Skin Color

views updated

Skin Color

Color symbolism has been a potent force in various cultures throughout the world. It has figured prominently in religion, literature, art, and a wide range of human relationships. The emotional or connotative significance of color has translated into attitudes toward the various shades of pigmentation evident in the world's population. While white-dominated Western culture has long exhibited a preference for light or pale-skinned peoples, such a preference has by no means been absent among societies in Asia, the Middle East, and even Africa. Various theories, based on sociological, anthropological, and psychological analyses, as well as historical experience, have been advanced to explain the existence of pigmentocracies that reward peoples of light complexion and penalize those of dark skin color. For many of these theories, the point of reference has been the significance of skin color in defining the status of African Americans, both within the larger white-dominated society and the black community.

In the centuries following the initial contact between sub-Saharan Africans and Europeans, differences in skin color helped shape the relations between the two peoples and also significantly influenced intraracial behavior and attitudes. In time, visible complexional differences, as well as their causes and implications, spawned a vast literature and a host of popular conceptions drawn from a hodgepodge of observations, scripture, pseudoscientific pronouncements, and self-congratulatory speculation. For northern Europeans, especially the English, the most striking characteristic of Africans initially was their "blackness." Conditioned to associate black with baseness and white with purity, Europeans ultimately invented the idea of race based on their perception of differences in skin color, culture, and other elements between themselves and Africans. The ideology of race that gradually emerged classified whites as superior and blacks as inferior. Although the skin color of Africans may not explain their enslavement by Europeans, it did serve as a convenient rationale for a system of bondage.

By the time black slavery had been firmly established in the British colonies of North America, whites had transformed the Africans' color from a matter of intense curiosity into a serious social issue, one complicated by the offspring of black/white and black/Indian unions, who were neither black nor white. The progeny of the black/white unions, commonly called mulattoes, appeared early and multiplied at varying rates throughout the colonial era and the early history of the new republic. Denounced in colonial statutes as an "abominable mixture and spurious issue," mulattoes of numerous shades of dark and light complexion came to occupy an anomalous position in a white-dominated society inclined to associate whites with freedom and blacks with slavery.

In the slave South, the status of mulattoes, quadroons, octoroons, and other "mixed-blood" people varied from section to section. The upper South, which contained the majority of the mulatto population, early embraced the "one-drop rule," whereby anyone with any known Negro ancestor, regardless of how fair his or her complexion, was classified as black. But even in the upper South, such a code neither entirely eliminated the privileges accorded mulattoes nor destroyed the belief that mulattoes were superior to blacks. Travelers' accounts and various other sources clearly indicate that whites exhibited a promulatto bias, especially in employing light-skinned slaves as house servants rather than field hands. Although a majority of the mulattoes in the upper South were slaves, the many free families of color in the region were also characterized by fair complexions. Although the white ancestry of mixed-blood slaves was of varied social origins, well-to-do white fathers of fair-complexioned mulatto children sometimes granted them freedom and provided them with education, property, and opportunities unavailable to other blacks. Through this and other means, especially the purchase of freedom, there came into existence throughout the South free mulatto families whose members tended to marry other light-skinned individuals.

During most of the preCivil War era, the lower South, where mulattoes were less numerous, refused to adhere rigidly to the "one-drop rule." In certain lower southern cities, especially along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, there developed a color-caste system similar to one in the Caribbean, in which mixed-blood people occupied a middle tier between free whites and enslaved blacks. Color assumed symbolic significance in these cities. In no other city did the reputation for colorphobia and snobbery equal that of the free-mulatto elite of Charleston, South Carolina, a reputation that persisted well into the twentieth century. Viewed with favor and leniency by the white establishment, Charleston's slaveholding mulatto elite, intricately related to one another by blood and marriage, was sometimes so fair in complexion that it was impossible to discern any African ancestry. Nothing underscored the color consciousness of this mulatto elite more dramatically than the long-lived Brown Fellowship Society, which was organized in 1790 and limited to light-skinned "free brown men." This prompted the later formation of the Society of Free Dark Men, made up of descendants of Charleston's privileged blacks.

