As a light-skinned biracial girl, fitting into the racial structures in our society has always been tricky for me. I never really considered myself to fit in as white or black. There seemed to be these two groups that I didn’t really fit into and felt ostracized because of my lighter complexion. No one seems to believe that I know what it was like to be black or African-American just because I had a fairer complexion. People of darker complexion always told me that I always had it easier and didn’t understand that struggle they went through. That may be true, we all have different experiences and I am often looked at as racially ambiguous, but I also knew it to be true that black people are all different shades of color; we do not all look the same. I have never been “black enough”—something that has always baffled me because I could not reason how this could be possible. I knew I had relatives and ancestors of a similar background so I had to be factually black, so what is it that would make people see me as “black enough”?

First, we have to go back into history to analyze how we have come to treat people based on skin color. Difference in skin color has been a weighted matter for a very long time and has been the source of many prejudices. It has been the root of many stereotypes that are believed to be associated with every black person. Still to this day it seems that, as a whole, people are not considered black if they do not fit these stereotypes or the very dark complexion people might be expecting. The difference of color, not even specifically skin, has been embedded in what we know with preconceived connotations. White symbolizes purity, holiness, innocence, and good. Black on the other hand has been used to hold implications of darkness, evil, and other negative and threatening characteristics. These long-held cultural meanings associated with color have been used in literature, the arts and the media, affecting how we perceive the color of people’s skin. This mass amount of imagery we absorb in our daily lives is affecting us, even subconsciously. We process things through associations of these meanings and we have used these negative characteristics against these people since they were first brought over as slaves. Many people throughout history have degraded these people to have little or no value but what makes the discrimination so bad is the stereotypes that have been created and that for the most part have stuck.

The black community is a group that is consistently stereotyped and this regularity in judgment has stained our culture throughout history. Stereotypes exaggerate and often exploit characteristics of a certain group of people, creating a simplification overall. When African-Americans were brought over to work on the plantations, the overall association with “black” was unclean, evil, bestial, and abnormal. This basis, and a general fear of the unknown, was the perfect breeding ground for many stereotypes that would last throughout history. The slaves on the plantations served as funny little characters to poke fun at in a white-dominant society. Black people were treated like freaks of a circus show and something to laugh at, and this took the discrimination to a new level. And that’s when the popularity of minstrel shows—the beginning of “black face”—began. Popular between the 1820s though the 1880s, these performances consisted of actors wearing theatrical makeup to appear “black” by using burnt cork, greasepaint or even shoe polish all over their faces and exaggerating the size of their lips. These actors were white for the most part and played out what had become known as the typical characters from the plantation. There was Sambo, the mindless frolicking man who was humorous and loyal. Mammy was the fat, jolly and motherly figure who loved the Master and was always cooking for him and his family. There was Uncle Tom, the older slave who lazed around the plantation and Nat, the rebellious black man that was out to get the whites. Zip Coon was unequipped to deal with urban life and was always set up for failure; his cousin Jim Crow was a flashy city slave. Both were womanizers and were most basic forms of slave impersonations.

These insensitive simplifications created a platform and a standard of how to perceive the black community for those outside of it. These racial stereotypes mocked black people and even as minstrel shows’ popularity faded, it wasn’t so easy for the stereotypes to disappear along with them. Today there are still people that believe that the characteristics of Sambo and Uncle Tom are accurate representations of black people as a whole. Even now there are still reiterations of these stereotypes—from big brands that play this off in their logos, product labels and advertisements to character development for TV shows and movies. Uncle Ben’s Rice seems to be a little too closely related to Uncle Tom, and Aunt Jemima had to change overtime because the company got into huge racial lawsuits about Mammy representations.

Our culture has been so saturated with these stereotypes that they have been embedded in our brains as a standard assumption. Not to say we are all racists, but there is a level of power that racial stereotyping has over us. It influences us subconsciously on how we deal with assumptions of people based on their skin color. We have internalized these stereotypes, whether we are of African American decent or not, and now believe these to define what it is to be black. There’s an underlying implication that all black people fit into this cookie cutter mold of being watermelon-and-fried-chicken-loving basketball players that listen to rap and hip-hop. Today people try to approach these stereotypes in a lighter, more self-reflexive way, but they are nonetheless rooted in the destructiveness of racism.

