The SKIN Game: Oprah, "Colorism" and The Mishandling of Black Women's Pain By Black Elites by Nicole Anderson Cobb, PhD
It took me days to finally get up the nerve to watch Oprah’s Lif Class on “Colorism: The Secret Shame”. According to the discussion and OWN website, "colorism is defined as the condition by which people of color discriminate against one another. It often boils down to the belief that the lighter your skin tone, the prettier you are, smarter you are, more successful you are and the easier you have it”. (http://www.oprah.com/oprahs-lifeclass/Oprahs-Lifeclass-Notes-Colorism). I knew it would DEEPLY aggravate me--- so I decided to hold off until I could better absorb the debate.
The program unfolded innocently enough with an overview of the term “colorism”, expert testimonials on the historical roots of “colorism” and women discussing their life experiences based on their complexions. Oprah Winfrey and Iyanla Vanzant---the convening hosts--- then went on to discuss why it is so difficult to discuss and reflected on the silence around the issue. Iyanla offered what she labeled the “most socially acceptable answer” associating it with shame, discomfort with the subject matter or the fact that colorism is so deeply ingrained in us that we aren’t fully aware or are not willing to acknowledge our participation in it.
Ok, so I was still in the game at that point.
However, I felt my impatience begin to rise after an exchange between Oprah and Iyanla resulting in them both failing their on-camera “paper bag test” and finding themselves on the “dark side” of the complexion spectrum.
The conversation continued:
They used to do this in clubs, didn’t they?
I don’t want to say which ones, but they did do it because if you were lighter than that (a paper bag) you had to go into one sorority. And if you were darker than that (a paper bag) you had to go into another sorority.
(Grimacing in the camera)
I’m not gon’ call no names, though. I’m not gon’ call no names.
Ohhhhhhhhh, noooooooooo we not gon’ go THERE today…don’t go THERE today.
And that is when I felt my strength leave my body:
IF YOU WON'T GO "THERE" TODAY, WHEN EXACTLY WILL YOU GO "THERE???
IF TWO OF THE MOST POWERFUL WOMEN ON TELEVISION CANNOT BRING THEMSELVES TO MORE SPECIFICALLY EXPLAIN THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COLORISM AND BLACK WOMEN’S SORORITIES OUT LOUD; OR ARE UNWILLING TO EXPLAIN IN FULL WHY THEY DON’T WANT TO DISCUSS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN BLACK WOMEN’S SORORITIES AND COLORISM, WHAT IS THE POINT OF GOING ANY FURTHER WITH THE PROGRAM?
Ironically during the month of January as we are in the midst of many African America women celebrating The Founder’s Days of several African American sororities, it would have been quite timely TO ACTUALLY HAVE THE SORORITY CONVERSATION in order to reflect on the role of racism, gender conflict and oppression between White women and women of color, colorism, classism, "hair"ism, Eurocentrism as these issues impacted members of these organization historically and contemporarily. No, this is not the only context where the conversation must occur, but it is a vital one from which to have the conversation.
More to the point, I have just run out of patience with the Black elite past time of attacking INDIVIDUAL African American self-loathing WITHOUT ADDRESSING THE INSTITUTIONS that have real skin in the game and that benefit profoundly from such self-hatred.
One of the problematic features of this LifeClass was the hosts' decisions to select women to stand up, look into one another’s faces and use each other as foils by which to re-injure one another with the old, festering light-skinned/dark-skinned wounds of the past. Not only did I not find this particularly useful, but why weren’t Oprah or Iyanla willing to move from the individual impacts of colorism to a discussion of the ECONOMIC DIMENSIONS OF COLORISM---and the industries that have built amazing wealth by diminishing Black women’s self-esteem most notably:
---Wigs, weave and hair extensions producers
---Colored contact lens producers
---Hair straightening/hair relaxing products and tools
..Among other products and industries…
Also, it is not women alone who bear the burden of colorism. This LifeClass ignores male involvement (i.e. men of all races) in colorist AS VICTIMS of it and AS PERPETUATORS of it in their personal and professional lives. It also would have been profoundly useful to have male media makers , male entertainers and male executives participate in this conversation about how they perpetuate colorism by promoting Eurocentric beauty standards in their hiring practices for print advertisements, commercials, television, video, film and stage roles of all kinds.
But alas…there was no room for these perspectives in the discussion. It was more important for women to re-inflict their pain on one another rather than engage with the purveyors of colorism in the broader marketplace and the media landscape(s).
Oprah and Iyanla’s discussion also completely ignored the economic costs of colorism for families when the assaults against our hair, our skin color, our features, our bodies impact our everyday lives in the public sphere.
