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Authors: Ibram X. Kendi

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An ancestral pull toward Dark people? Wishful thinking to exonerate my anti-Light colorism. I had antiracist intentions, unmindful that the car of racism can drive just as far with the right intentions. To be an antiracist is not to reverse the beauty standard. To be an antiracist is to eliminate any beauty standard based on skin and eye color, hair texture, facial and bodily features shared by groups. To be an antiracist is to diversify our standards of beauty like our standards of culture or intelligence, to see beauty equally in all skin colors, broad and thin noses, kinky and straight hair, light and dark eyes. To be an antiracist is to build and live in a beauty culture that accentuates instead of erases our natural beauty.



F
OR IT IS
well known,” attested Anglican missionary Morgan Godwyn in an antislavery pamphlet in 1680, “
that the Negro’s…do entertain as high thoughts of themselves and of their Complexion, as our Europeans do.” Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the so-called “father” of Western art history, endeavored, like his fellow Enlightenment intellectuals, to bring down my ancestors’ high thoughts.
African people must accept the “correct conception” of beauty, Winckelmann demanded in
History of the Art of Antiquity
in 1764. “A beautiful body will be all the more beautiful the whiter it is.”

The slaveholder’s philosophy extended this further: A body will be all the more superior the Whiter it is—an enslaved body will be closer to the slaveholder the Whiter it is. Large
slaveholders more often worked Light people in the house and Dark people in the fields, reasoning that Light people were suited for skilled tasks and Dark people for more physically demanding tasks. A body will be all the more animalistic the darker it is. Slaveholders crafted a hierarchy that descended from the intellectually strong White down to the Light, then to the Dark, and, finally, to the physically strong Animal. “
Ferocity and stupidity are the characteristics of those tribes in which the peculiar Negro features are found most developed,” intoned one writer.

The U.S. father of colorism is Samuel Stanhope Smith, a longtime theologian who taught at and then presided over Princeton University in early America. In early 1787, the young Princeton professor gave the annual oration to the new nation’s most distinguished scholarly group, the American Philosophical Society. He spoke before the White men who wrote the U.S. Constitution that year, pledging to use “the genuine light of truth.”
Smith’s racist light: “domestic servants…who remain near the [White] persons” have “advanced far before the others in acquiring the regular and agreeable features.” Since “field slaves” live “remote from…their superiors,” their bodies “are, generally, ill shaped,” and their kinky hair is “the farthest removed from the ordinary laws of nature.” In an 1850 book, Peter Browne leaned on his unrivaled human-hair collection to classify the “hair” of Whites and “wool” of Blacks, to swear, “The hair of the white man is more perfect than that of the Negro.”

Some enslavers considered Dark people more perfect than the so-called human mule, or mulatto. The biracial “hybrid” is “
a degenerate, unnatural offspring, doomed by nature to work out its own destruction,” wrote Alabama physician Josiah Nott in the
Boston Medical and Surgical Journal
in 1843.

Enslavers’ public racist ideas sometimes clashed with their
private racist ideas, which typically described Light women as smarter, kinder, gentler, and more beautiful than Dark women.
Slaveholders paid much more for enslaved Light females than for their Dark counterparts. From long before the United States even existed until long after American slavery ended,
White men cast these “yaller gals” and “Jezebels” as seductresses, unable to admit their centuries of attempted and actual rapes.

Some abolitionists framed biracial Light people as “tragic mulattoes,” imprisoned by their “one drop” of “Black blood.” In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 bestseller,
Uncle Tom’s Cabin,
the only four runaways are the only four biracial captives. Stowe contrasts the biracial runaway George, “of fine European features and a high, indomitable spirit,” with a docile “full Black” named Tom. “Sons of white fathers…will not always be bought and sold and traded,” Tom’s slaveholder says.

Freed sons of White fathers will always be “
more likely to enlist themselves under the banners of the whites,”
Charleston Times
editor Edwin Clifford Holland contended in 1822.
Maybe Holland had the Brown Fellowship Society in mind, a biracial mutual-aid organization dedicated to “Social Purity” in Charleston. Or maybe he foresaw the
White and Light only barbershops owned by Light people in Washington, D.C., before the Civil War.

