Rogette Harris

Rogette Harris has been following American politics from a young age. As a teenager, she became involved with civil rights issues and became

Feb 27, 2021
Published on: pennlive
2 min read

By Rogette Harris

It is the end February and a lot happened in the shortest month of the year. Former President Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate, Valentine’s Day, the continued distribution issues of the COVID-19 vaccine, etc. Black History Month is ending!

For those of us who are Black, every day is a celebration, but February is when others pay attention to us more than usual. Although wage, education criminal justice disparities and racism in general is often discussed, one topic often left out is colorism.

Colorism is discrimination based on skin color – not race. Human beings are visual, and skin color is the most noticeable criterion in determining how a person will be assessed. In the United States, because of deeply entrenched racism, we already know that dark skin is demonized, and light skin wins the prize. And that occurs precisely because this country was built on principles of racism. If racism didn’t exist, a conversation about variable skin hues would be a conversation about aesthetics.

Like most Black families, I grew up in a multi-hued family. Our home was a place where Blackness was always celebrated. My mom, who is light-skinned was keenly aware, as the mother of a brown-skinned girl, how the world would treat me, regardless of my talents, intellect, or personality.

Skin color was never an issue for me until grade school. A girl whom I will call Emma for this article was a light-skinned Black girl and made fun of my brown skin as if it was a defect. It gave me my first real life experience of colorism.

Regardless of skin tone we are all Black right? Growing up, I noticed on TV, that the love interest was almost always a white or light-skinned woman – even in Black shows. Women my color or darker were shown to be obnoxious, too forward, too loud and angry.

Of course, there are exceptions, but it is a sad and sobering fact to realize that in society, a person’s skin color – something none of us can control can determine a person’s desirability, who is considered is attractive and deserving of romance.

I have experienced this myself, and due to these life experiences, I decided to research more about colorism. What I found was shocking. For instance, the sociological association found that dark-skinned women are less likely to be married than lighter-skinned women.

However, colorism shows up in even harsher ways: the difference in pay rates between darker-skinned and lighter-skinned men mirrors the differences in pay between whites and blacks. The Social Science Journal shows that darker-skinned women are given longer prison sentences. This discrimination starts young – if you are a dark-skinned girl, you are three times more likely to be suspended from school than your light skinned peers.

Colorism is experienced all around the world, including Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Skin bleaching cream for example is sold in majority-black or people of color countries throughout the world. The U.S. continues to diversify every day; therefore, our brand of colorism is both homegrown and imported. And make no mistake, white Americans are just as “colorist” as their brown brothers and sisters.

Research studies continue to show that skin tone and other racial features play powerful roles in who gets ahead and who does not. These factors regularly determine who gets hired, who gets convicted and even who gets elected. We cannot forget about the perceptions and prejudices within the Black community – how we treat each other, our own internalized white supremacy.

When my mom was in high school at John Harris, she told me how she tried out for the main part of Maria from West Side Story. The teacher told her she wasn’t light enough and didn’t have the right hair. So, he chose a lighter-skinned student to play the part, but since my Mom sang better, he asked her if she would sing the songs behind the curtain. My Mom had the talent but not the right “look.”

She declined, but it’s another example of the terrorism of colorism that still plagues us even in today’s world. On the flip side, when my Mom was President of the Greater Harrisburg NAACP Branch, she had people tell her she was too light to be president!

Colorism started in slavery and has been denied since then. The term was coined in 1983. It is widely credited to Alice Walker, in her classic womanist text ‘In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens’. Before that, a common term used by black Americans was “colorstruck.”

I often talk about colorism with other women of color. We discuss how it affects our dating lives, how easily we continue to be underestimated, how often we are expected to work for free, be grateful, be humble, and the intense backlash that we each experience when we don’t act accordingly. Meaning, we don’t “know our place.”

I am not sure how we get free from the trap of colorism, but as with most things in life, I know it begins with being able to talk about it openly. If a problem isn’t acknowledged, it cannot be fixed. To have your life dictated by something you are not even allowed to name is a special kind of cruelty.

My Mom always taught me that there is one race, and that is the human race. We are more than our complexion.

Rogette Harris is a political analyst and chairwoman of the Dauphin County Democrats.

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