When Alexandria Peebles was growing up, her family and friends sometimes would tell her that she was so dark that she could have been a field hand during slavery.
They would tell her not to stay out in the sun too long because she would get darker.
They would say that she looked “all right” for a dark-skinned girl.
“You were taught to not be too happy about being dark skinned,” said Peebles, a senior double major in psychology and Pan-African studies.
For a long time, she said she did not feel comfortable with her skin tone.
“When I was younger I believed my color was really a problem, but as I grew older and learned about my culture and the beauty of my complexion this insecurity faded,” she said. “I love the color of my skin.”
Peebles experienced what is called, “colorism” among the African American race –- the discrimination of skin tones among one race. For many, this means that being darker is seen as bad or ugly and being lighter is seen as good or beautiful.
“Colorism is a part of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation that still defines too many of our lives,” said Mwatabu Okantah, an assistant professor in the department of Pan-African Studies. “The mythology and privileges of whiteness are so ingrained in this society that many people do not even notice the effects it has on the black race.”
Okantah said people in America live in a society that is historically based on the philosophy of a “white supremacy behavioral system.” Notions of white as beautiful and black as ugly date back to the institution of slavery.
Kandiss Lanton, a junior Pan-African studies major, said during slavery, being a light-skinned African-American person meant you had a chance of a better life.
“This thinking equates to today and explains why some people may think they are better because of the color of their skin,” Lanton said.
Robert Whipple, sophomore Pan-African studies and philosophy double major, said this thinking causes various barriers among African-American family members, and it is very damaging to the self-esteem of people in the community.
Junior entrepreneurship major Skylar Cumberlander’s skin is of lighter complexion.
During her sophomore year at Kent State, she and her best friend liked the same guy, but her friend is of dark complexion. The man was much more interested in Skylar.
“He told me I was chosen because I was lighter,” Cumberlander said.
She said she felt insulted in a way because her skin tone played a major role in her being chosen, not her personality.
“I think this comparison is absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “I have many friends of dark complexion, and they are beautiful. I think dark skin is beautiful.”
Cumberlander said the incident hurt her feelings because her friend felt that since she was darker, she wasn't good enough.
As a lighter skin-toned woman, Cumberlander said she has always been told she was better in every aspect. Her family and friends told her she was more attractive and that she would be a better girlfriend and a better wife than a darker woman.
Lanton said darker blacks that she has encountered are more likely to talk down on themselves than lighter skinned blacks.
“They say things like ‘I cannot wear this because I am dark’, but I have never heard a light skin person make those types of remarks,” she said.
Whipple said the media bombards society with the “standard of beauty” people should try to meet.
“This image is mostly light skin, long hair and light eyes, and this affects our children at a very early age, and they begin to believe that light equals beautiful,” he said.
Leia Belt, a junior psychology major, said that African-Americans have been stripped of their culture and heritage. Therefore, they do not accept their natural state as being beautiful.
“It is sad to admit but there are many individuals of darker complexion who envy their lighter brothers and sisters because we have allowed the media to define beauty,” she said.
Freshman fashion merchandising major Ariona Beninato is mixed with black, Sicilian and Japanese descent. She also has a light complexion.
Throughout her life, Beninato has experienced ridicule from the black community for her skin complexion and mix of nationalities. People would say things such as “You are confused. Do you know whether you are black or white?” or “You think you’re better because you are light-skinned?”
She is labeled as stuck-up simply because of the color of her skin.
Beninato said she always feels discouraged by these comments and does not understand why she is always perceived this way.
“I know who I am, and I am not confused,” Beninato said.
Beninato models for Kent State fashion shows on a regular basis. When she models, she has experienced dirty looks and overheard cruel comments.
“It really hurts because I work really hard at what I do, but at the same time that insecurity is theirs, not mine,” she said.
Devin Bates, a sophomore exploratory major, said he does not feel his medium complexion affects how people perceive him.
“I think because [growing up] I was a good black man with a nice personality, people liked me,” Bates said. “Maybe my skin color plays a role universally among the Caucasian race, but not amongst the black race. If I was any darker I would love it, and if I was any lighter I would love it. I love my skin, it’s mine and I am proud to be in it.”
Belt, who believes her natural skin color is beautiful, said the first step to recovery is for African-Americans to educate themselves and their children about their African heritage.
“If African-Americans tell their children that they are not less beautiful than their light or white counterparts because their hair curls in tight coils rather than loose waves, and their mocha skin is not commonly seen on Barbies, younger generations may begin to love and respect who they are more,” she said.
Okantah said this can be improved but each generation has to contribute to the improvement of self-acceptance among the black race.
“Nothing is forever, otherwise blacks would still be slaves on the plantation,” Okantah said. “Each generation has a role to play in this struggle, just as our ancestors dreamed of freedom, African Americans must dream of a time when their own natural beauty is celebrated.”
Contact Kara Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.