Colorism again becomes an ECONOMIC ISSUE when our children are harassed at school and threatened with expulsion because the school administration determines natural hair styles are “menacing”, “distracting”, “too trendy” or “threatening” to the school environment; or when adult women are threatened with being fired from their jobs or passed over for hiring or promotion because they choose to wear their hair in natural hair styles or more Afrocentric styles.
This means that parents (or adult workers) must now take time off work or school, spend time meeting with school or workplace officials about such matters, change schools or jobs, LOSE INCOME, subject themselves to another level of media scrutiny and hire lawyers if they choose to resist the withering, self-destructive impacts of colorism and racism inflicted upon them and their households. So this issue is beyond vanity and self-esteem alone, but strikes at the heart of our economic lives in this country.
However, the most difficult aspect of the show for me was the “intervention” that they tried to stage with a young dark-skinned African American woman name Tineah who was repeatedly coerced by Oprah, Iyanla and guests to “believvvvvvvvvvve that she was beautiful, gorgeous and stunning.” However--- to their utter disbelief despite all of arm-twisting and badgering--- the young woman STILL wasn’t able to see herself differently…and was honest enough to admit it.
Clearly this young woman grappled with this issue for years…but somehow Oprah, Iyanla and the magic of television was supposed to fix this in 48 minutes? Surely, the hosts know better than this?!
Inevitably though, the young woman was hammered enough in the discussion---to the point that she was willing to admit that her takeaway from hearing the perspectives of women in the room is that “…everybody goes through something….”
With that, Oprah and Iyanla claimed victory for that revelation and closed the show with high-fives, fist-pumping and feeling good about all that had transpired.
The irony of the statement is that there were takeaways, but the critically important takeaways weren’t just for Tineah---this brave, dark-skinned young woman struggling with her own self-esteem.
WE AS ADULTS---i.e. parents, teachers, coaches, religious school staff, social group leaders, neighborhood elders, extended family, etc.,.--- SHOULD HAVE BEEN CHALLENGED BY OPRAH AND IYANLA to search ourselves, examine OUR behaviors, language, habits and practices in regard to how we treat children of all races, hues, sizes, complexions and hair types. Colorism is inflicted on folks at an early ages---so adult caretakers MUST check the behaviors and regulate the climate they create in dealing with children of all races, ethnicities and hues.
WE IN POSITIONS OF POWER AND AUTHORITY SHOULD HAVE BEEN CHALLENGED BY OPRAH AND IYANLA to be sure that we allow ALL the young in our care---not just those we deem “attractive”--- to be affirmed for their talents/gifts/skills/mere presence in our lives. Diverse, quiet, shy, difficult, socially awkward children MUST BE offered leadership roles, given the prime “Easter” speeches or roles in school plays, allowed to make the announcements at faith gatherings, be supported in extracurricular pursuits, experience acknowledgement as the sources of pride at family gatherings and offered membership into our social clubs and organizations.
WE AS ADULTS SHOULD HAVE BEEN CHALLENGED BY OPRAH AND IYANLA to stop placing so much value on how a child looks and infuse them all children with an overwhelming sense of hope and positivity about who they are, what they posses and who they can become.
Everyone one will not be a “beauty” ---particularly based on the stubbornly persistent Eurocentric beauty standards imbedded in American culture. However, AFRICAN AMERICAN INDIVIDUALS AND ORGANIZATIONS SHOULD HAVE BEEN CHALLENGED BY OPRAH AND IYANLA WITH THE TASK THAT we need each other whole, healthy and healed and will participate in that process for each other.
Given the numbers of African Americans who are dead, incarcerated and incapacited by addiction, poor health or mentally illness--- WE NEED EVERY PERSON IN THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY TO KNOW that they have value, were created for purpose, and must claim their responsibility to improve the human family in large and small ways during their time on earth.
We don’t have the luxury of individuals broken by discouragement or intra-racial discrimination within or community…far too many have been lost already.
Finally, WE ALL SHOULD HAVE BEEN CHALLENGED BY OPRAH AND IYANLA TO APOLOGIZE TO THOSE WHO WE HAVE HARMED by our use of colorism where possible or appropriate.
Unfortunately, just excavating the subject and mismanaging each other’s pain was the best that could done during this Colorism LifeClass.
And yes, I am well aware that I am in charge of what I consume and support. I do understand that I have the right to register my displeasure by turning the channel. However, as we are constantly encouraged to “tweet-tweet this” or “tweet-tweet that”, I just thought Oprah (and your advertisers) might want some of that viewer feedback that she seems value so much on this critical issue.
---Nicole Anderson Cobb, PhD