The significance of color was only slightly less evident in New Orleans, where three-quarters of the slaves were dark-skinned and about the same proportion of the gens de couleur libres was fair complexioned. The presence of Creoles of colorthose claiming French or Spanish as well as African ancestryin New Orleans; Pensacola, Florida; Mobile, Alabama; and other Gulf Coast cities involved an interplay of color and ethnocultural distinctions that created a more complex situation than that existing in Charleston. New Orleans's reputation as a "modern Golgotha" owed much to its alleged sexual permissiveness across the color line. Often cited by critics were the "quadroon balls" involving white men and mulatto women and especially the institution of formalized mistress-keeping known as plaçage, in which white males established liaisons with fair-complexioned mulatto girls, who became their "second wives" and the mothers of their "second families." Though less formalized than plaçage, the "shadow family" was a phenomenon that existed throughout the South. Both practices contributed to the lightening of the skin color of mixed-blood people, who usually chose fair-skinned mates, further expanding the light-complexioned black population.

By 1850, when the United States census began distinguishing between blacks and mulattoes, a more complex and specific sliding scale of color was already wellestablished in common usage (and would be refined even further in the future), especially by African Americans. So pervasive was color consciousness that the word color became virtually synonymous with race. For example, petitions and resolutions issued by gatherings of northern free blacks often spoke of equal rights "without distinction of color." Skin color also figured significantly in antebellum "mulatto fiction." Novels and stories about light-skinned blacks, especially works produced by antislavery advocates, described with great specificity the complexion of their almost-white characters, who were also usually of extraordinary intelligence, talent, and grace. For such writers, the presence of the "tragic mulattoes" stood as indisputable evidence of the immorality of slaveholding white Southerners, which was considered all the more gross because they often enslaved their own blood kin"the white children of slavery."

One by-product of the siege mentality that gripped the white South in the wake of the abolitionist crusade was the hardening of the opposition to miscegenation and the acceptance of the "one-drop rule" throughout the region as the means of distinguishing between whites and blacksno matter how fair the complexion of the latter. The results were momentous. Sizable numbers of light-skinned free blacks migrated out of the South, while free mulattoes who had once identified with the white elite and had stood aloof from dark-skinned blacks, free as well as slave, gradually shifted their allegiance. The Civil War and Emancipation, followed by Reconstruction, accelerated the engagement of light-complexioned mulattoes with the black masses in matters of public concern. In fact, light-complexioned blacks occupied a disproportionately large share of leadership positions in the postCivil War South. Despite the blending of peoples of widely different skin color in the public life of black America and the existence of the "one-drop rule," color differences among African Americans continued to have meaning for both whites and blacks. Even though whites embraced a two-category (black/white) system of race relations, preached race purity, subscribed to contradictory theories about the "hybrid" nature of mulattoes, and subjected African Americans of all hues to legal and extralegal discrimination, they nonetheless accorded preferential treatment to light-complexioned blacks, especially in employment. At the same time, skin color in the Negro world exercised an influence that was as pervasive as it was mischievous.

Color, according to one observer, "appeared mysteriously in everything" in the black community at the beginning of the twentieth century. An elaborate sliding scale of color among blacks existed and figured in varying degrees in considerations regarding prestige, status, selection of marriage partners, education, church affiliationvirtually every aspect of social life. An accumulation of distortions and unfounded allegations, perpetrated in particular by color-conscious "mulatto baiters," could easily lead to the conclusion that complexion alone determined one's place in the class structure in the African-American communitya conclusion that obscures the fact that the majority of fair-skinned blacks constituted what has been referred to as "nameless mulatto nobodies." Nevertheless, color gradation among African Americans was often an indicator of a range of interrelated variables such as opportunity, education, acculturation, and even wealth. Such variables focused on the minuscule light-skinned aristocracy of color that did, in fact, occupy the highest stratum of the black class structure from the nineteenth century until well into the twentieth century.

