and its uniqueness. But with that was an underlying tone that anything more “ethnic,” as my grandparents would put it, was less attractive and less desirable. From hairstyles to fashion choices to the guys I tried to date, I was criticized and interrogated.
On the other side of it, especially in high school at Warren Easton and later in college, I was often stereotyped and teased because it was assumed that I was stuck up and snobby because of my skin.
When I first brought my future husband home (he is significantly darker than me) to meet my grandparents, they asked me ridiculous questions regarding his background and education. When it was a platonic male friend of similar complexion and features, they did everything they could to try to push us together, never questioning his personality or if he was even a decent guy!
It’s sad to see and even sadder to say I see it still with my 5-year-old daughter who is a beautiful milk chocolate version of her father and yet is telling me she wants to look more like me or her other (white) friends. We moved to Lafayette before she was born, but regardless of where we are, I want to get away from the stereotype I grew up with that lighter is better. I am very proud of my Creole and Italian heritage and will try to carry that history onto my kids. However, I would prefer if it didn’t come with the price of believing one side is better than the other for any reason.
Nicole Lee: I was born and raised in New Orleans, and this subject actually shaped my life. My mom often told me she could not pass the brown paper bag test and, therefore, my father’s family did not approve of her and would not allow them to get married. They were teenagers and sought approval to be together. My father’s family was “light skinned” and my mom’s family was a mixture of both. My father was never a part of my life, and I often wonder if my mom had been lighter if I would have been blessed with both parents. This subject is too real, and only after leaving to go away to college did I realize how different the world was from New Orleans on the topic of color within the African-American community.
Loretta Williams: I grew up being called high yellow, and that hurt too. Was even teased by relatives about my fair complexion. Many more stories and experiences.
Belinda Laws: I am a beautiful dark skinned woman who has been subjected to this New Orleans stereotype all my life. Since I have always been confident in who I am, I cannot say that my skin color has been an issue for me. However, my sister has faced this stigma in dealing with her identity. She has felt inferior to light-skinned girls and has always felt that she must overcompensate in other areas to get attention. My thought on this matter has always been to accept me as I am, and if you believe beauty comes in skin color, I choose not to have you in my existence. It is truly sad that our society is filled with so much self-hate that we cannot see the beauty in ourselves. Dark skin, light skin and all shades in between, we are all beautiful “colored” people.
Crystal Gaither: The negative feelings related to having dark skin is an issue I have had to deal with my entire life. It is a pain I carry with me daily. As a mother of two toddler girls, my husband and I also witnessed the ‘ear inspection’ done by the elders of both families. While I will always think they are beautiful and perfect, I know many people will not. Even now, I can clearly remember the first and last names and faces of the children in 2nd grade, 4th grade, 8th grade, and so on, who said my skin was too black, my hair was nappy, my nose too big. I don’t want them to experience that, but I know they will. Sadness has turned to fear as I watch my children grow because I know I will spend so much time trying to redefine beauty for my daughters.
I have known women who say they don’t care what others think about their dark skin. Yet they seem defensive, not confident and assertive. These same women, like myself, avoid spending lots of time in the sun because they don’t want to risk getting an extra shade darker. And, like me, they fret over wearing colors (clothing, makeup, etc) that will enhance the dark hue of their skin.
Kim Evans Rugon: I watched “Dark Girls” on Tuesday and was appalled by the treatment of darker-skinned women. I think all women are beautiful regardless of their skin color. However, I was equally appalled by the way light-skinned people were portrayed. I am very light, and for many years of my life I was ridiculed by the color of my skin. I was picked on, “jumped” while walking home from school because of the color of my skin. I was called white girl, honky all sorts of hurtful names as a child because of the color of my skin. I did not treat anyone any differently because they looked different from me. I love all people as some of my dearest friends are darker than I and I love them the same. As I grew into my adult life the ridiculing lightened, but I was still stigmatized as thinking I was better than other people because I was fair skinned. However, my son has experienced the ridicule because people ask him is his mom a white woman. (My son is darker than I because I married a darker man). When he was in high school he would get in to disagreements defending me and the color of my skin. I would tell him not to fight because you know your momma is not white–don’t risk being put out of St. Augustine High School because people talk about the color of my skin.
I did not ask to be this color; however, this is the color God decided he wanted me to be. So as a result I lifted myself up. I did not focus on the hurtful stuff that was being said about me. I taught my son to treat everyone the same and to hold his head high and be proud of our history. I told him the ridicule was a form of ignorance because people really just did not know the history of skin color. You see, I am not light by accident. I am light because somewhere down the line the master raped my ancestors, and as a result I have to carry this curse throughout my life. You see, I could relate to the darker girls wanting to be light because I would cry and ask God to make me darker. I just hated the color of my skin. I would lay out in the sun to get tanned (too hot in New Orleans for that). But as time went on I am cool with who I am! I love who I am, and I am proud of where I come from. It took me all of 51 years to realize I am still a beautiful black woman despite the color of my skin.
Recently, I had my first granddaughter, and, lo and behold, she is light-skinned with blue eyes and red hair, and no her mom is not a white woman. But thanks to the strength of my genes, my grandbaby will be cursed too because of the color of her skin and eyes. But my son and I are better equipped to teach her that it is okay to be who you are–I set the pathway for her to be a strong black woman!!! I am a proud African-American sister!!!
Tyra Hamilton: A native New Orleanian, I have resided in Houston, TX for 12 years. And somehow I thought when I headed west on I-10 those years ago I was finally bidding farewell to the disease of “colorism” that so plagued the African-American community in my beloved city. Silly me!