When emancipation in 1865 thrust all Black people into the land of freedom, White communities built higher walls of segregation to keep Black people out. Light communities, too, built higher walls of segregation to keep Dark people out. To maintain Light privilege, the segregated Light people further segregated their Dark brothers and sisters, preserving prewar racial disparities between Light and Dark people.
After slavery, Light people were wealthier than Dark people and more likely to have good-paying jobs and schooling.

By the end of the nineteenth century,
dozens of cities had “Blue Vein” societies, which barred Dark people “
not white enough to show blue veins,” as Charles Chesnutt put it in an 1898 short story.
Light people reproduced the paper-bag test, pencil test, door test, and comb test to bar Dark people from their churches, businesses, parties, organizations, schools, and HBCUs.

But these segregators were still segregated from Whiteness. In 1896, shoemaker Homer Plessy—of the
Plessy v. Ferguson
case, which deemed constitutional “equal but separate accommodations”—hailed from a proud Light community in New Orleans. But Mississippi professor Charles
Carroll considered the interracial intercourse of the White human and the Black “beast” the most diabolical of all sins. Naturally rebellious Light men were raping White women, leading to lynchings, Carroll warned in his 1900 book,
The Negro a Beast
. In 1901, North Carolina State University president George T. Winston disagreed,
framing Dark people as committing “more horrible crimes.” Sociologist Edward Byron Reuter added to Winston’s position, declaring that
biracial people were responsible for all Black achievements, in his 1918 book,
The Mulatto in the United States
. Reuter made Light people a sort of racial middle class, below White people and above Dark people.

Reuter defended Light people from the wrath of eugenicists demanding “racial purity” and from Dark people challenging their colorism. By the final days of 1920, the famous grandson of a biracial man had enough of Dark activists, especially
Marcus Garvey and his fast-growing Universal Negro Improvement Association. “
American Negroes recognize no color line in or out of the race, and they will in the end punish the man who attempts to establish it,” W.E.B. Du Bois declared in
The Crisis.
This from a man who probably heard the Black children’s rhyme: “
If you’re white, you’re right / If you’re yellow, you’re mellow / If you’re brown, stick around / If you’re black, get back.” This from a man who in
his own “Talented Tenth” essay in 1903 listed twenty-one Black leaders, all but one of whom was biracial. This from a man who heard Light people say over and over again that
the Dark masses needed “proper grooming,” as imparted by North Carolina educator Charlotte Hawkins Brown, who took pride in her English ancestry.

Du Bois’s avowal of a post-color Black America after the presidential election of Warren G. Harding in 1920 was as out of touch as
John McWhorter’s avowal of a post-racial America after Barack Obama’s presidential election in 2008. Either racist policies or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today. Either racist policies or Dark inferiority explained why Light people were wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Dark people in 1920. Du Bois snubbed the existence of colorism, claiming it had been “absolutely repudiated by every thinking Negro.”

Du Bois had changed his thinking by the 1930s, moving closer to the deported Garvey. He replaced Garvey as the chief antiracist critic of the NAACP, which initially
shied away from defending the Dark and poor Scottsboro Boys, who were falsely accused of raping two Alabama White women in 1931. Du Bois could not stand the NAACP’s new executive secretary, Walter White. The blue-eyed, blond-haired son of biracial parents had advocated assimilation and reportedly believed that “
unmixed” Negroes were “inferior, infinitely inferior now.” In
The Crisis
in 1934, months before leaving the NAACP, Du Bois bristled: “
Walter White is white.”

Entrepreneurs were hard at work figuring out a way for Black people, through changing their color and hair, to pass as Light or White, as Walter White had in his earlier investigations of lynchings. The post–World War I craze of the conk—short for the gel called congolene—made it as fashionable for Black men to straighten their hair as for Black women. “
I had joined that multitude of Negro men and women in America” trying “to look ‘pretty’ by white standards,” Malcolm X recalled after receiving his first conk as a teenager.
Skin-lightening products received a boost after the discovery in 1938 that monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone (HQ) lightened Dark skin.

By the early 1970s, Black power activists inspired by Malcolm X and Angela Davis—including my parents—were liberating their kinks. No more killa cuts for the Black men. No more straight hair for Black women. The higher the better was in. Not many men had a higher Afro than my father. Dark people like my father were saying it loud: “I’m Dark and I’m proud.”


