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Skin and Character: the Colorism Connection

David Langness | Oct 21, 2016

PART 4 IN SERIES We Are All Africans

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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David Langness | Oct 21, 2016

PART 4 IN SERIES We Are All Africans

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

All human beings have skin pigment; it is the amount that counts. But high and low skin color is as sound biology as grading planets by color would be sound astronomy: Venus highest because whitest! There is no known fact of human anatomy or physiology which implies that capacity for culture or civilization or intelligence or capacity for culture inheres in this race or that type. – Dr. George A. Dorsey, Why We Behave Like Human Beings, p. 77.

It’s only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin. – Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. – The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1982, the noted African American writer Alice Walker wrote an essay called “If the Present Looks Like the Past, What Does the Future Look Like?” In that essay, she coined a new term: colorism.

She defined colorism as “a form of prejudice or discrimination in which people are treated differently based on the social meanings attached to skin color.”

Colorism, Walker wrote, was not a synonym for racism. Racism lumps people together in socially-constructed groups and assigns relative levels of value to those groups. Instead, she bluntly said, you can define colorism by understanding the division between lighter- and darker-skinned black women. Even within the African American community, Walker pointed out, lighter-skinned black people often have a higher social status, and treat darker-skinned black people as less attractive and less intelligent.

This kind of colorism prejudice isn’t just restricted to one group or one country. In India, in Malaysia, in China, in Japan, in Brazil and in many other places around the world, the sale of skin-whitening creams has grown into a multi-billion dollar business. In many of those cultures, people with darker skin are seen as less accomplished, with fewer job and marital prospects.

This preference for light-colored skin may have originated long ago in humanity’s agrarian age, when dark skin immediately identified someone who worked outside in the fields, and light skin meant the person could afford to stay indoors, implying wealth, education or nobility. Over time, though, that class-based bias became color-based. In many if not most cultures around the world today, lighter skin still conveys privilege, position and power; and dark skin conveys the opposite.

Sadly, such pervasive colorism prejudice has now led many people to believe that skin color equates with relative human virtue or even intelligence—the darker the complexion, the lower the social status and therefore the lower the caliber of the person’s character. That hideous concept was partially responsible for the eugenics movement during the early 20th Century, when many well-known figures in Western society accepted the idea that intelligence and criminality were entirely caused by heredity—and that we should actively cull “defectives,” including people with darker skin, from the human gene pool. Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Margaret Sanger, and H. G. Wells openly supported the eugenics movement. It culminated in the Nazi’s “Final Solution,” and unleashed one of history’s greatest tragedies. This absurd and completely unfounded idea, which hardly anyone in the modern world would openly admit to today, nevertheless affected millions of people—and still does.

The Baha’i teachings oppose all colorism. To a Baha’i, the varied hues and skin tones in the human family only add to its beauty and variety. But even more important than those merely surface attributes, the Baha’i writings resolutely reject any connection whatsoever between color and character:

Can we apply the test of racial color and say that man of a certain hue — white, black, brown, yellow, red — is the true image of his Creator? We must conclude that color is not the standard and estimate of judgment and that it is of no importance, for color is accidental in nature. The spirit and intelligence of man is essential, and that is the manifestation of divine virtues, the merciful bestowals of God, the eternal life and baptism through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, be it known that color or race is of no importance. He who is the image and likeness of God, who is the manifestation of the bestowals of God, is acceptable at the threshold of God — whether his color be white, black or brown; it matters not. Man is not man simply because of bodily attributes. The standard of divine measure and judgment is his intelligence and spirit.

Therefore, let this be the only criterion and estimate, for this is the image and likeness of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 70.

This Baha’i point of view, unique for a global religion, elevates all humanity to the exact same level of character:

…in the world of humanity it is wise and seemly that all the individual members should manifest unity and affinity. In the clustered jewels of the races may the blacks be as sapphires and rubies and the whites as diamonds and pearls. The composite beauty of humanity will be witnessed in their unity and blending. How glorious the spectacle of real unity among mankind! – Ibid., p. 57.

Next: Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama

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  • Oct 24, 2016
    Food for a lot of thought. I am afraid we should add Woodrow Wilson to the list of prominent supporters of eugenics. Actually, I think eugenics does not need to be discarded. It could be applied without racism or coercion. Consider identified genetic diseases. Give counseling to those carrying the disease, including realistic estimates of the risk of passing it on to their children (this is already done). Give economic disincentives to such people for having more than two children, and matching incentives and assistance to adopt. This way the diseases could be ...gradually culled out, without forcing anything on anyone and without totally removing anyone's genes from the gene pool.
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