However, what is interesting is that if someone is light-skinned or simply does not fall into these stereotypical attributes, they are no longer considered “black enough.” It’s as if society expects the black community to live up to these absurd guidelines of characteristics to be considered worthy of being a part of their own race. Comedian Wayne Brady had an interview on a radio station with #SwayInTheMorning in which he addressed how fans had made comments saying that he was not “black enough.” They claimed that he “acts white” but again, what exactly does this mean? Stereotypes have so heavily fogged our vision that we can no longer see it as a difference between acting like a good person or a bad person, rather it literally is seen as black and white. Brady said, “What is black enough? Honestly not all of us can be thugs and most people are not. If someone shoots a gun, the average guy is running so you’re not really a thug, you’re just a guy that wants to miss the bullet. So that doesn’t make anyone black or not black.”

People have gotten caught up in this ideology of “ghetto mentality” in the black community, again another narrow-minded view that is still very prevalent in our society. It’s so stereotypical to see famous black men in the NBA or starring in rap or hip-hop videos with a tough attitude, or to see the loud angry black woman or a girl who is noticed only for her big lips and big butt. But the astounding part is how surprised people are when they see countertypes in the world. It is now unanticipated to see a successful black person, or someone that isn’t falling down the troubled “hood” path.

These assumptions aren’t just prejudices against celebrities and those often represented in the media. This visual prejudice has affected how we perceive people of color in our own realities. The Huffington Post writes about a study done at San Francisco State University that explored “skin tone memory bias.” They called it “When an ‘Educated’ Black Man Becomes Lighter in the Mind’s Eye” and the results were very interesting. 125 students were shown a photo of a man; attached was either the word “ignorant” or educated.” After spending a couple of minutes with the image, they were given 7 photographs of the same man ranging from light to dark in 7 different skin tones: his actual skin tone as well as three shades darker and three shades lighter. It was then their job to point out which was the correct shade of the image they were previously shown. What was interesting is that those that were given an image of a darker man with the word “educated” were shown to have guessed wrong the highest amount of times because they usually guessed a lighter version of the man. This data shows that stereotyping definitely has become linked to phenotypic features creating social categorization. More “afrocentric” features of darker skin, fuller lips, a wide nose, and coarse hair are associated with more negative stereotypes showing a subconscious bias, while educated men are remembered to be lighter. This also implies that educated people of darker skin are seen as exceptions to their race rather than examples of what their race is capable of. Black people aren’t considered “black enough” when they don’t fit in the guidelines of those specific features, shades, or education levels, which is a very powerful judgment to make just based off the color of someone’s skin. Reiteration throughout history, society and now the media have gone to show how clouded these deeply-rooted stereotypes are and how they can affect the way we see others, even if we don’t fully recognize it.

Something that needs to be looked at is how stereotyping is not the only problem anymore. Stereotypes apply to all members of the certain group, and include prejudice from the secondary outside group. But what happens when the discrimination is within the group? There will always be racists out there in the world, but right now the racial divide is not as terrible as it once was, with obvious and deliberate segregation amongst the public between whites and blacks and a shock from biracial couples and families. The issue we face now is not necessarily racism but colorism. Colorism is the prejudice or discrimination based on the relative lightness or darkness of the skin. But the most interesting part about all of this is that generally this phenomenon occurs within one’s own ethnic group.

As early as the 1940s, psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted an experiment known as the “doll test.” This experiment was designed to study racial perception and the psychological effect that racism and segregation had on children. The psychologists used two dolls in the test, identical except in skin color. The children participating in the experiment were all of African-American decent and were asked which doll they preferred. The results were astounding and nearly all the children picked the white doll over the black one. One child that chose the black doll explained it was her choice because “it’s a nigger and I am a nigger.” It was clear from these results that there was still this mentality that white was better. The self-esteem of black children was clearly being affected by the prejudice, discrimination and segregation of black people. It was now obvious that these negative attitudes were not only coming from people outside the black community, but also within it. There was an attitude that white was better, and this brought forth a light-skinned vs dark-skinned debate.

