Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The social significance of Michelle Obama's skin color

I have watched the Obama’s now, since the early days of the campaign, and as they danced together at the inaugural balls to the strains of BeyoncĂ© covering Etta James, “At Last”, I mused about what we (as black American’s and we as women of color) have finally achieved “at last”.

When Reverend Lowery did the benediction earlier that day, his words echoed an old childhood schoolyard rhyme “if you’re white you’re all right, if you’re brown stick around, if you’re black stay back…”

Yes, we have the first POTUS of African descent. But that is not the focus of this diary.  Of more significance for many women of color, we have a first couple, where the wife is darker in complexion than her spouse.  

Much has been written about Barack Obama’s mother being white, and Michelle Obama as a really  black American.  What I have not seen discussed are the social implications of the image they present to many in not only the African-American community, but to those of us who may also be from other communities of afro-descendancy (Puerto Rico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Jamaica etc), where skin-color gradations have historically had a significant relationship to social class, and where this relationship has applied specifically to women of color.


You all know I post and cross-post regularly to Daily Kos.  Because of an off-board conversation with our man Spiffy aka spacemanspiff, I decided to post this extremely long diary here as well.

Some time ago, in a comment I made in one of the Black Kos diaries, I promised I would discuss “colorization” in depth.  The subject was the topic of much of my research in graduate school, but has also been a factor in my life, growing up in a family where my father is the child of a white mother, and my mom comes from a family of slave descendants who run the gamut in skin color from deepest ebony to ecru.  I documented my dad’s life as a “mulatto” in a DKos diary before coming to Moose Strange Fruit Revisited.  

For those of you who are not from a community of color, skin tones may have little significance.  Many of you may simply see “black” no matter the shade of skin.  But the historical and present day significance of skin color and the gradations of shade and tone have a deep meaning for those of us who have been affected by the hierarchy of shades of skin and phenotype.

I would like to present here a longish paper I wrote a number of years ago, which speaks directly to this issue.  I admit to being lazy this morning, so I will not attempt to re-write what has already been written, and will cite myself, in full.  

Here goes:


“If You’re Light, You’re All Right…”  Colorization in the United States and the Caribbean

Denise Oliver-Velez

One of my earliest schoolyard memories was a group of children in Baton Rouge, Louisiana cruelly taunting another child, as children are wont to do, repeating over and over the refrain:

If you’re light you’re all right

If you’re brown stick around

If you’re black, stay back, stay back stay back…

This was not a case of “southern racism”, since all of the children involved were “black” by American standards.  The children doing the taunting were all the children of college professors, on the campus of Southern University, where my father was teaching.  Southern University is an ostensibly black school, or at that time was a “Negro” college.  The child upon whom the invective was being heaped was from the “town” of Scotlandville, which was outside the gates of the campus; a few local children had been allowed to attend the on campus school.  They were the children of local laborers.  What made them different from the children of the professors and graduate students who lived on campus was not only their class, but their color.  All of the “campus brats were light-skinned.  Some would have been accepted as white anywhere.  All of the “townies” were dark-skinned.  As a northern black child, also light complexioned, I didn’t know the rules of the game, or why they were even playing it.  Attempts to make friends with the town children were met with suspicion, and hostility on their part, and I was warned by a campus brat that I would be ostracized if I continued to make overtures toward the “niggers”.

This was my first introduction to social stratification within the African-American community rooted in color, and phenotype.  It was not to be my last, and I have continued to observe the phenomenon over the years, finding to my surprise, that it not only existed in the South, but throughout the United States, wherever there are black communities.  And when my family moved back to New York, I found that this strange color hierarchy and prejudice existed in the Puerto Rican, and West Indian community as well.

In 1980, I wrote and co-produced, with Warrington Hudlin, a short film for public television entitled Color, dealing with the topic of intra-racial color prejudice, which received critical acclaim, but a very mixed reception from audiences,  some of whom felt we were “airing dirty linen” in public.  However, many others wept, and said it was about time someone addressed the issue.  I had the opportunity to screen the film in a variety of different venues, and many viewers who were not African-American responded to the subject  positively; among them Puerto Ricans, Cubans and East Indians in London.  After each screening we were told stories; personal experiences of how color prejudice had affected and damaged the lives of each of the tellers.  I have maintained an interest in the subject, for both personal and academic reasons, personally because I am constantly aware that “light-skinned privilege’ has shaped much of my life, and academically because I have found that the subject is one on which many scholars are silent, whether due to ignorance or oversight on their part when studying those communities and cultures that were historically part of the African diaspora, or to a resistance(denial) of the existence of the phenomenon, because to address it would be “divisive” at a time when blacks need all the solidarity they can forge.

In those communities that are not African-American, particularly the Puerto Rican, with which I am the most familiar, many of the public responses to questions about this particular brand of racism have been “No hay racismo en Puerto Rico.” (There is no racism in Puerto Rico)  In private, my observations and experiences have contradicted this assertion.  It is true that in the Caribbean, and the countries of Latin America which were historically African slave based economies that there has never been segregation of the type that existed in the U.S.; no lynchings, no Klu Klux Klan, no White Citizens Councils,  but this does not negate the existence of racism.  When you look at any society in which the upper class seems to be uniformly European in heritage, and phenotype, and many members of the lowest class are clearly of African extraction, and when linguistic observation uncovers a variety of terms for varying shades of color with different shades of meaning, it is a subject that warrants further study.  In order to understand color stratification, and the attitudinal prejudices that accompany it, we must look at its roots in slavery, and how it has played out differently cross-culturally due to varying economic and social conditions.

