The Reflection of Complexion: Colorism In The Black Community


My Dear Readers,

Last week, the state legislature of South Carolina voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds.  Celebration and relief pulsed throughout the United States, since in the days previous, the focus of the media and of general sentiment was on the racism and oppression it represents against African-American people, and more vividly, the use of the flag by Dylann Roof in the days before he shot 9 people to death at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Historical trauma is best described as the intergenerational transmission of responses to cumulative massive trauma associated with historical events. All African-Americans are descendants of people who were traumatized by slavery, so it is safe to say that all African-Americans have unresolved issues of historical trauma due to being descendants of slaves and the consequences of segregation.  Both of these systems were reinforced with violence (lynching, beatings) or threats of violence (burning of crosses, homes/business, churches).

Racism can be divided into two broad categories: attitudinal and behavioral.   In attitudinal racism, individuals are defamed because of shared characteristics.  In behavioral racism, this can be any act by an individual that denies fair and equal treatment to a person because of shared characteristics or ethnic group membership.  Another type of racism, individual racism, is enacted in the belief that one’s own race is superior.  It requires that the individual actually exhibit behaviors that demonstrate the superiority of his/her race and the inferiority of others.

As a people who have been traumatized by 400 years of oppression by the white majority, it is easier for African-Americans to point the finger at the external oppressor instead of looking at ourselves and examining the psychological harm and wounding that we do within our own racial group.  Because we have been subject to attitudinal, behavioral and individual racism in our oppression by the dominant majority, we have accepted their impression as our reality, and we now reinforce it in our own inter-generational transmission of trauma.

In this week’s blog, I want to explore one of the ways in which historical trauma in African-Americans presents itself: intra-racism, which can be described as racism and oppression which is forced upon the group by other members of the same group.  The specific form we will discuss is called colorism.

Color and skin shade have been points of contention throughout the generations.  It is an issue in which we feel the pain of rejection and the burn of isolation, and then, inflict it upon others in our same racial group.  This pain continues to simmer as those in our community refuse to talk about its psychological and emotional effects.

Colorism takes on different forms in in its description; the term “redbone” is a term historically used in much of the southern United States, particularly in Louisiana, referring to people of African and Caucasian mixed racial heritage. It was a pejorative nickname that the dominant majority used to isolate them; an expression of contempt or disapproval for those who were the result of sexual liaisons between the two races. Such relationships were viewed by whites as an open statement of not only unfaithfulness to one’s spouse, but a statement of moral weakness– “lustfulness of the darkies” was ultimately considered to be treasonous to the white race.  Still, over time, members of the mixed race community were seen as a means of understanding the “strange ways of the African.”

The term redbone gave rise to another term of colorism, high yellow, which was more frequently used in African-American communities, and often carried a class distinction as well.  It is noted in some cities that:

“Social life was dominated by light skinned high yellow families, some pale enough to pass for white, who shunned and despised darker African-Americans.  The behavior of high yellow society was a replica of high white, except that where the white woman invested in tightly curled permanents and, at least if young, cultivated a deep sun tan, the colored woman used bleach lotions and Mrs. Walker’s Anti-kink or the equivalent to straighten hair.”

Colorism in its use of social class distinction was not limited to the southern region of the United States.  It was prevalent during the Harlem Renaissance as well:

“These social distinctions made the cosmopolitan Harlem more appealing.  Nevertheless, the Cotton Club of the Prohibition era had a segregated, white-only audience policy and a color conscious “high yellow” hiring policy for chorus girls.  It was common for lighter-skinned African-Americans to hold “paper bag parties” which admitted only those whose complexion was lighter than that of a brown paper bag.”

Another example in which colorism was the acceptable practice of the day is in the 1942 Glossary, the famed African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston created a “color scale” which ran in the following order:

  • High yellow
  • Yellow
  • High brown
  • Vaseline brown
  • Seal brown
  • Low brown
  • Dark brown

So, what does past societal or community beliefs (e.g., light skin is favorable over dark skin); behaviors (e.g., creation of a color scale) and actions (e.g., discrimination and contempt for darker skinned African-Americans) have to do with today?

Specifically, the broad categories of racism (attitudinal and behavioral) and the specific type (individual) have been generally been used to explore the racism that has been externalized from one group (whites) upon another group (blacks), but this has been ignored when it comes to intra-racism.  We must want to understand that although these societal institutions which created such beliefs, behaviors and actions may no longer exist, the usage of such distinctions created historical trauma and their effects have continued through inter-generational transmission.  In this continuance, that inflicted pain continues to be felt today.

