Pride or prejudice?
A formally taboo topic among Asian-Americans and Latinos comes out into the open as skin tone consciousness sparks a backlash
Whether you call it "colorism" or the "color complex," the politics of skin tone play an active role in the African-American community. The groundbreaking 1992 book "The Color Complex" brought the phenomenon of favoritism toward light-skinned blacks into the mainstream. It traced its origins to America's slave-holding past, when white masters mated with their African slaves. But colorism's grip on society continues into the 21st century. You see it in the honey-colored hootchies who reign in R&B and hip-hop videos. You see it in the faces of golden-toned celebrities -- Halle Berry, Queen Latifah, and Beyonce -- whom major cosmetic companies hire to endorse their products.
What you hear less about is how the color complex threads through the Asian-American and Latino communities. In these worlds, elders caution children to stay out of the sun so they don't get too tan. The ideal spouse is often pale. These sentiments are the vestiges of home countries where skin color has everything to do with perceptions of class and wealth.
Cuban-American pop star Christina Milian, who scored a hit this summer with "Dip It Low," dragged colorism into the open in the July issue of Latina magazine. In a cover-story profile, she demanded people expand their idea of Latin beauty beyond the light-complexioned examples of Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek. Director Mira Nair explored the politics of skin color in the South Asian community in her critically acclaimed 1991 film "Mississippi Masala." The fair-is-best mentality prevails, however. Skin-whitening creams do big business in Hong Kong, the Philippines, Japan, and Malaysia. The stars of telenovelas, the Spanish-language soaps that air on Telemundo and Univision, are generally blond and pale. Flick on the TV and you may catch L'Oreal's ad for its True Brown hair color featuring Aishwarya Rai. With her striking blue-gray eyes and milky skin, the Bollywood actress could easily pass for white. Despite the pervasiveness of the message, the preference for light complexions among Asian-American and Latino communities is so minimally explored you most often read about it in scholarly articles or books.
This is dirty-laundry territory. Ethnic groups don't want this aspect of their culture publicized. Two sisters in their 20s -- one creamy-skinned, one caramel-colored -- eagerly told the Globe how these issues play out in their Mexico City hometown: dance clubs that will not let in dark-hued people; a country in which the haves tend to be light-skinned descendents of the Spanish or French, and the have-nots darker indigenous Indians. But a conversation at one sister's home about the skin-color dynamics in their family created such a rift between the sisters that one of them placed a frantic phone call days later asking to omit the information.
Why do such diverse ethnic groups find unity in colorism? One reason is racism. As Margaret Hunter, a sociology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, writes in this year's "Skin/Deep: How Race and Complexion Matter in the `Color-Blind' Era" "in the US where white racism still operates, light skin is defined as more beautiful and more desirable than dark skin, particularly in women."
That preconception endures in the words parents tell their children, says Anita Raj, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health , who this summer taught the graduate course "Race/Ethnicity and Health." "We all have internalized racism," says Raj. "It's in there. It's in all of us. If you're raised a certain way and someone's told you this your whole life, it's hard to get it out."
But racism merely scratches the surface of the problem. The color complex is the legacy of a jumble of issues: colonialism, class, and a Hollywood culture that exports a white-skinned, blond-haired ideal.
"There's no group in the world I have come across that's not affected by this issue," says Ronald Hall, co-author of "The Color Complex" and author of last year's "Skin Color as a Post Colonial Issue Among Asian Americans," who travels to Japan, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Mexico to study skin color. "Any place where Western values, Western norms permeate -- and that's pretty much the world we're in now -- then you have this."
Raj, Hiroko Kikuchi, and Ana Morales come from different ethnic groups, but all grew up hearing the cautionary words: "Stay out of the sun." If Kikuchi's grandmother told her, "You look darker" when Kikuchi was a child in Tokyo, she knew those words weren't a compliment. Kikuchi's younger sister, Ayako, who's slightly darker than Kikuchi's manila hue, had it even worse. Her coloring was deep enough for her grandmother and peers at school to call her "Indian," which was considered a slur, says Kikuchi, 31, an education/outreach coordinator at MIT's List Visual Arts Center.
Tanning, remembers Kikuchi, was "not something you could ever do. It's a class thing."
The class connection harks back to agrarian societies that left the lower classes toiling in sun-drenched fields. "The greater the privilege," says Raj, "the less likely you'd be exposed to the sun." Indigenous people could erase the stigma of dark skin by marrying the Europeans who colonized their countries. Now, Hall says, when you visit Central or South America you find the fair-complexioned people are the ones who possess "the education, the wealth. [They're] idealized with respect to beauty." Hall adds, "With respect to Latinos, it's still a sign of status to have white blood."
Skin color is such an obsession in these countries that specific words describe distinct skin tones from "hincha," Puerto Rican slang for "glass of milk" to "morena," literally "brown." The underlying tensions of the color complex bubble over when Latinos reach American shores. The first lawsuit over skin discrimination in the United States, tried in 1980, did not involve African Americans, says Hall. Felix v. Manquez pitted a dark-skinned Puerto Rican woman against her light-skinned Puerto Rican supervisor.