Studies of slavery both here, in the Caribbean and Brazil highlight the development of a separate group of mulattos.  Degler focuses on the history of differing developments of slavery and race relations  between the U.S. and Brazil, counterpoising the rigid racial segregation practi
ced here, in opposition to the “mulatto escape-hatch” provided in Brazil. (Deglar, 1971) However he fails to appreciate that we had our own mulatto escape hatch here as well.  Brazil’s allowed for an escape into the greater (whiter) society, whereas ours propelled the mulatto to the top of the black heap, trapped in a world where one drop of black blood defines you as black ad infinitum.

 Anthropologist Marvin Harris coined the term hypodescent to describe the “one drop rule”, the racial classification of a person with perhaps one black great-grand parent as black in the United States.  That same person in Brazil, or the Hispanic Caribbean, would be legally, and perhaps socially white, regardless of color or class. (Harris, 1964)  In countries like Brazil, Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico, where many of the poor are also black, the three-tiered color/class structure has repressed any struggle based on race, and in fact many members of  the ruling and middle classes deny vociferously that there are any racial problems, attributing stratification to class alone.

Historically, the only part of the United States that operated under the three-tiered system was Louisiana, since it was colonized and settled first by the French and Spanish.   Louisiana developed the first, and most wealthy colored aristocracy in the United States.  Because Louisiana was  colonized by the French,  a “tripartite legal distinction emerged”; whites, African slaves, and free people of color or  gens de couleur libre.  These free coloreds were the products of sexual liaisons between white planters and slave women initially, but  generations of crossing sexual lines created not only mulattos (half-white), but also quadroons (one fourth white), octoroons (one eighth white), and mustees(one sixteenth white).  Called “colored creoles” to make a distinction between these mixed-race persons and those white Frenchmen and women born in the colonies,  the free persons of color in Louisiana enjoyed an economic freedom and an opportunity for education denied to other mixed-race slaves or free Negroes in the rest of the South. (Dominguez, 1986)

Eugene Genovese traces the source of the free Negro population primarily to the practice of miscegenation on southern plantations.  “Throughout the history of the slave regime there were planters who openly or surreptitiously accepted responsibility for the paternity of mulattos, educated them, freed them and when manumission became difficult, made special provisions for their care.” (Genovese, 1976:416)  He goes on to argue that though there was some division of blacks by color during slavery (house Negro versus field Negro)  “Hostility was only directed at those mulattos who claimed and received privileges based on their color and relationship to the white family and who put on airs in the quarters.” (Genovese, 1976:430)  He points out that mulattos were unable to build for themselves a totally separate caste, such as the one that existed in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), or Jamaica, given the existence of only two legal categories in the U.S. – black or white.  Therefore during reconstruction when mulattos sought political power, their fates were tied to those of their darker brethren, for  they needed “black” voting power.  However he points out that “the leadership that emerged after the war had a disproportionate share of mulattos because the better educated Northern and free Negroes and privileged town slaves were in a better position to step out front.” (Genovese, 1976:430)

E. Franklin Frazier lists the demographic ratio of mulatto to black as 600,000 out of a total black population of 4.5 million in 1860.  “They were the product of forcible rape, coercion due to power relationships, or voluntary surrender on the part of black women.”  Though he admits that mutual attraction was possible, he states that “the prestige of the white race was often sufficient to secure compliance on their part.” (Frazier 1962:116)

Verena Martinez Alier makes a similar observation with respect to the behavior of free colored women in Cuba during the slave period.  She cites a folk aphorism which points to their desire for whitening, “no hay tamarindo dulce ni mulata senorita” (there is no sweet tamarind fruit as there is no virgin mulatto woman.).  She feels however that the available literature is inadequate to judge the extent of resistance to white men’s sexual advances.( Martinez-Alier,1989:xiv)

Martinez-Alier examines the role of the Catholic Church, and the Spanish Inquisition in defining concepts of “purity of blood’, which originally applied to any admixtures with foreigners, Jews,and  non-Catholics but in the “Cuban context impurity of blood’ came to mean bad race, African origin and slave status.  Slavery was regarded as a stain that contaminated a slave’s descendants, regardless of their actual physical appearance.” (Martinez-Alier, 1989:16)  Parish priests kept records of white versus pardo (mulatto) genetic heritage, and though there were laws and codes to prevent intermarriage, race mixing did occur.  “When it came to the racial classification of an individual, the principle of hypodescent prevailed.  It was always the racially inferior parent, regardless of sex, that determined the group membership of the offspring of a mixed union” (Martinez-Alier1989: 17)

Since the contracting of a mixed marriage would result in social downgrading, parents of marriageable offspring would often go to court to prevent any such mis-alliances.  “By and large these white parents pursued racial endogamy.  A marriage across the race barrier was felt to degrade the white candidate’s family for all time.” (Martinez-Alier,1989:19)  However, since whitening would advance one socially, many pardos pushed to form such alliances, and many parents of women of color refused to allow them to marry darker. “The constant endeavors on the part of the coloured population to advance socially by whitening themselves through marriage, or rather through informal affairs with lighter if not white people, conflicted with the downgrading principle as well ( Martinez-Alier, 1989:18)”

One of the major reasons for the attempt at keeping accurate records of births to maintain social purity, was the inability to use phenotype to determine a persons race, after several generations of race mixing had taken place.  Particularly because many “pure Spaniards” were dark in color.  “Only too often was it difficult if not impossible to detect any actual physical difference between a person of Spanish and one of partial African origin ”  A Spanish dictionary in 1836 defined trigueno as “the person of slightly darker color or similar to wheat (trigo),  in the same way a person of lighter color, milky with a pink hue is called white…In a racial context the word white is used even if the person is trigueno, in order to differentiate him from Negro or mulatto, although there are some of the latter who are whiter than many of the white race”( Martinez-Alier,1989:72)

