“This Magazine Cover Started a Debate About a Type of Racism Some Don’t Know Exists”

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A painting by Kadir Nelson depicting a black family of three adults and one child seen posing for an unseen camera, standing in front of a house. The child is holding the American flag in his hands.]

The Ebony cover for February, featuring a picture of a black family, has spurred a conversation about race the magazine didn’t intend to start.

“After eight years of President Barack Obama, the anesthesia of liberalism has worn off, and many Black Americans are experiencing sharp pains in anticipation of what lies ahead,” wrote Ebony’s Kirsten West Savali. However, Robert Jones, Jr., the writer and creator of “Son of Baldwin,” an online community for social justice, tweeted about another racial issue on the magazine cover itself.

Jones tweeted that black women on magazine covers are “almost always depicted lighter than black men,” a reference to colorism, or prejudice against black people with darker skin tones, especially within the black community. ATTN: previously reported on the controversial face of pop black feminism being light skinned black women like Beyoncé. American beauty standards often focus on lighter skin black women, effectively cast as “prettier” than darker women. The tweet about the cover set off a debate about the prevalence of colorism and the need to address it:

(Below is the full Q & A not contained within the above article)

ATTN: Why did you want to highlight the different shades in this photo?

Son of Baldwin: I have noticed for many years, in just about every form of media, that if a black cisgender heterosexual couple is portrayed, nine times out of 10, the black woman is depicted as lighter than the corresponding black man. There are exceptions, of course. But the vast majority seem to fit this peculiar dynamic and I wanted to investigate/interrogate why that might be.

A: Is it more acceptable in regards to beauty standards to be a dark skinned man rather than a dark skinned woman? Why?

SoB: It is more acceptable to be a dark-skinned black man rather than a dark-skinned black woman. For some reason, perhaps tied to antebellum slavery, perhaps tied to even older notions of masculinity and femininity, darkness is associated with strength/masculinity/maleness/manhood. So while a dark-skinned black man is often stereotyped as super-criminal, he is simultaneously regarded as strong, manly, and desirable. However, a dark-skinned black woman is not only stereotyped as super-criminal, she is also regarded as un-womanly and undesirable — even by dark-skinned black men. Misogynoir compounds colorism in regard to dark-skinned black women.

A: Do you feel like there is enough attention and conversation paid to issues of colorism?

SoB: I feel like every time we try to discuss colorism, the emotional and psychological fragility of colorists derails every attempt at analysis and dialogue with false claims of “divisiveness.” Two demographics make it impossible to discuss this topic with any honesty or rigor:

1. Light-skinned black people who think any acknowledgment of light-skin privilege means that they don’t experience racism or intra-community discrimination. These same individuals experience a peculiar anxiety around their identities as black people and feel that admitting that light-skin privilege exists is akin to admitting that they aren’t “really black.” Additionally, they think about light-skin privilege in anecdotal terms, much in the same way that white people think about white privilege. They often say that they don’t experience light-skin privilege in their day-to-day lives, therefore it doesn’t exist. They seem to be in complete denial about the provable, structural function of light-skin privilege that goes far beyond individual experience.

2. Dark-skinned black men who are solely attracted to light-skinned black women or non-black women. In an attempt to justify their attractions to light-skinned black women and non-black women, or to deny how those attractions might be shaped by white supremacy, many dark-skinned black men will demand silence around the topic of colorism and rely on tired, superficial appeals to “preferences” as a justification for their discrimination against dark-skinned black women. Others will out and out call dark-skinned black women “ugly” on the very basis of their dark skin. One wonders if these dark-skinned black men are in possession of mirrors.

Neither of these groups seem interested in how closely they resemble white supremacists in their thinking, silencing tactics, and appeals to “move on” and “not see color.” So no, I don’t think we give enough attention to this topic, which is the primary reason colorism remains so pervasive and so “normal” as to almost go undetected.

A: Do you feel like colorism has ties to slavery and colonialism?

SoB: Absolutely. In the United States, and perhaps globally, white people — through imperialism, colonialism, war, and genocide — have become the standard for everything from philosophy to politics to religion to governance to education to beauty. The perspective of many of those who have been conquered is precisely as James Baldwin once put: “It becomes clear — for some — that the more closely one resembles the invader, the more comfortable one’s life may become.” To attain this more comfortable life, some of us have, consciously and subconsciously, made it our mission to resemble white people in any way available to us, whether it’s ascribing to their beliefs, customs, and rituals, or, more drastically, if it’s erasing our own physical characteristics and replacing them with theirs. For example, some of us are bleaching our skin, at great risk to our health, to be lighter. And as sad as this seems, the people doing it see it as being practical, as elevating themselves and their physical appearance. That’s how successful white supremacy has been, and it brings to mind yet another Baldwin quote: “You know, it’s not the world that was my oppressor, because what the world does to you, if the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough, you begin to do to yourself.”