diversity and speech

The light-skinned ‘negro’ label – by Terry Howard

Words are powerful. And the emotional reactions to certain words can be especially so. Case in point are the likely reactions to the words in the title above, light-skinned, negro. My hunch is that reactions probably ranged from shock, mild surprise to “what’s the big deal,” depending to a large extent on who you are and your experiences along the color line. Which takes us to Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Although the furor simmered down not long after, Reid found himself at the center of a firestorm years back for suggesting that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama had a political advantage over other African-American candidates because he was “light-skinned” and had “no negro” dialect, unless he wanted to have one. Remember that incident folks?

Now too often the problem with a very public faux pas – the Reid matter, case in point – is that all hell typically breaks loose, fingers get pointed and confusion reigns in the aftermath leaving many legitimate questions unanswered. This reality seems especially true on the thorny race terrain in the U.S., where such comments can cause those who genuinely want to understand to end up running for cover.

Brief history of labels

The truth is that all language evolves, is dynamic and shifts over time to reflect societal realities. For example, terms to describe people of African descent in the United States have been Negro, colored, black, Afro-American and African-American. Let’s begin with the word “negro,” a word that was at the core of the Reid flare-up.

“Negro” derives from the Latin word niger. After the Civil War, “negro” was the generally accepted term and in the early 20th century, “colored” became largely recognized as an appropriate descriptor. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) founded in 1910, reflects its use. Since the late 1960s, negro was felt to mean subservient or docile behavior and, thus, fell out of favor by many in the African-American community. And similarly, the word “colored” met the same fate, particularly among the younger generation of African-Americans.

Next, the word “black” – once a pejorative label – was chosen by some members of the community in the ’60s in resistance to the historical negative stereotypes that were associated with the other words. Thus, “Black Power” – often accompanied by raised clenched fists and large “afros,” or “froes” – became the slogan of the sixties along with “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and “Black is Beautiful.” Today “Black lives matter” has forged its way into the lexicon fomented in large part by shooting deaths of African-American men. By the early 1970s, black began to give way, in some circles, to Afro-American and then, in the 1980s, to African-American, which many prefer today.

An important point that must be made at this junction: People of any group do not think or feel the same way about identity words and there is and always has been a variety of preferences and opinions about words and the meanings that they hold. Point number two: Discovering respectful terminology for members of every ethnic group today will not guarantee acceptable use tomorrow or the next day.

Now does all this mean that we must constantly “walk on eggshells” around one another, bobbing and weaving like two prize fighters worrying about which terms could tick someone off? No. Instead, consider having a conversation when appropriate. You may be pleasantly surprised by the willingness of folks to share their personal thoughts on identity words. The key is to be respectful and make it safe to ask questions by both parties. Inquire about his or her heritage or how he or she identifies and how you prefer to be identified. Every person has the right to self-identify, or not, as he or she chooses.

Referring to President Obama as “light-skinned” was Sen. Reid’s other problematic choice of words. The issue here, and it is a complex one, is the issue of “colorism.” This stirs powerful emotions, particularly on the part of many dark-skinned African-Americans, many of whom can share story after story of being treated differently, both within their community and outside their community, based on their skin color. And similarly, but no less painful, are the experiences of many light-skinned African-Americans who can tell you about being labeled “high yalla,” “redbone” and other putdowns. I can speak first hand on this point given that I have a beautiful bi-racial niece and nephew who’ve experienced much of this.

Simply defined, “colorism” is the practice of placing value on skin tones with a preference for lighter skin. It is an intra-racial problem as well as an interracial one. Studies have shown that skin tone plays a powerful role in who gets ahead and who does not. To be clear, this behavior is not at all unique to the African-American community, but pervades many other cultures, as well. Okay, need more convincing? Look at magazine or television commercials featuring an African-American woman, and although it’s changing, usually she will have a light skin tone and straight hair, or that “nice” curly hair that is unlike the kinky texture most African-Americans have. In the world of sports – take the NBA – all things being equal and putting talent and team records aside, who do you think has the best commercial appeal, a light-skinned Steph Curry or a darker-skinned James Harden? Hey, I’m just asking.

Or look at the faces of Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, or the Latino soap operas where most of the star actors and actresses have European features and do not really represent the diverse range of features that the Latino population possesses. And in many Asian cultures, people who have lighter skin are thought to be of a higher class because they do not have to work in the sun, which would give them darker skin.

In the end, life is like a winding stream; you never know what’s around the next bend. The evolving nature – and color – of words lurks somewhere just up ahead. So be careful.

And don’t step on the rocks.

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