Similar to the color stratification  system used in Louisiana, Cubans in the 19th century developed a classification system between degrees of color:  Pardo, white on one side, freeborn pardo, white on one side, ex-slave pardo on both sides, freeborn pardo on both sides, ex-slave chino, freeborn chino, ex-slave moreno criollo(born in Cuba), freeborn moreno criollo,  ex-slave moreno de nacion (born in Africa),  and three categories of slave: pardo slave,  moreno criollo slave and  moreno de nacion slave  ( Martinez-Alier,1989:98)

Another country that has espoused a creed of “whitening” and prides itself on having a “cafe-con leche” (coffee with milk) admixture is Brazil.  Gilberto Freyre, staunch defender of Brazilian racial equality states, “The Brazilians ethnic democracy, has the almost perfect equality of opportunity for all men regardless of color” (Freyre,194
5:7)  He goes on to describe the results of the “whitening” process:  “Negroes are now rapidly disappearing in Brazil, merging into the white stock; in some areas the tendency seems to be towards the stabilization of mixed-bloods in a new ethnic type similar to the Polynesian” (Freyre, 1945:119)  Though he paints a portrait of a racially equitable Brazil, he does acknowledge social stratification.  “There has been and still is, social distance between different groups of the population.  But social distance is more truly today than in the colonial age or during the Empire (when slavery was central to the social structure) the result of class consciousness rather than of race and color prejudice.  As the Brazilian attitude is one of tolerance toward people who have African blood, but who can pass for white, nothing is more expressive than the popular saying ‘anyone who escapes being an evident Negro is white’ “(Freyre 119)

Marvin Harris, disputes Freyre’s findings. During his field research in Brazil, he used photos of Brazilians with different phenotypes; showing them to a variety of Brazilians of different classes and colors, asking them to racially categorize the persons depicted.  Forty different racial types were elicited including: “branco, preto, sarara, moreno claro, moreno escuro, mulato, moreno, mulato claro, mulato oscuro, negro, caboclo, escuro, cabo verde, claro, aracuaba, roxo, amarelo,  sarara vermelho, caboclo escuro, pardo, branca sarara, mambebe, branco caboclado, moreno oscuro, mulato sarara, gazula, cor de cinza clara, crelo, louro, moreno clarocaboclado, and mulato pele“. (Harris, 1964:58)

Harris explains that the system of hypodescent does not apply to Brazilian racial politics.  “Brazilians say ‘money whitens’, meaning that the richer a dark man gets the lighter will be the racial category assigned to him by his friends, relatives and business associates.” (Harris, 1964:59)  The whitening process can take place from one generation to the next, or within the same family.  “A Brazilian child is never automatically identified with the racial type of one or both of his parents, nor can his racial type be selected from one of only two possibilities.  Over a dozen racial categories may be recognized in conformity with the combinations of hair color, hair texture, eye color and skin color which actually occur.  These types grade into each other like the colors of the spectrum and no one category stands significantly isolated from the rest”. (Harris, 1964:57)

In one of the first major anthropological studies of black and white relations in the South of the United States, the anthropological team equated the system of color prejudice and discrimination with “caste”.  Though primarily focused on the caste and class positions of blacks vis a vis whites, they also documented color stratification within the Southern black community.  “The distinguishing traits of the white caste are skin color and hair type, so that it is to be expected that whiteness of skin and straightness of hair will have high value as class sanctions in the colored group.  Those who possess these physical traits may even become members of the upper caste by migrating and “passing for white”. ( Davis et al, 1941:234)

Though they found color stratification, they take care to point out that color and other phenotypical features are not the only determinants of class position. “High social status depends today not simply upon light skin color and “good hair”, therefore it depends upon a configuration of behavioral traits which include family status, length of formal education, manners, type of conversation, associational membership, dress and economic traits as well.” ( Davis, 1941:235)  This doesn’t mean that all light-skinned persons are in the upper strata..  The illegitimate child of a black woman ansd a white male, or a light-skinned field worker, will still be lower class.  “Other qualifications being nearly equal, colored persons having light skin and “white” types of hair will be accorded the highest station within the lower caste.  This fact does not prevent the expressions of strong antagonisms to light-skinned persons by the rest of the group. Such antagonism is an expression of the envy and humiliation of the darker individuals.”(Davis, et. al.,1941:235)

The  term “caste’ to explain the racial situation in the United States has been used by many social anthropologists, among them  Lloyd Warner, John Dollard and more recently Gerard Berriman(, Warner,1939; Dollard, 1937, Berriman, 1968) Though I can see that there may be some parallels with the caste system of India, my understanding of caste is that it has a theological component which we do not have here, though perhaps you could postulate that the national religion of the United states is racism.

Martinez Alier disputes the use of caste; “By contrasting this essentially conflictive situation with the Hindu caste system I shall question the approach of those sociologists who have studied American race relations in terms of caste.  They treat race as a distinct criterion of social stratification and endow it with false permanence, and they disregard the significant difference in the ideological frame work of the two contexts.  In Cuba, hierarchy and the norm of isogamic marriage often clashed with the  value of equality and the norm of freedom of choice in marriage.” (Martinez-Alier,7)

