I will never forget the October 2013 feature on National Geographic’s website:
There was a pair of portraits of olive-skinned, ruby-lipped boys, one with a mane of curly black hair, the other with tendrils of blond curls.
The portraits rested above the headline: “The Changing Face of America: We’ve become a country where race is no longer so black or white.” It was about the explosion of interracial marriage in America and how it is likely to impact both our concept of race and the physical appearances of Americans.
As the Pew Research Center pointed out in a 2012 report: “About 15 percent of all new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another, more than double the share in 1980.”
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People often think of the browning of America as a factor of immigration or racial/ethnic variances in birth rates, but it must also be considered as a function of interracial coupling and racial identifications.
This freedom and fluidity is a beautiful sign of societal progress toward less racial rigidity. But, at the same time, I am left with a nagging question: Does this browning represent an overcoming of anti-black racism, or a socio-evolutionary sidestepping of it?
As some make choices that challenge the racial caste system in this country, is everyone elevated, or are those on the darkest end of the spectrum still subject to a discrimination that is skin-shallow and bone-deep?
How does blackness itself fit this shifting paradigm?
Biracial people can have their own challenges adapting to a world that adheres to the illusion of racial purity, in part because their very existence challenges the notion and reveals its ridiculousness.
But what must also be acknowledged is that racial purity was an instrument developed for the protection of whiteness from “dilution,” and the furthest one could move from whiteness was blackness.
Blackness was denigrated in direct proportion to the degree that whiteness was valued as supreme. And on top of this issue of race defined by color, there is an overlay of gender. How do women with darker skin fit this paradigm in a world that seems to conflate lighter-skinned with beauty andfemininity itself?
I was reminded of this, this month when The Washington Post reported on a study about the popularity of multiracial people among online daters.
Among all groups, according to the study’s co-author, “Men didn’t play racial favorites as much as women did. Except when it comes to black women, who were responded to the least.”
While America’s history in skin-color politics is long and deep, this aversion to darkness, particularly dark femininity, and aspiration to lightness isn’t only an American phenomenon. It’s a global sickness informed by history and influenced by colonialism and the export of popular culture.
In 2012, The New York Times ran an article about Chinese women wearing ski masks to the beach to keep from getting darker.
The Guardian reported in 2013 on “India’s obsession with fair skin” that incorporates the use of whitening cleansers. As the paper put it: “Last year, Indians reportedly consumed 233 tons of skin-whitening products, spending more money on them than on Coca-Cola.”
And the BBC reported in 2013 that “a recent study by the University of Cape Town suggests that one woman in three in South Africa bleaches her skin.”
It seems to me that we as a society must find some peace with dark skin itself, to not impute value and character onto color if harmony is truly to be had.
Until that is done, it often feels that we of darker bodies must resist the absorption of oppression and love ourselves defensively, as an equalizer. We must love our dark flesh as an antidote to a world that often disdains it.
Charles M. Blow is a columnist for the New York Times.