Viewing themselves as cultural brokers, these aristocrats of color spoke to blacks and for blacks to whites. The alleged colorphobia of this elite became the target of bitter criticism that was aired in black newspapers and magazines. Such criticism became increasingly shrill in the early twentieth century with the triumph of Jim Crow on the grounds that the "white fever" among certain light-skinned blacks disrupted racial solidarity at the moment it was most needed. The concern over color gradations even surfaced in the late nineteenth-century debate among blacks over the proper terminology to be applied to people of African descent. Arguing that whites and blacks had "mixed so thoroughly" that there were few "full-blooded Negroes left" in the United States, some advocated Afro-American or colored as more accurate terms. Others who preferred to be called Negroes claimed that all other terms were merely subterfuges invoked by fair-complexioned hybrids intent upon distancing themselves from people of darker hue.

Of all the charges leveled against the fair-complexioned upper class, none circulated more widely or persisted longer than those related to "blue veinism," a reference to skin fair enough to reveal one's blue veins. Rumors abounded, from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, that a blue-vein society or club consisting exclusively of fair-skinned blacks had been or was being established in one city or another. Churches that attracted such people were likely to be known as blue vein, or B.V., churches. Opposition to the dominant position occupied by the light-complexioned elite promoted a succession of well-publicized struggles, involving especially the control of schools, churches, and various other organizations. The controversy that erupted in the 1906 convention of the National Association of Colored Women focused on the light complexion of Josephine Wilson Bruce, the wife of the former senator from Mississippi, who was a candidate for president of the organization. Dark-skinned delegates defeated Bruce because they desired a president who was visibly "altogether a Negro" rather than one whose complexion would allow whites to link her ability to her "white blood." Shocked to discover the existence of color lines within black society, white reporters believed that they had witnessed a "new phase of color discrimination."

Obviously such whites were unacquainted with the verbal assaults leveled against the fair-complexioned black aristocrats, called "accidental puny colored exquisites," that appeared regularly in African-American newspapers, magazines, and even novels throughout the opening decades of the twentieth century. Voicing a common sentiment among dark-complexioned blacks, Nannie H. Burroughs declared in 1904 that "many Negroes have colorphobia as bad as the white folks have Negrophobia." Among other African Americans who denounced the color consciousness of blacks as a serious impediment to racial progress were three well-known clergymen: Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, and Francis J. Grimké. Critics intent upon combating the white notion that mulattoes were intellectually superior to blacks pointed to the achievements of poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, scholar Kelly Miller, and other dark-skinned individuals. But no African American waged a more relentless battle against those blacks who allegedly placed a premium on their light skin color, hair quality, and other European features than John E. Bruce, a prominent journalist who wrote under the pen name Bruce Grit. From 1877 until his death in 1924, he delighted in referring to mixed-blood blacks as "the illegitimate progeny of vicious white men of the South." The linking of a light skin with bastardy lent support to the exclusiveness practiced by at least some dark-complexioned families who, boasting of "pure African blood," forbade their offspring to associate in any romantic way with persons of light skin.

It scarcely seems surprising that some fair-skinned mulattoes keenly experienced the uncertainties and ambiguities of the "marginal man" described by Everett V. Stonequist in 1937. Proscribed by the white-imposed "one-drop rule," light mulattoes also confronted contradictory perceptions and expectations in the black community. In expressing this sense of marginality, the young, fair-complexioned Charles W. Chesnutt, who became a famous novelist, confided in his journal: "I am neither fish nor fowl, neither 'nigger,' white, nor 'buckrah.' Too 'stuck up' for the colored folks, and of course, not recognized by the whites." Cyrus Field Adams, a well-known black editor who was regularly accused of trying to "pass" for white, stoutly denied the charge, declaring that he had spent most of his life "trying to pass for colored." Light-skinned individuals coped with the problems of marginality in various ways, from black identity and assuming leadership roles in movements combating antiblack discrimination, to disappearing from the black world and assuming a white identity. The phenomenon of passing for white assumed an extraordinarily fair complexion and physical features identified with whites. Passing could be either permanent or temporary, yet both involved risks and sacrifices.