Many  lighter skinned blacks, whether upper class or upper “caste”,  had distinct attitudes of superiority towards their darker brethren, sometimes bordering on repugnance.  “The upper class,   thinks of the lower class as black and woolly haired, thus mentally associating the lowest social rank with the “lowest” physical traits. Whether the idea of their being also dirty is associated with blackness of skin or with lowness of economic  and social rank is a problem for a clinical psychologist( Davis et. al, 1941:235)  Harris documents these same attitudes in Brazil.  “Most Brazilians abstractly regard Negroes as innately inferior in intelligence, honesty and dependability.  Negroid physical features are universally (even by Negroes themselves) believed to be less desirable and less beautiful than Caucasoid features.  In most of their evaluations of the Negro as abstract types the whites are inclined to deride and slander.  Prejudiced and stereotyped opinions about people of intermediate physical appearance are also common.  On the whole there is an ideal racial ranking gradient, in which whites occupy the favorable  extreme, Negroes the unfavorable extreme and mulattoes the various intermediate positions. (Harris, 1964)

Much of the  terminology used here in the U.S. by blacks to denigrate, or categorize other blacks, contains and reveals those same sterotypes, and a lot of self-hatred.  Straight hair is “good hair”, tightly curled hair is”kinky”, “nappy” or “bad”.  When describing a young woman to me, one day, a friend said, “she’s black, but pretty.”  I’ve heard many variants on the same theme; “She’s brown but she has keen features”, or “she’s dark but she’s got pretty hair”, or “he’s brown-skinned but he’s got light eyes.”  The “but” is the apologetic modifier of blackness.

Helan Safa finds a similar situation in her study of a urban shantytown in Puerto Rico.  “Caucasoid features are generally considered prettier than black racial features such as kinky hair, black skin, and wide lips and noses.  The poor often use the term prieto y feo (black and ugly) in conjunction, much as they also tend to associate black and poor”  (Safa, 1974:69)  This same phenomenon exists in Martinique. “The more Caucasoid a person’s physical appearance “good” hair, thin lips, light skin, narrow nose- the greater his or her prestige(among the mulatre)(Slater, 1977:60)

 In her study of the kinship and family structure of Martinique, Miriam
Slater  applies M.G. Smith’s theoretical analysis of color stratification.  Smith deliniates  five referents for the term “color”.  They are; “1. phenotypic, 2. genealogical, 3. associational 4. cultural or behavioral, 5. structural” (Smith, 1965)

The phenotypic color of a man is his physical appearance.  The island of Martinique is very small, and consequently everyone knows everyone else’s ancestry.  If a man is phenotypically white and yet has one or more black ancestors , “he would always be called a mulatre, not a blanc.”  A phenotypically black person who is known to be part white “may, if his achieved status is high, be called mulatre brun, but more often he is simply referred to as noir.”  Associational color is determined by the status of the people with whom a person interacts. If it is observed that the person is noir, but  their social and business interactions are only with mulatres,  then that person is associationaly a mulatre.  Behavioral or cultural color refers to  life styles, status symbols, and modes of expression..(Slater, 1977 57-8)

Since women are the vehicles for the reproduction of the species, and hence reproduction of class and social position, women of color, and white women in the Caribbean and the United States carry a heavy burden of responsibility to the family for having a child of the “right color”.  The anti-miscegenation laws in many American states were developed to prevent white women in particular, from marrying black men, since the child of such an alliance would not be white, and the white women would have to take the lower class position of her mate.  When my grandmother(who was white) sought to marry my grandfather(who was black) around the turn of the century, she had to leave her native Kansas, and move to Chicago in order to marry him.  She had 16 brothers and sisters, but after she married “that nigger”, she was cut out of the family bible, and only one of her sisters kept in contact with her.  To them she was as good as dead.

Many women of color are placed in the position of being unable to marry at all, or having limited choices, due to family pressure to “advance the race’.  Historically, many made alliances with white men, but could never marry legally.  “No matter how respectable colored women were they could never transcend the fact that they were, according to the official norms of white society, concubines, never wives.  Ultimately they were as much in the power of white men as were white women”(Bush, 1981:258)

In Jamaica, many educated black women are often spinsters because they will not “marry down” in terms of education, and light men will not marry them.(Henriques, 1953)  In Martinique, on the other hand, it is the upper class mulatre families who are most  likely to have vieilles filles (old maids).  “These women will not marry down, nor will they even marry up, although such opportunities are rare…They do not always remain old maids.  They sometimes become involved with educated blacks but will only live en menage with them; there is no possibility of marriage”. ( Slater, 1977:173)

Afro-Puerto Rican anthropologist Angela Jorge describes the stifling emotions felt  by black Puerto Rican women who grow up in the United States, faced with the pressure to adelantar la raza (marry light to advance the race).  She may be rejected by Puerto Rican men because of her dark color, yet if she seeks to form an alliance with an African American she hears “Con esa no juegues” (literally “Don’t play with that one!”) but it conveys a meaning of not getting involved with a particular individual because of a potential threat.  To marry outside of the culture is to lose the family, and “give up her identity as a Puerto Rican” (Jorge, 1979:139)  Martinez Alier defines this as the interaction “between racism, women’s subordination, and class inequality.” (Martinez-Alier xvii-xviii)

Puerto Ricans in the United States face a particularly difficult situation.  Where many have been defined as white on the Island, or have been part of the middle tier socially, neither black nor white, when they come to the United States they are faced with a society in which to be black is not okay, and many cannot phenotipically evade the “one drop rule.”  For this reason, many cling to Spanish as a means of identyfying themselves as not African Americans.  This separation, rather than identification is aided and abetted by the practice of allowing people to choose a category called Hispanic, when the other choices are racial.  Therefore, if faced with a choice of black,white or Hispanic, on an offical form, most Puerto Ricans, even those who are phenotypically black, choose Hispanic.