Nine years ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl at Texas Woman’s Hospital. Several of my family members made the 5-hour trip from New Orleans to welcome her. When each arrived I remember directing them to the nursery and explaining she would not easily be missed since she was the only “black” baby there at the time. I was referring to her race while others, including a few nurses, thought I meant her skin color. One older African-American nurse would say, “She is the cutest chocolate baby”! And there it began. If I had a dollar for every time someone called her “chocolate” or “dark chocolate”, she would be set for college. I guess by combining the words “dark” and “chocolate”, many thought the negative implication would taste sweeter and not cut as deep.
Being a lighter brown (caramel) skinned complexion, I wasn’t prepared for the challenges my daughter would face so early in her young life. While her story was not my story it became my burden and my heartache. When she often came home from school (as early as pre-school) upset because some kid called her ugly names associated with her dark skin tone, I would remind her just how beautiful she was and tell her to ignore such ignorant behavior.
This past May at the dinner table one night my daughter said something that shook me to the core. She said without batting an eye, “I’m proud to be an African American. I also like being an African American. But it’s hard being black because people talk about my skin color every day.”
In that moment, I felt helpless as a parent. I couldn’t fight her battles in the classroom or on the playground. I couldn’t shield her from the ugly words thrown at her – not by her blue-eyed, blonde counterparts but by African-Americans and Latinos.
I dried my tears and went on with the business of protecting my child the best way I knew how. It is my daily work to erase the ugly self-images painted on my daughter by someone else’s pen. My goal in helping her is three-fold.
1. Educate her on the root cause and long history of colorism in America.
2. Empower her to be a child of God who is blessed and talented beyond measure.
3. Evoke constant images of dark-skinned African American Women that are smart, talented and at the top of their game.
I’m sure this was old news to many of us but I appreciate OWN for airing the documentary “Dark Girls.” I also know that we have talked enough and that it’s time for action.
Crystal J: When I read how people inspect the ears of newborns to see what they will eventually look like “color” wise, I Iaughed and almost cried. I’ve done the same, and when reading it, I thought, wow, I’m a dark-skinned woman, and I know how it feels to live this life, but yet, I’m guilty of doing the same. (It’s like saying) that being dark skinned is a curse, though, sometimes it feels that way. I’ve tried to get around this issue and act like it wasn’t an issue in my life. IT IS!
As a child I was always the darkest in any setting I was in, but relied heavily on the fact that I wasn’t “dark and ashy,” as the children would say. Thankful, that at least, if I had to be dark-skinned in this world, I wasn’t “ashy,” whatever that means. I find myself, even now, being someone I’m not, for acceptance. I felt that no one could accept me on my looks alone, so let me be someone else, be the funny girl, the mean girl, the don’t-care-about-anything girl. Well, the bad girl, always seemed to be number one followed by the funny/class clown girl. The mean girl role was always the easiest because, of course, all dark-skinned girls from New Orleans, are BAD! And for some reason, people feared me, just because I was dark skinned. The funny thing is, I’m a teddy bear, very nice, sweet, compassionate, forgiving, understanding, the whole 9. Only thing is, no one knows this about me, and I’ve found myself at 32 with a handful of friends because I’ve seemed to run everyone off with my don’t-get-close-to-me attitude. All because I hated/hate the person I was/am, because of the way I look.
Dee Charles: I remember vividly growing up in New Orleans having the older women in my family tell me “child, get out of that sun before you get too dark” while some of my other cousins were allowed to play uninterrupted. I didn’t understand. What did getting too dark mean? I was about to find out.
It was the first day of school. Our first-grade teacher and the teacher’s aides had given us our seating assignments. Our names were written on construction paper and taped to our desks. I was given “the” prized spot right next to our teacher. The teacher, a petite, dark complexioned woman, smelled pleasantly of peppermint and would often stop by my desk, gently touch both my shoulders and softly ask if I was doing OK. I remember feeling very special, very cared for, until…
“Students, we have a new student.” Heads turned in unison toward the door. The room fell silent as the teacher and both assistants carefully ushered Evangeline into the classroom, as if she were antique porcelain. There stood a skinny little girl with beautiful doe eyes black as coal. Two long, silken ponytails braided down to her waist stood perfectly still against her skin the color of milk. You could almost hear the class confirm with their deafening silence, “oooh, look how pretty.” I remember being given the impression that we should somehow treat Evangeline special, give her first preference, hold her of more value than the rest. “Rise class and greet our new student”, the teacher instructed us. Feeling something amiss, I rose slowly and started to feel some kind of way about all the attention she was getting.
Something prompted me to survey the room. Up until then, I was not immediately aware that I had been, for the most part, the lightest colored girl in the class. I was what some might call paper bag light. But Evangeline, she was the type of light that would never have to take a paper-bag test. She was the type of light they called Creole, bright skinned, passe’ blanc. Evangeline, she could play in the sun.
. It wasn’t long before the discussion about where she should sit came up. I really should have seen this coming, but I still managed to be shocked when I was moved unceremoniously to a makeshift workspace in the rear of the classroom that the teaching assistant was kind enough to share with me.
I could see Evangeline sitting at that desk, next to the teacher, ponytails blowing carelessly in the air by the oscillating fan. As the teacher leaned over Evangeline to whisper what I assume was “Are you OK?” I received my first lesson in colorism. That is, the lighter you are, the better treatment you would get.
That was the lesson, though crude, my dear aunts were trying to teach me. Though it was never practiced in my home at this generational level, I’m sure they carried scars from their own childhood. In their way they were trying to help me. They didn’t want the sun to “turn” me past that fragile paper brown stage because they knew that skin color can be used as a type of currency for your advancement, especially in this color-struck city.

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