I come from “high-yellow” people.
As a child, I first felt the sadness of light-skinned/dark-skinned distinctions when Momma Harriet, my fair-complexioned grandmother, shared how cruel kids once tortured her with the nickname “old cat eyes.” My own color is a shade of milk chocolate. “Deep brown,” Momma Harriet called it, a hint a pride in her voice. So, like countless Black folks whose families span a rainbow’s complexion, I have intimately observed the dynamics of color.
Sen. Harry Reid’s comments about President Obama’s appeal as a “light-skinned” White House candidate speak to color dynamics in racist America. It’s true – the nation that so progressively elected its first Black president in 2008 is the same land where discrimination birthed an oft-spoken truth among many of our grandparents: “If you’re White, you’re right. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re Black, get back.”
One variation of the old saying included, “If you’re yellow, you’re mellow.” This appears to have been the insight of Sen. Reid, an Obama supporter whose words became public through the politically charged new book Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime. Reid, a White Democrat, added that it was to Obama’s advantage that he doesn’t use a “Negro dialect” unless he chooses to. While Reid apologized to Obama amid laughably inapplicable comparisons to Sen. Trent Lott speaking favorably in 2002 about Strom Thurmond’s segregationist presidential campaign, the fact is that Reid told the truth. Apart from his dated use of the word “Negro,” he wasn’t off in saying voters would be receptive to an eloquent, fair-skinned Black man over a darker one.
It’s oversimplifying to cite Jesse Jackson’s, Alan Keyes’ or Rev. Al Sharpton’s failed White House campaigns just because these men are browner. Considering vision, policy ideas and the state of the nation during their presidential runs, all three were weaker candidates than Obama. By the same token, what many Blacks – and even Whites like Reid – know about the advantage of Obama’s skin tone is harder to prove. But a look at our representation in Hollywood, advertising and other media speaks most powerfully about the subconscious of what images America finds most acceptable.
For example, when’s the last time, if ever, that we saw a dark-skinned anchorperson on any nationally, daily broadcast news show? This absence is not from a corporate conspiracy, but reflects the same psychological sense of comfort that led to historically well-documented placement of “house” and “field” slaves. Just as in slavery’s social order, today’s dominant class of Whites is most receptive to the presence of people who most closely resemble them appearing in their homes on TV.
This is similar to the understanding that Harry Reid associated with Americans – sadly, including some Blacks – and their personal identification with their nation’s leader. It’s telling that a White politician can be so honest about public acceptance of a Black presidential candidate. It’s also telling that Black Republican leader Michael Steele, who coonishly said he’d use “fried chicken and potato salad” to bring diversity to his party, is among those calling for Reid’s resignation.
The politics of race are just as alive in 2010 as they were before America ever imagined a Black commander in chief. Reid’s comments serve as a reminder for us to re-assess how we see ourselves within the context of social class, skin tone and overall self-image. Do we agree that nappy locks, broad noses and “cat eyes” can all be traits of beauty? If she were here, I’d love to tell my Momma Harriet that we do.