Many sociologists have done studies,  which minimize racism, both in Puerto Rico, and among Puerto Ricans here in the U.S.Melvin Tumin, whose major work on social class and sociasl change in Puerto Rico is includes a chapter on color, concludes that color is of minor importance.  His research methodology was the use of survey questionairres, and any anthriopologist worth her salt might suspect that the self-reporting on any area such as this might be faulty.   He states, “It  seems, on one hand, that skin color is among the facts least taken into account where ordinary life chances are concerned.  But being a Negro or White does matter, apparently when dealing with the status-conscious members of the upper and middle classes, and when personal and intimate relations are at stake.  One can then say that on the main avenues of Puerto Rican life, little attention is paid to skin color (Tumin,1971:233)

He then addresses job discrimination, minimizing the results of his own survey, since only 12% reported discrimination by color.  “The evidence urges upon us the conclusion that skin color is considerably less important in Puerto Rico than in the United States: that it is virtually of no significance whatsoever in many important areas of life; that the majority feel that people of darker color are not blocked from major opportunities by their color; that only on job opportunity is there any serious question.  (239)  Since only a small minority-just over 12%-talk of job discrimination, and the vast majority do not-it is fair to say that color discrimination in general is a subtle and minor theme in Puerto Rican life.(Tumin, 1971:239)

It is hard for me to believe that he studied Puerto Ricans, or any Caribbean population, but his study results fall in line with the elite Puerto Rican “partyline”. “Assuming that skin color remains as irrelevant (my emphasis) as it was at the time of the study, it can be predicted that Puerto Rico can move toward the desired social goals without concern for the kind of trouble and conflict which with Mainland society has experienced in its attempts to assure equal opportunity for education and jobs”.(Tumin,1971:246)  Perhaps this study was constructed to assure corporate headquarters that they can safely move to Puerto Rico, a land where they will not have to deal with any discrimination suits, or EEO  problems.

Along the same lines but addressing the Puerto Rican in the United States, Moynihan and Glazer blithely state,  “They carry a new attitude toward color-an attitude that may be corrupted by continental color prejudice but it is more likely, since this is in harmony with the trends that are making all nations part of a single world community, that the Puerto Rican attitude toward color, or something like it, will become the New York attitude.” (Glazer and Moynihan,1963)  They go on to say that “In the lower classes, where everyone is poor, there is no strong sense of difference based on color. Intermarriage is common and people are aware of color and hair and facial features as they are aware of any other personal and defining characteristics of an individual.  They say he is darker or light
er the way we say he is blonde or brunet, and personal taste in marriage and sexual partners may lead one, it appears, to someone of differing color almost as often as it will to someone of the same color. (Glazer and Moyhnihan,1963)  This assertion is contradicted by Jorge, and  Safa in her shantytown study.  She asserts that ” Most Puerto Ricans would also object to their children marrying a colored person” (Safa, 1974:69)

She goes on to look at discrimination in employment.  In Puerto Rico “darker-skinned persons certainly are at a disadvantage in getting jobs, education and other opportunities for upward mobility.  Tito relates how a “colored’ man (muchacho de color) was denied a job at his factory, simply on the basis of race, although he was a good worker and had a family.  Instead the boss, whom Tito labeled a racist, hired a single, blond fellow who would make a better appearance to the public. (Safa,1974:69)

The intersection of class and race are of primary importance in Puerto Rico since the upper classes are lighter than those beneath them. “In short, racism increases the higher one ascends the social ladder”. (Safa,1974:69)  Though Glazer and Moynihan downplay racism, they contradict themselves by quoting Father Joseph Fitzpatrick   “The traditional upper class always prided itself on being white and has always been very sensitive to the matter of color or racial characteristics.  They became important factors in anyone’s attempt to claim identity with a pure Spanish lineage. (In the 1940’s, for example, the fraternities at the University of Puerto Rico and exclusive clubs in San Juan did not admit anyone who is clearly colored)…The same attitude is found also among some of the poor people who apparently seek distinction by identifying themselves as pure white…”  They then go on to posit that perhaps American attitudes toward color have influenced middle class Puerto Ricans, meanwhile noting that all white social clubs  “preceded the American occupation, because for them whiteness was a sign of pure (and legitimate descent, and the all white fraternities of the University reflected the same attitudes”.(Glazer and Moynuihan, 1963:134)

Quoting Father Fitzpatrick again   “But personal problems are not only a reflection of reality but also of what one thinks reality is, and Puerto Ricans may feel their degree of color is more of a problem than it really is.  It is perhaps suggestive of this problem that Dr. Berle reports a social worker’s comment that every Puerto Rican drug addict he has dealt with was the darkest in his family.”  This of course is an exaggeration, however , when I was  working with intravenous drug users in East Harlem, doing life histories for a research project, many of the addict’s stories included feelings of extremely low self-esteem in relation to their color, and family attitudes about it.

Pedro Pietri, a New York black Puerto-Rican poet, in a poem entitled “Puerto Rican Obituary”, concludes it with a call for the day when to be called “negrito y negrita means to be called Love.” (Young Lords Party & Abrahmson, 1971)  When Felipe Luciano, member of the Last Poets, first began performing his poem “Jibaro”,  because the opening lines were…”Jibaro, mi negro lindo”(my pretty nigger), many members of the audience were offended, for the jibaro (Puerto Rican peasant) is traditionally depicted as white.

I recently attended a wake for the mother of a friend, who I will call Gloria,is an attractive light-skinned Puerto Rican woman, whose hair is dyed blonde, and who wears green tinted contact lenses.  She did not know many of her mother’s relatives, since she was raised by an aunt in Puerto Rico.  Sshe spent much of the time during the wake pointing out to me her “black relatives”,all on her mother’s side of the family.  She was being quite liberal about the whole thing, until I got into a conversation with her aunt, on the fathers side; her father’s sister.  I asked the aunt, Ana, the difference between jaba, grifa, and mulata, explaining to her that I was doing a paper for school.   [Since Puerto Ricans express racial differences according to gradations of color, each classification representing a gradation of color among black Puerto Rican women will be accompanied by different attitudes and perceptions about color.  The terms mulata, jaba, triguena, grifa, negra, and prieta are all defined according to color gradation and traits(Jorge, 1979:30).