Even though critics of the African-American preoccupation with the color scale may well have exaggerated the extent to which a light skin shaped one's self-image, behavior, and attitude, especially toward those of darker complexion, the historical evidence clearly suggests that the color preferences of blacks mirrored those of whites. "The whites," a black observer noted in 1901, "regulate all our tastes." As a result, concoctions claiming to change the skin color of African Americans from dark to light or almost-white found a lucrative market in the black community and constituted a staple source of advertising revenue for the black press. From the late nineteenth century on, such productsalong with those guaranteed to "de-kink" hairappeared in profusion under such labels as Dr. Read's Magic Face Bleach, Imperial Whitener, Black Skin Remover, Mme. Turner's Mystic Face Bleach, Dr. Fred Palmer's Skin Whitener, Shure White, and numerous others. Of all such mail-order preparations, none surpassed Black-No-More for extravagant claims. Produced in Chillicothe, Ohio, by Dr. James H. Herlihy, a self-proclaimed famous chemist, Black-No-More promised to solve the nation's race problem by turning blacks white. "Colored people," one advertisement asserted, "your salvation is at hand. The Negro need no longer be different in color from the white man." This "greatest discovery of the age" guaranteed to transform "the blackest skin into the purest white without pain, inconvenience or danger." Complaints that Black-No-More and several similar concoctions made fraudulent claims and did, in fact, cause severe pain and skin damage prompted the U.S. Post Office to bar them from the mails in 1905. But the crackdown by the post office by no means halted the sale of skin lighteners, which continued in the ensuing decades to proliferate, although they made slightly more guarded claims. As late as the 1960s, skin-bleaching preparations, including Dr. Fred Palmer's Skin Whitener, still found ready markets among African Americans. By 1920, however, those concerned about the implications of the widespread popularity of skin bleaches became more strident in their criticism of people who used them. African-American cosmetic specialists were more forthright in warning about the dangers of "strong" bleaches and the inappropriateness of applying white powder to dark complexions. One such specialist assured black women in 1917 that a light skin was "no prettier than a dark one" and that the beauty of any skin, light or dark, was found in "the clarity and evenness of color." The wording of skin-lightener advertisements increasingly referred to skin tone rather than skin color.

This shift occurred within the context of two important developments: the accelerated engagement of light- and dark-skinned blacks in the public arena; and the "browning" of black America. The former was especially evident in the emergence of the "New Negro" associated with the cultural phenomenon known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, in which the mulatto elite led the way in articulating and popularizing the nation's black heritage and in condemning blacks' obsession with skin-color gradations. At the same time, the majority of Negro Americans had become neither visibly white nor black; rather the skin color of most consisted of various shades of brown. Although the mixing of blacks and whites declined in the decades after Reconstruction, the widespread mixing of light- and dark-skinned blacks generally had the effect of lightening the complexion of African Americans. Social scientists began to refer to "brown," rather than "black," America. By 1957, Ebony could report that "the old definition of 'the true Negro,' one with black skin, woolly hair, a flat nose and thick lips, no longer obtains."

Notwithstanding the emergence of "brown America," the impact of the Harlem Renaissance, and repeated claims that "blue vein societies" and color snobbery were rapidly disappearing, the color question remained an emotion-laden issue among African Americans. In the 1920s and later, black writers commented on the irony involved in the African-American concern with skin color, noting that while whites drew a single color line between themselves and people with "one drop" of Negro blood, blacks who condemned such a practice drew multiple color lines among themselves. The wide variety of complexional shades among African Americans ultimately gave rise to a skin-color lexicon in which minutely defined classifications ranged from peaches-and-cream and high yellow to brown and blue-black. For some African Americans, embarrassed by the obvious color consciousness present in the black community and troubled by its implications, the less said about "the nasty business of color," the better. Yet, as a black journalist noted early in the twentieth century: "The question of tints is one of the racial follies that die hard."

