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The Brazil Files: Busy Being Foreign

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Since I’ve been living in Brazil, I have suffered from memory loss. On occasion, I simply forget that I am black.

Let me explain . . .

I was born in the United States, in the South to be exact, during the early 1980s, to a mother with very fair skin who, along with her seven sisters and brothers, had witnessed and undergone Jim Crow segregation. My great grandmother and grandfather, a teacher and farmer, respectively, who both had dark skin, had given birth to a light-skinned child, my grandmother, who would then go on to marry a man of equally light skin who was raised to distrust black people who looked like his in-laws. My father, on the other hand, came from a family where the emphasis on high cheekbones and dark wavy hair was made more frequently than that of slightly flattened noses. We have Native blood, they’d say.

You see, colorism was alive and well in my family.

And yet years later, when I still feel compelled to remind my mother that her coarse, nappy hair is beautiful or that there is no need to insert the words “but” or “despite” as my family refers to model Alek Wek’s ebony-skinned beauty, I know that the remnants remain. At the end of the day, we are all of African descent, and in our slavemasters’, old legislators’, and white domestic terrorists’ eyes, we were all black. Yet within that category, we found various ways of re-categorizing ourselves to fit our own neat little model of racism. We created a home-kit, if you will, of silly divisions of what was acceptable and what was not in terms of appearance and behavior.

My maternal grandfather warned his daughters of the dangers of the villainous, malicious dark blacks. Of course, there were exceptions, my dark-skinned aunt and uncle being visible reminders of our inescapable heritage, and the only dark people my grandfather ever truly accepted beyond a superficial level (his race track buddies do not count). But for the most part, darker blacks were to be avoided, despite my family’s shared plight with them in a segregated south.

My mother, though quite young during the segregation period, still bears irrevocable memories. She has recounted stories of slapping a young white girl who had stared at her in a hospital bathroom because she had “never seen a Negro girl up-close before,” of thinking that “colored only” fountains would one day magically transform into a spring of rainbow-infused water, and of remembering her confusion as to why her older sister spent so much time “marching” in the street when she was not wearing her majorette uniform. And presently, in her work as a geriatric social worker, she is reminded of the divisions the period and the long-lasting subsequent effects they have had on the black community when her older, darker-skinned black patients assume she is “stuck up” or cannot be trusted because of her light skin.

Having grown up in a family like this, race inevitably became a daily topic of discussion.

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