Ana was pleased to be asked, and in making her explanation, she pointed to Gloria and said.”She is mulata.”   Gloria turned red, and angrily replied to her aunt, “I’m white, everyone always takes me for Italian…and papi (daddy) looked Dutch or German.”  Ana looked at Gloria and shook her head, saying emphatically, “pero tu es mulata, porque tu abuela era una prieta.(But you are mulatto, because your grandmother{her mother’s mother} was black.)  My friend turned to me, agast, still begging for confirmation that other people always assumed her to be white.  I offered her no comfort.

The history of Puerto Rico provides an answer to the confusion surrounding the racial status of many Puerto Ricans.  In Puerto Rico during the 19th century, the regimen de la libreta (the workbook system, named after the book in which the laborer’s work contracts were noted down) mobilized thousands of Puerto Rican jibaros as de facto unfree laborers who had to work side by side with de jure slaves, creating an interracial work force for the first time in the Caribbean since the middle of the seventeenth century (Hoetink, 1985:67)  These black slaves, ex-slaves and campesinos intermarried, inter-mixed, and because Puerto Rico had never imported as many slaves as Jamaica, Cuba, or Haiti, the predominance of pure blacks in the lowest levels never took place.  There were mas many poor whites as blacks.  Also ” the predominance of a large intermediate group of free colored persons” made social mobility possible “for most people who suffered from no practical inequalities and were not visually and culturally distinct from the elite.” (Knight 1970:191)

Many of the mountainous regions, which were useless for sugar cane production were populated by poor whites.  The coastal regions  traditionally had the larger population of blacks and mulattos.  Today,” it is  in the traditional sugar areas of the low coastal plains, and increasingly in the poorer sections of the overcrowded  cities as well, that parts of the lower strata give physical evidence of slavery’s impact on the population.  They do not escape from the prejudices that such a status seems to provoke everywhere.”  (Hoetink, 1985:68)

The existence of a racial hierarchy, darks on the bottom, the lighest, the elite at the top “conspires to encourage the colored elite to emulate white groups, both culturally and in physical appearance.” (Hoetink, 1985:70)  Hence, my friend Gloria’s green contact lenses.

The same situation with migration to the U.S. , that has been the bane of Puerto Ricans since the Marine tiger migrations of the 1940’s, is now being faced by Dominicans.  Currently the largest foreign-born population in New york City, many Dominicans are racially darker than Puerto Ricans, but  they have no terminology that indicates blackness.  If a Dominican is dark, he is “Indio”.  Due to a hostile historical relationship with Haiti, and an influx of Haiti migrant farm laborers, Dominicans use black as an epithet for Haitians.  “Cocolo, which when used by a Puerto Rican is a derogitory way of identifying an African American, is no longer a term of derision in the Dominican Republic.  Due to an influx of well-educated black West Indians(non-Haitian), the term cocolo now indicates a certain middle-class status, and brings with it respect.  Dominicans in Washington Heights now have bumper stickers on their cars which read “Cocolito
” (little cocolo). “In Dominican society, where the presence of dark-skinned bureaucrats and military officers next to light-skinned peasants attests to the lack of a rigid hierarchy based on color, but where incidents of discrimination on the basis of physical appearance are common as well, it is hardly surprising that racial tensions tend to be projected upon the Haitians.  Haitians are viewed by Dominicans not only as a blacker people( a stereotype that would be hard to refute) but also as culturally inferior.” (Hoetink 1985:65)

Saint Dominique (Haiti) was characterized by potentially explosive lines of division, not only between the oppressed slaves and their masters, but also between whites and coloreds.  “At one time in its early days, the country was split into a black kingdom in the north, and a colored republic in the south.”(Hoetink,1985:63) Because the free colored population had grown, but due to their marginalization, they were not allowed to buy land in the rich sugar cane areas, and were being excluded from many activities in the towns “An unexpected consequence of that freedom was the peculiar economic strength that the gens de couleur acquired in Saint-Domingue, a strength ironically related to their marginality.  One constant appears in the individual histories of many successful gens de coulour: the early ownership of small mountain plots, sometimes indigo places, but most often a place a vivres or provision grounds.  Because of the racism that prevailed in the towns and on the plantations, gens de coulour seemed to have used their freedom to acquire small mountain or mid-altitude lands untouched or unwanted by sugar planters and many petits-blancs (small whites) -, who did not belong to the plantocracy).(Trouillot,1982)

These mountain plots grew in size, and the free coloreds began to plant coffee.  Before the revolution, the free coloreds, controlled almost all of the coffee production of Haiti, no small enterprise.  However, black slaves and mulattos hated each other passionately.  Many mullatoes sided with the French initially, against the black slave revolts, but when they were rejected by those same whites they admired, they through in their lot with the blacks. (James, 1989)  The contemporary Haitian light-skinned aristocracy traces its ancestry to those gens de coulour who controlled the coffee plantations.