Kikuchi thinks her grandmother's negative opinion about dark skin was also tied to conceptions of beauty. "You get more wrinkles if you tan," she believes her grandmother thought. "A woman should be beautiful." Kikuchi traces the white-skinned ideal in Japan back to the Genroku Era from 1688 to 1704, which birthed the white-faced Kabuki theater tradition. "That's the period when women started to put makeup on," she says. Women painted their faces white, their lips red and, if they were married, blackened their teeth. The popularity of one aspect of this aesthetic continues. As the International Herald Tribune stated in a February article about Japanese beauty, "the emphasis is on fairness, and the whiter, the better."
In the South Asian community of Jackson, Miss., where Raj grew up, beauty also equaled pale. "You hear this a lot," says Raj, sitting in her closet-size South End office. "`She's so beautiful, she's so fair."' Her sister repeats the cycle of their youth by cautioning her children to stay out of the sun. That's something Raj, the mother of two, would never do.
"[My sister] married an Indian; I married an American," Raj explains. "That's the difference. I want my kids to get some color so they look more like me." Still, Raj feels that her cafe au lait hue can get only so dark. "I look at people who have dark skin and think they are very beautiful," Raj says. "But I feel I'm not supposed to have that."
Ana Morales may have skin the color of sand, but her family taught her to think of herself as white. She loved darkening her body in the sun of her Puerto Rican homeland -- much to her mother's horror. "Every time I came home from the beach, she was like, `Oh, my God.' . . . And it wasn't about skin cancer," says Morales, 27, editor of the local Latino e-magazine Candela and author of the Globe's monthly "Latin Scene" column. "She thought I was just ugly and she would give me all of these products to get rid of the tan immediately."
Don't confuse the desire for pale skin with a self-hating desire to be Caucasian, says Morales. The goal was to be "not necessarily white and blonde, but Spanish," she says.
And don't think this mindset affects everyone of color. Luis Leon, Morales's husband, says he didn't become aware of the politics of skin color until he and his family moved to New Jersey in 1989. He grew up in Puerto Rico's countryside to a mother he describes as "snow white" and a father who sported an Afro. In school Leon learned Puerto Ricans were a mixture of Spanish, African, and Indian cultures. "I wasn't even thinking that she was white and he was -- there was no definition," says Leon, 26, who lives in East Weymouth. "It was just mom and dad."
Morales thinks Leon's ability to escape the drama of colorism directly relates to class. Leon agrees. "It's not a skin issue in Puerto Rico unless you move up the social hierarchy," he says. "That's when it gets as clear and as obvious as here in the US."
Leon's mother felt the first sting of discrimination at a New Jersey hospital. Her white skin, he believes, caused the black and Latino workers to treat her less diligently than their browner-skinned patients. As a fair-complexioned South Asian woman, Gouri Banerjee finds her skin color places her at a disadvantage in her interactions with whites and blacks.
"Being darker than Caucasians, I sense some degree of aloofness, distance, and avoidance," Banerjee, an associate professor of information technology at Emmanuel College, writes in an e-mail. Her children once regularly played at a soccer field in Winchester, but the white people there rarely bid her hello. When Banerjee visits expensive stores, she finds she has to seek out salespeople: "I am not usually served because of my dark skin."
That "dark" skin doesn't translate into automatic acceptance among brown people. Banerjee must make the first overtures to African- and Caribbean-Americans, she says, "because I am not seen as dark enough. . . I have many black students in my classes at Emmanuel College, and it takes me a while to break through the barriers of color and race and reach them as human beings and aspiring young adults."
Having pale skin does have its privileges, however. "I am very aware of being fair-complected," says Raj, "and I do think that I am treated differently because of that." Ask Raj to elaborate and she begins to backtrack. "It's so hard when you are guessing," she says vaguely, "but I think in some ways, you know, life's a little easier." She summons up an example from her days as an undergraduate in the late 1980s at Mississippi College in Clinton, Miss., where potential beaus considered Raj light enough to be a possible date but too dark to actually ask out.
Bronx-born Nyvia Colon, a first-generation Puerto Rican who grew up in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury, used to hear these words of wisdom from her grandfather: "Don't marry a black man." His comments confused young Colon. After all, her grandfather had what Colon calls "very dark skin," kinky hair, and light eyes. She was tempted to ask him, "Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately?"
However, her grandfather's advice is being heeded by an increasing number of people of color. Third-generation Latinos and Asians marry out of their race more than 50 percent of the time, says Barry Edmonston, director of the Population Research Center at Portland State University in Oregon. Their spouses are usually Caucasian.
In Colon's mind, many Latinos sense that having dark skin in the United States can make life infinitely harder. "There are a lot of [Latin] people who do not want to be mistaken for `black,"' says Colon, "even if the color [of] their skin is black. The perception in the Latino community . . . is that if you are considered black you don't have a great chance to be financially successful."