Colorism and its attributes served to increase the impact of identity and self-esteem related psychological issues among people of darker complexion.  However, colorism has also traumatized and impacted lighter skinned African-Americans as well.  This is evidenced by the Black Pride (“Say it loud, I’m Black & I’m proud”) movement of the late 1960’s and 70’s period, which generally excluded those who were “lighter than a brown paper bag.”

It is during this period in which African-Americans rejected being identified as “Colored” altogether and began replacing the term Negro with the term Black.  This was also the beginning of the era of “payback,” in which darker skinned African-Americans began to question the “blackness” of light skinned African-Americans.  This resulted in pain, anguish and suffering when they, being of lighter complexion find themselves being rejected by darker African-Americans because of “not being black or having black enough features,” but were still considered too black by white society to be accepted there as well.  In essence, it is the same intra-racism, just that the perpetrator and the victims have traded places.

I was recently facilitating a series of group therapy sessions in which the patients were exposed to complex trauma in the form of historical trauma. These five individuals are in various phases of processing and releasing their internalized torment.  They are men and women of varying degree of skin tone and complexion.  Below are some samplings of their experiences: (Note: the names and professions have been changed to protect confidentiality)

  • Traci (transit planner) was with a group of friends admiring the newborn baby of one of the members of the group, and taking turns holding the baby. As Traci was reaching out for her turn to cradle the child, the child’s mother snatched the child away stating, “You’re too dark to hold my baby.”
  • Joseph (nurse) shared his story of being the butt of jokes at school because he was of light complexion. Joseph adds although he could have passed for white, like his mother urged him to do, he wanted to be accepted by other blacks as African-American.  He remembers being devastated to the point of considering suicide as the answer to relieve his suffering.
  • Peter, also an African-American (lawyer) remembers not being allowed to enter parties because of his inability to get pass the brown bag taped to the front door. He added that if one’s skin (hand being placed next to bag) was darker than the bag, the “darkie” was not allowed to join the party.  He told us of his feelings of standing outside the window looking in, wanting to be in the group.
  • Tess (middle school teacher) acknowledges becoming deeply depressed when she was rejected from the cheerleading squad at her high school even though she was clearly one of the best candidates. She was told that the other girls had informed the cheer coach of feeling uncomfortable because of her light skin and “white features.”
  • Dana (police officer) recalled an incident in which she was refused service by a waitperson who told her “I am not going to serve anyone who is darker than me.”

All of these incidents of rejection were based on race.  All of these individuals are responding to experiences of racial oppression that occurred within the African- American community.   Besides being experienced by African-Americans, these stories have three common variables:

  • Skin tone
  • Class status/occupation (middle class/professional) and
  • Trauma impact due to racism.

In addition to responding to a complex combination of historical trauma and intergenerational transmission, all five individuals are also responding to betrayal trauma.  Betrayal trauma is a violation of implicit and explicit trust.  The more “extensive” the betrayal is, the  more traumatic it is, and the closer the relationship, the greater the degree of the betrayal.  In this case, all of the individuals were responding to the betrayal of their trust in members of their own racial group.  These traumas have impacted the group members in different ways:

  • Peter has deep distrust of light skinned African-Americans;
  • Traci viewed her dark skin as unattractive, thus developing intense feelings of resentment towards her psychological self.
  • Dana, who has children from a biracial marriage, (African-American/Caucasian) is deeply troubled when it comes to discussions on race and how her children view themselves and are viewed by others.
  • Joseph says that he continues to remain fearful of rejection when interacting with dark skinned blacks. He admits that he allows himself to be manipulated by other African-Americans just so that they will accept him.
  • Tess states she is only attracted to dark skinned males, but she acknowledges her inability to maintain a successful intimate relationship. She admits not wanting to be vulnerable and exposed due to fear of rejection.  She admits to running away from relationships when they reach a state of becoming “serious.”


Concluding Words

The removal and subsequent retirement of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse will only bring temporary relief to the groups who sought its removal.  Complex trauma, including historical trauma and betrayal trauma, are permanent imprints on the psychological selves of so many in that state, and across the country.

This trauma will never go away.  My southern grandmother used to say: “Muddy waters rise to the top, ” and just like that muddy water, traumatic memories will continue to escape and travel upward and out from the psychological self.  The real question remains, will we live in fear of the traumatic memory, or will we learn to balance the traumatic memory within our lives?

It is time that the African-American community begin to hold community meetings, facilitated by mental health clinicians and begin to process the deep psychological wounding caused by the slavery, the resulting Jim Crow Laws and its aftermath, racial segregation. Furthermore, we as a community must want to examine the role that intra-racism plays in the continuance of oppression with in the black community by members of the same community.

“A wise person learns from his/her mistakes, makes corrections and finds the right path; the foolish one will continue without direction, never finding the road even when it is in front of his/her face.”

-Ten Flashes of Light for the Journey of Life


Until the next crossroads….the journey continues.





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