Last but not least in our tour of color is Cuba.  Cuba is also a three tiered state, with whites in the elite, a middle class of mixed-bloods, and a large black sharecropping mass, particularly in Oriente province.  -” Havana and the Cuban sugar area had acquired a reputation for racism by the end of the nineteenth century.  In 1912 some 3,000 Afro-Cubans, demanding more economic and political power and the right to organize a black political party, were ruthlessly killed by government troops.” (Hoetink,1985:66)

Revolutionary Cubans have made much of earlier heroes, pointing to Antonio Maceo, who was black.  Eldridge and Kathleen  Cleaver of the Black Panther Party, named their  son, who was born in Cuba, after Maceo.  It was hoped that the massive alphabetization (anti-illiteracy) program in Cuba, undertaken after the revolution would do much to eliminate the barriers between black and white Cubans, and  the revolution,” whose successful efforts at distributive justice(rather than at increased productivity) has generally proved beneficial to the lower and darker skinned strata of society, even though an early post revolutionary effort to establish a black Communist party was quickly suppressed. during the early years of the new regime.”(Hoetink,1985:67)

When the doors were opened to the United States, a majority of the white upper class Cubans fled, and with them many of the middle class. This resulted in the opening up of many professions and positions to blacks.  However, “without minimizing the positive effects of the revolution, it should be observed that blacks have not become conspicuous by their increased presence in the upper echelons of the Cuban government, no matter how much this government (in remarkable parallel with Brazil) tries to stress the countries African roots in its dealings with countries in Africa and in the non-Hispanic Caribbean”  (Hoetink, 1985:67)

Many U.S. Cubans from the earlier migrations, look down on the recent wave of immigrants, for those from the Mariel boatloads are not only lower in class, but most are darker in color.  And in Miami, the color conflicts exist, not only among Cubans, but between Cubans and Haitians, as well as against American blacks.

Here in the United States, the history of slavery helped create a light-skinned educated elite, and that elite exists to this day, though there is evidence that it is “browning slightly”, due to an influx of the new black middle-class.  I have asked my mother to be one of my principle informants on this issue, since she and my father are now retired, and have moved to Philadelphia, where she was born, which is one of the headquarters of the old light-skinned aristocracy.  Since they have retired, they spend much of their time attending  “black society functions”, dances, balls, tea-parties and fashion shows.  She called me recently to inform me that she had attended the “Old Philadelphian’s” annual spring dance.

The Old Phildelphian’s is a social organization that has been in existance since the turn of the century.  She reported that there were approximately 1,000 people in attendance, by invitation only, and the dance was held at Philadelphia’s most exclusive hotel.  I asked her” how many people were light skinned?”  She replied, “About one third ofd the peple there could have passed for white.  Another third was ‘her color'( meaning beige).  Of the final third, many were light brown, but with acquiline features, or straight hair.  One percent of the final third were black. Three generations were represented, one third in their eighties, one third in their fifties or early sixties and the final third in their forties. The new President is a young man I grew up with, and he is light-skinned as well.  Perhaps there is hope for the younger people in their twenties”, she said.

A rapid perusal of mass media publications for blacks, including magazines like Essence, and Ebony, make it clear that hair-straightening, skin lightening and eye color changing products are alive and well, and making lots of money.  Many black models still resemble spray painted white women, and though rap videos feature “boyzs from the hood’, the girls with them are blonde, extensioned, be-wigged, and light-skinned.  

 Wilson, Russell and Halls book on “the color complex”, with a title of the same name, though not an academic publication, is selling well in the black community.  The authors explore the slave history and manifestations of contemporary intra-racial color prejudice by analyzing popular culture; films, magazine ads, rap music and television programs.  They also interview black psychologists, and due to the current trend for surgical “correction” of broad noses and lip form, (symbolized by Michael Jackson and family) there is an interesting survey of plastic surgeons.  One of the most significant chapters in the book addresses the new issue of color discrimination in the workplace, citing cases presently being adjudicated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Interestingly, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act specifically “identifies ‘color’ as separate from race, religion, sex and national origin.” (Russell, Wilson, Hall, 1992: 125-26).

Unfortunately, since the book is written for popular appeal, it is neither well-cited, nor theoretical, though it provides a useful overview of the social problem.  It does not utilize a class analysis, nor does it tie the continued existence of color stratification to the greater society, except historically.  It was
primarily written as a effort towards consciousness raising.  In conclusion, the authors state, “We offer this book in the hope that it will help to heal some of the wounds the color issue has inflicted on the African-American community.  The first step is awareness.”(Russell, Wilson, Hall, 1992).

There is  now a growing body of feminist literature, on black women, written by black women, and Patrica Hill Collins, has devoted a section of a chapter to the discussion of skin-analysis and self-hatred among black women, citing the works of many black female authors,.analyzing  “controlling images” from popular culture.  Most of her quotes are drawn from literary sources: Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, etc.  I was pleasantly  surprised to find that she had mentioned my film.  Though I realize that there is not a large body of social science literature on skin color, written by black women, I was surprised that there were no citations from the work of Angela Gilliam, Faye Harrison , or Lynn Bolles, all of whom have addressed the color question in their work on race, class and gender.

As the cry goes out for cultural diversity in academia, as more African-American,  Puerto Rican, and Afro-Caribbean scholars begin to do research on their own cultures, it is important for all of us, not to  overlook the role played by color in our history, and in current power relationships.  This is not “airing dirty linen in public”, it is opening the door for change, and change is necessary, if we are to forge stronger alliances, to combat racism from without, and within.


Michelle and Barack Obama visually represent change for many of us.  Michelle is not a member of the traditional African-American  “beige aristocracy”. Barack, in choosing to marry a woman darker than himself has broken the sterotypical pattern of black male female relationships.  

The First couple, especally Michelle Obama symbolizes for black women everywhere that darker skin tones are beautiful.  

Lest you think my research, and observations are outdated – take a look at this award-winning  video piece done by a NY High School student Kiri Davis which has been widely circulated.  I show it in my women’s studies classes:

A Girl Like Me

If you’ve made it down this far, thanks for reading. My apologies in advance for posting the entire paper, and not a summary, but I will defend that decision, simply because the topic may be completely new to some of you, and I did not want to simply do a surface piece.  