Among those who refused to remain silent regarding the issue was Marcus Garvey, a flamboyant native of Jamaica whose Harlem-based back-to-Africa movement used the emotive power of blackness to win wide appeal among the urban black masses during the 1920s. Whatever else Garvey may have accomplished, his bellicose discussions of skin color served to keep alive and exacerbate the "question of tints." Deeply distrustful of light-complexioned blacks, he preached race pride and purity, castigated mulattoes, especially those involved in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Urban League, and stood the prevailing eschatology of color on its head by equating black with good and white with evil. His newspaper, The Negro World, refused to accept advertisements for skin lighteners and hair straighteners. Garvey's emphasis on skin color figured prominently in the controversy that developed between him and W. E. B. Du Bois of the NAACP. Du Bois responded to Garvey's description of him as a "hater of dark people" and "a white man Negro" by describing the Jamaican as a fat, black, and ugly charlatan who "aroused more bitter color enmity inside the race" than ever previously existed. Du Bois denied that a black/mulatto schism had ever possessed "any substantial footing" in the United States and maintained that by the 1920s such a schism had been rejected by "every thinking Negro." Clearly, Garvey had struck a nerve, and Du Bois responded with assertions that, at best, obscured the influence of color gradations among African Americans.

If color consciousness among African Americans received less notice in the popular media in the decades following Garvey's imprisonment and deportation in the mid-1920s, the topic increasingly attracted the attention of scientists and social scientists. By the mid-twentieth century, scientific inquiry regarding human skin pigmentation had evolved into the field of pigment-cell biology. Much of the research in this field focused on the pigment melanin, a term derived from the Greek word for "black." Although scientists generally agree that human skin color is based predominantly on melanin and have discovered much about its origins and pathology, questions about the evolution and distribution of skin pigmentation in the world's population, as an authority noted in 1991, are likely to remain "an ongoing conundrum for a long time." Perhaps even more pertinent to African Americans than biological investigations of pigmentation were the findings of social scientists, both black and white, whose works shed light on the role of skin color in determining everything from status, self-image, and personality development to educational and employment opportunities, the selection of marriage partners, and wealth in the black community. While the results of tests and surveys designed to measure the influence of color gradations upon virtually every aspect of African-American life were by no means identical, they did agree that blacks, to an extraordinary degree, had accepted the skin-color preferences of the dominant white society and that a light skin in all social strata of the Negro community had definite advantages. But Gunnar Myrdal's classic study, An American Dilemma, published in 1944, noted that as the black community became increasingly "race conscious," it was no longer considered proper for African Americans to reveal their color preferences publicly. Ten years later, Ebony admitted that some fair-complexioned blacks were still "cashing in on color" but that most African Americans of all complexional shades were embracing a common cause and identity.

Such an embrace became even closer as the civil rights movement gained momentum and the "black is beautiful" slogan achieved popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Rejecting skin bleaches and hair straighteners, young blacks of all skin colors donned dashikis and Afro hairstyles and insisted upon being called "black Americans" or "Afro-Americans," often over the objections of their elders. Although Ebony continued to accept advertisements for bleaches, its editorials nonetheless reflected the change in color preference by noting that the "old black magic that made Sheba Queen" was again "sending red corpuscles racing up and down male veins." For a time, dark skin was in vogue and many fair-complexioned blacks found themselves on the defensive. Their skin color meant that they had to work harder at proving loyalty to their African heritage and to the larger black community. Some even complained of discrimination and ostracism by dark-skinned persons. Studies conducted during the 1970s suggested that the "black is beautiful" movement was without effect: One demonstrated that black children exhibited a clear preference for "light brown" skin color over that of either "black" or a "very light shade"; another suggested that a light skin retarded rather than facilitated upward mobility in the black class structure; still another indicated that blacks no longer preferred those whose complexions were lighter than their own as mates.

Even while "black is beautiful" was in vogue and African Americans were encouraged to "be proud of the Negro Look," old methods of lightening dark skin continued to flourish and new ones gained in popularity. Skin bleaches, both for the face and entire body, appeared in various formsliquid, powder, and creamand constituted a fourteen million dollar business in 1968. In adjusting to the times, some bleaching products referred to themselves as skin toners. All the while, techniques of lightening skin color other than the use of bleaches had made their appearance. The 1940s and 1950s witnessed the introduction of various new methods of lightening skin, ranging from depigmentation processes to the use of monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone. Later, dermatologists and plastic surgeons developed procedures for lightening dark skin and converting "broad features into aquiline ones." The most widely used dermatological procedures were chemical peel and dermabrasion, which proved to be painful, risky, and expensive. Tinted contact lenses, however, made possible a change of eye color without risk or pain.