S
OME
D
ARK PEOPLE
took too much pride in Darkness, inverting the color hierarchy as I did at FAMU, deploying the two-drop rule to disavow the Blackness of Light people even as they adored the Light Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and Kathleen Cleaver. And, eventually, the Light ideal came back with a vengeance, if it had ever left. In his 1988 film
School Daze,
Spike Lee satirized his experiences in the late 1970s at historically Black Morehouse College as a battle between the Dark-skinned “jigaboos” and the Light-skinned “wannabes.” My father slowly cut his Afro over the years, and my mother straightened her kinks by the time I arrived.

In the 1980s,
Light children were adopted first, had higher incomes, and were less likely to be trapped in public housing and prisons. “
The lighter the skin, the lighter the sentence” became a popular antiracist saying as the era of mass incarceration surged in the 1990s. In 2007, MSNBC’s Don
Imus compared Rutgers’s Dark basketball players—“that’s some nappy-headed hos there”—to Tennessee’s Light players—“they all look cute”—after they played in the NCAA women’s championship. In a 2014
casting call for the movie
Straight Outta Compton,
the Sandi Alesse Agency ranked extras: “A GIRLS: …Must have real hair…B GIRLS: …You should be light-skinned…C GIRLS: These are African American girls, medium to light skinned with a weave…D GIRLS: These are African American girls…Medium to dark skin tone. Character types.”

By then, singer Michael Jackson had paved the skin-bleaching boulevard traveled by rapper Lil’ Kim, baseball player Sammy Sosa, and so many more.
Skin-bleaching products were raking in millions for U.S. companies.
In India, “fairness” creams topped $200 million in 2014. Today, skin lighteners are used by
70 percent of women in Nigeria; 35 percent in South Africa; 59 percent in Togo; and 40 percent in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea.

Some White people have their own skin-care “addiction” to reach a post-racial ideal: tanning. In 2016,
the United States elected the “orange man,” as NeNe Leakes calls Trump, who reportedly uses a
tanning bed every morning. Paradoxically, some tanning White people look down on bleaching Black people, as if there’s a difference.
Surveys show that people consider tanned skin—the replica color of Light people—more attractive than naturally pale skin and Dark skin.


H
ALFTIME ARRIVED.
L
INES
of musicians linked together and outlined the entire football field. The largest human-made rectangle I had ever seen. Colored orange and green. Not Dark and Light. My eyes widened in awe at the length of the FAMU Rattler. On the far side, seven tall and slender drum majors, five yards apart, slowly low-stepped to the center of the field as announcer Joe Bullard yelled their names over our screams. They stopped when they reached the center of the field, facing us. Slowly, they twirled. The drum line sounded. The drum majors sat and then stood, leading the band in a twerk, twerk, twerk, twerk, twerk. We went mad.

“Please welcome what has become known as America’s band,” Bullard said as the band played and high-stepped around the field, knees folding into their chests with the ease of folding chairs.

“The innnnn-credible, the maaaaagnificent, the number-one band innnnnnnn the woooorld. The faaaantastic Florida A&M University Marching Band!”

Band members stopped in straight lines and faced us. They kissed their instruments.

“First the souuund!”

Daaaa…da, da, daaaaaaaa
—the trumpets blew Twentieth Century Fox’s thunderous movie introduction, blasting our ears off.

Then the show. High-stepping band members changed in and out of intricate formations and played choruses by Destiny’s Child, Carl Thomas, and Sisqó, as the tens of thousands of people sang backup as the world’s biggest choir. The R&B ballads warmed us up for the climax—the rap songs. Bucking and twerking and twisting and jumping and swaying all in unison, the band and the backup dancers were one as the crowd rapped. I kept rubbing my eyes, thinking they were deceiving me. I could not play an instrument and could barely dance. How could all these heavy-coated students play tough songs and dance sophisticated routines in harmony? Ludacris, Trick Daddy, Three 6 Mafia, Outkast—the band paraded these Southern rappers before high-stepping off the field to the theme song of
Good Times,
to our deafening applause. Utterly exhilarated, I don’t know if I ever clapped and stomped harder and louder.

BOOK: How to Be an Antiracist
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