  1. spacemanspiff

    … share this diary with us.

    (In the 1940’s, for example, the fraternities at the University of Puerto Rico and exclusive clubs in San Juan did not admit anyone who is clearly colored)…

    The “Blow Dryer” Test.

    The would turn a dryer on your hair and if it barely moved then

    you were not allowed to join. That meant you had “pelo malo” — bad hair.

    Haitians are viewed by Dominicans not only as a blacker people( a stereotype that would be hard to refute) but also as culturally inferior.”

    They call them morenos ( blackened).

    I am very pale although I tan well for a pasty dude. But, my younger bro has curly hair and is darker in skin color. 1 of my grandmothers is Spanish but my other grandmother was “india” ( dark skin color with straight fine hair). I have “black” cousins and I have “white cousins” who share the same blood lineage. I am happy to report that things are looking up. This younger generation is (for the most part) color blind. Although we are different in many ways from the US the trend among youth is I would say practically the same. Can’t underestimate the US has on PR both in bad things and great things.

    Gracias por compartir! Un abrazote!

  2. great piece – hard to read at time but amazing nonetheless.  i wish i could say i fully understand the social and anthropological ramifications of the race issue in the states – but i don’t.

    but what is it with us humans anyway?  aside from the shades and tones of our skin colour, we all bleed and breathe the same.

    great, great diary denise.

  3. This isn’t a diary, this is an education. Down the line, sometime, we should collect these diaries and turn them into a book. I’m not kidding.

    I’m going to dip into this essay again and again. I know the States a bit, the Caribbean less, and Latin America is terra incognita for me. But you connect up all the dots Denise.

    My experience with Colombians in London (there are 60,000 of them – the same number of Chileans) is that there is an acute racial consciousness about them, and it tends to mean ‘the darker the worse’. The same is true with my experience of Cuban Americans (I once wrote a musical set in Calle Oche) and the racial epithets banded around were quite amazing.

    I have to blame the Spanish empire for some of this. Spain is amazingly colour conscious. Madrilenos, Basques, Catalans, diss the dark people from Andalusia. They themselves diss Morenos and Gitanos. Unlike central and Eastern Europe, it all seems to be about colour – darkness, blackness, moorishness, Nubianess.

    But before the Spanish, I kind of blame India. Having lived there, I would notice the colour segregation between North and South, and nearly invariably in terms of colour. Adverts for wives in Northern India would require, or sell, a ‘wheaten bride’, because lighter is better, and the darker the more dravidian: the whiter the more ‘aryan’.

    In Africa, or at least the Kenya I know, the distinctions are different. It’s not colour, but body build and lifestyle. You can spot a Masai from miles, tall and lanky, and Kikuyus and Luo (Obama’s father’s tribe) will avoid by a large measure. And at least in Kenya there is some clarity about the political competition underlying it all. Masai are herdsmen, and will often trample over the crops of farmer Kikuyus.

    Don’t think a colour doesn’t operate at the lighter end of the register either. Thanks to my Armenian roots, I’m very dark by English standards (though the black in my hair has melded to ‘silver’ – not grey!!! – these days). Being brought up in the 60s in the suburbs of North London, I was often asked, ‘where are you from?’. At the age of six, arriving at a new school, someone asked me that question with the immediate follow up: “Are you from India?”. It sounded cool and I answered “Yes”. The girl got more excited: “Are you a prince?”. I said “Yes”. She then said “Do you ride on an elephant?” I said, of course, “Yes”.

    I felt so guilty about this that, sixteen years later, I ended up living in India as some kind of redress.

    My kid brother, half bajian, has experienced both sides of this equation, and he could write better than I about it. But in England at least, black is also dark, exotic, romantic.

  4. Quite a few years ago I read a book about a man who accidentally discovers he is one-sixteenth black. He lived in the upper midwest, I think Minnesota, and thought he was mostly Scandinavian. This was set sometime in the 50’s or 60’s, so in many southern states he would have been legally classified as black. The novel deals with his search to discover the meaning of his black ancestry. I remember the novel fairly well, but I’ll be darned if I can remember the title or the author.

    That book was one of those lucky discoveries that happen by accident. Another great book I found that way was The Last Angry Man by Gerald Green. That second book has nothing to do with race or this diary, but I just had to through it out there. If you haven’t read it yet, look for a copy. It’s great.

  5. Thanks for sharing that, even if it is going to take me a revisit or two to read it all.

    “Ev’ybody funny.  Now you funny, too.”  There are as many shades of wigged-out thinking about color as their are actual skin tones, for at least as many reasons.  In your thesis, in the video and in the comments we find a sampling of views on skin tone – but the overarching message of your diary is important: the set of tones on the faces of the First Family are such as to shake many of our preconceptions to their foundations.

    I don’t think it is a point of much contention to anyone that Light Black has in recent US history been less a burden to bear than Dark Black.  Michelle’s walking refutation of all of that is bound to push that meme to the fore long enough for it to at the very least change dramatically if not perhaps even completely melt or reverse.  She is about as impressive a person as anyone could ask for intellectually, by force of character, and – let’s face it – as a whacking great plate of oh-my-god-gorgeous with a heaping side of I-don’t-care-who-you-are-you-gotta-admit-it.  

    Two delightful girls with features and tones to reflect about anything you could see in America circling around the parents of the house don’t leave a lot of room for chroma-parsing, either…

    Yes, there is a lot more going on with the socio-visual dynamic of the First Family than simply “blackness”.  There will be few in the country who will be unable to be positively swayed by the shared experience of observing this family for the next eight years.

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