Sociological studies of the color question as related to blacks clearly suggested that in the early 1990s skin color remained one of the mechanisms that determined "who gets what" in black America. Light-skinned blacks still enjoyed a more advantageous economic position and higher standing in the black community. One well-known study in 1990 concluded that there was "little evidence that the association between skin color and socioeconomic status [had] changed during the 30-year period from 1950 to 1980." Despite pressure on blacks "to keep quiet" about their color prejudices, antagonism resulting from such prejudices occasionally erupted into public controversies. For example, some cases arising under affirmative action involved charges of intraracial color discrimination. When the fair-complexioned, green-eyed Vanessa Williams, an African American, was chosen Miss America in 1983, some blacks angrily complained that she was "half white" and not "in essence black." Later claims that Michael Jackson, an African-American superstar in the entertainment world, had altered both his skin color and facial features occasioned much comment, including allegations that he was attempting to "get away from his race." In June 1994 a controversy over skin color erupted in response to the portrait of African-American athlete O. J. Simpson that appeared on the cover of Time magazine following his arrest on suspicion of murdering his former wife and her friend. That Time substantially darkened Simpson's complexion in transforming a mug shot into a "photoillustration" prompted charges that the magazine had darkened Simpson's face to make him look more sinister and guilty.

Beginning in the 1980s, the significance of skin color preference among African Americans has been explored at length on television talk shows and in films, novels, social science studies, and even autobiographies. African Americans may still consider the issue a bit of dirty linen, but they are less reluctant to discuss it publicly. By candidly confronting the color consciousness and prejudices of African Americans, films such as Kathe Sandler's television documentary "A Question of Color" (1992), as well as scholarly treatises and other works, contributed to a greater understanding of a phenomenon that has persistently helped to shape the experiences, attitudes, and life chances of African Americans.

See also Abolition; Free Blacks, 16191860; Race, Scientific Theories of; Universal Negro Improvement Association


Berzon, Judith R. Neither Black nor White: The Mulatto Character in American Fiction. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Davis, Floyd James. Who Is Black? One Nation's Definition. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.

Dominguez, Virginia R. White by Definition: Social Classification in Creole Louisiana. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Embree, Edwin E. Brown America: The Story of a New Race. New York: Viking, 1931.

Evans, William M. "From the Land of Canaan to the Land of Guinea: The Strange Odyssey of the Sons of Ham." American Historical Review 85 (February 1980): 1543.

Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 18801920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Gergen, Kenneth J. "The Significance of Skin Color in Human Relations." Daedalus 96 (September 1967): 390406.

Hirsch, Arnold, and Joseph Logsdon, eds. Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Hughes, Michael, and Bradley R. Hertel. "The Significance of Color Remains: A Study of Life Chances, Mate Selection, and Ethnic Consciousness among Black Americans." Social Forces 69 (June 1990): 11051119.

Jordan, Winthrop D. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 15501812. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968.

Mencke, John G. Mulattoes and Race Mixture: American Attitudes and Images. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1979.

Reuter, Edward B. The Mulatto in the United States. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Robins, Ashley H. Biological Perspectives on Human Pigmentation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Russell, Kathy, Midge Wilson, and Ronald Hall. The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color among African Americans. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Sweet, Frank W. "Essays on the Color Line and the One-Drop Rule." Published on (March 1, 2005). Available from <>.

Toplin, Robert Brent. "Between Black and White: Attitudes toward Southern Mulattoes, 18301861." Journal of Southern History (May 1979): 185200.

Williamson, Joel. New People, Miscegenation, and Mulattoes in the United States. New York: Free Press, 1980.

willard b. gatewood (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005