Stereotypes have begun to corrupt the minds of society as a whole. Oprah Winfrey deems, “colorism is saying that the closer to white, the better you are.” Black women specifically are starting to think that this is really true and it becomes the driving force of their lives. On her show, Tyra Banks interviewed a woman that had started to add skin bleach to her children’s baths to make their skin lighter so that they can grow up avoiding the struggles she had faced as someone of a darker complexion. Through all this internalization, she put her children’s lives in danger (children as young as four) in the belief that life really could be better for them if they were lighter. The documentary Dark Girls shows how skin-whitening products have reached new levels with worldwide product sales growing to $45 billion in 2008. Comments such as “being pretty for a black girl” clearly were created by the influences of stereotyping and have carried on to affect the lives of others in very poor ways. In this documentary, one African-American woman talks about the “paper bag test” that black people use to judge people of their own race. This again is rooted back in the impact that skin color has had on us throughout history. In this test, women of color judge themselves and others like them to see where they fall on the spectrum: if you’re lighter than the shade of a paper bag then you are prettier and smarter; if you are darker than that color you’re perceived as uneducated and ugly. Many black women have fallen into this mindset, bringing the prejudice and stereotyping from within themselves and from the others that share the same background and what once was a shared struggle.

Psychologist Dr. Ronald Boutelle, also featured in the documentary Dark Girls, says how there is nothing in our human DNA or the wiring of our brains that could account for discriminating based off of skin color. We are not built to have ideas that suggest that lighter is better, which clearly speaks of the effect of historical, political and social experiences. And an even bigger factor of this is the continual use of stereotyping in media and other easily accessible visual outlets. Another psychologist, Dr. Daryle Rowe, speaks about the internalization embedded in a society that exists in a white supremacy framework, a history that has stained us as people. Through his studies he arrives at a very saddening statement that an “approximation of whiteness is valued all around the world.” The heavy influences of stereotyping and the images our culture and media are immersed in makes us think now that “white characteristics” and the positivity of that is what lessens the value of a black person’s “credibility,” so to speak. We no longer see these kinds of descriptions as something to describe just the average person, rather we are still taken aback when this is associated with someone of a darker complexion. Even if it is not done in a deliberately racist and negative way, it still profoundly affects how we perceive people.

In the black community, many people in the public eye have tackled issues of being “black enough” through self-reflexivity. Although generally coming off as light-hearted laughs and now written by the black man himself, it still impinges on the way we stereotype that group.  Especially in movies and on TV, we can see either an embracement of these stereotypes by black writers or those who make commentary with their work on how prevalent ideas of race and skin color prejudices still are. A perfect example when looking at this is comparing Spike Lee to Tyler Perry. Both are black male directors and writers whose films are mainly focused on ideas of race and definitely based on racial stereotyping. Lee approaches this issue in a much more critical and head-on, almost uncomfortable, way. Tyler Perry, on the other hand, seems to be someone who thrives in embracing these stereotypes in a positive manner. Lee’s films, like Bamboozled, are extremely heavy-handed and give a lot to talk about the way we are dealing with race through these media outlets. His approach is more artful in a sense, targeting a different audience with the same story as Perry. Perry becomes dependent on Zoon kinds of characters, while Lee simply reflects them.

Other examples of this self-reflexivity include the comedian duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Both are biracial males whose comedy sketches are heavily satirical. They straddle the line between absurdities of African American subculture with mainstream culture to create funny and also culturally-informed comedy. They do this by what Key calls “adjusting their blackness.” He plays into the idea of being black enough, or being too white, and analyzes the different ways of looking at people of color. Key jokes by saying, “The way we actually sound…we’re not intimidating anybody. We sound very white. You never want to be the whitest sounding black guy in the room.” They accept that this kind of prejudice exists in the world and provide examples in a funny and accessible way that also sets the stage for looking at these themes in a critical manner.

ABC Family’s newest show Blackish follows a black family in Los Angeles, wrestling with the thought of how their comfortable lives could be causing them to forget they are “black.” In the pilot of the show, there is a scene of an Ultimate Hollywood Tour going on in their neighborhood, and the tour guide says, “If you look to your left, you’ll see the mythical and majestic black family. Go ahead and wave, they wave right back!” They are aware of the power of difference in skin color but don’t see the world in black and white. The father character is the main one with this mentality, but what is interesting about this show is how indifferent the rest of the family is towards this issue. The show addresses ideas of why there even needs to be something that defines them and others as “black enough.” The creator Kenya Burns believes “it’s a really important time for this show to air given Obama’s presidency and recent race-related headlines.” They do this by showing you are not defined by your race, but that doesn’t mean your culture and heritage become irrelevant. This show proves that media has the potential to shape the way we talk about racial observations in a very positive direction. After all, at the end of the day being “black enough” isn’t a thing. Black is just a color, not a defining point of character.

 

Madison Horne’s memoir piece, “Clogging the Drain,” won first prize in the Fourth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Madison also won second prize for her critical essay “Black Enough.” She is a senior majoring in Photography at SVA.