Paw'd Defiance

Hair That Won't Be Quiet

June 05, 2019 Temple University Associate Professor Lori Tharps. Season 1 Episode 12
Paw'd Defiance
Hair That Won't Be Quiet
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Paw'd Defiance
Hair That Won't Be Quiet
Jun 05, 2019 Season 1 Episode 12
Temple University Associate Professor Lori Tharps.

The history of Black hair in the United States with Temple University Associate Professor Lori Tharps. Tharps co-wrote the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America with Ayana Byrd. Tharps' work has been featured in the New York Times, Ebony.com, The Columbia Journalism Review and Time Magazine.She also hosts the podcast My American Meltingpot. Tharps and guest host Katherine Felts discuss the importance of hair in African communities prior to contact with Europeans. Slavery and institutional racism in the United States transformed what it meant to have Black hair. The cultural revolution of the 1960s ushered in a new era of pride in Black hair. Tharps and Felts discuss this and the current natural hair movement.

Show Notes Transcript

The history of Black hair in the United States with Temple University Associate Professor Lori Tharps. Tharps co-wrote the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America with Ayana Byrd. Tharps' work has been featured in the New York Times, Ebony.com, The Columbia Journalism Review and Time Magazine.She also hosts the podcast My American Meltingpot. Tharps and guest host Katherine Felts discuss the importance of hair in African communities prior to contact with Europeans. Slavery and institutional racism in the United States transformed what it meant to have Black hair. The cultural revolution of the 1960s ushered in a new era of pride in Black hair. Tharps and Felts discuss this and the current natural hair movement.

Tharps:

People use the hair as a symbol of our refusal to continuously assimilate. Because once you stop straightening natural Black hair, you know, it doesn't lay down and keep quiet. It sticks up. It says, see me, you know, look at me. I'm not hiding.

Music:

[Intro music]

Cristostomo:

From UW Tacoma, this is Paw'd Defiance.

Felts:

Welcome to Paw'd Defiance, where we don't lecture, but we do educate. I'm your host, Catherine Felts, sitting in for Maria Crisostomo. Today on the Paw'd, Black hair with Temple University associate professor Laurie Tharps. Tharps has written four books including Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. Her work has also been featured in the New York Times, ebony.com, the Columbia Journalism Review and Time Magazine. Tharp's recently started her own podcast, My American Melting Pot. Lori, can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Tharps:

Sure. Um, so I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and I have lived as an exchange student in Morocco and in Spain. I've lived in New York City, and I now live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I am a journalist and storyteller. I have a blog and a podcast both by the name of My American Melting Pot where I create content that lives at the intersection of race and real life. And when I'm not working on the podcast or the blog, I teach journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Felts:

Okay. So now that we know kind of who you are and what you do, can you talk to us a little bit about how you identify? What are the identities that you hold and how, if it did at all, did they influence your work?

Tharps:

Sure. So I identify as a Black woman and the fact that I am a Black woman affects everything that I do. And I firmly believe the personal is political. My first book, in fact, it was a book called Hair Story, Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, and that's a kind of cultural history of black people and their hair from 15th century Africa to modern times. And that book actually started out as my master's thesis in graduate school. And we were allowed to select any topic to report on. And I selected black hair because it was something that I kind of struggled with my entire life. Not in a major way, but in a way that was clearly different from the white people around me. And also I recognized that Black hair was misunderstood in so many contexts in American popular culture. I wanted to figure out why. And then the book that I most recently wrote called Same Family, Different Colors, which is a book about colorism in different family structures, in different families, in different communities, in the African American community, in the Latino community, in the Asian American community, also came from my own experiences because my husband is Spanish, and we have three children who all look phenotypically different. So they're all different colors, they have different hair types. And it was something that was affecting my life as a parent, and so I decided to write about it. So my work is always influenced by what's happening in my life, and my life is always seen through the prism of race because I'm a Black woman in America. And that's kind of hard to be. And I experience life differently from what's kind of portrayed as let's say the mainstream version of American life.

Felts:

You have a journalism background, so I'm sure that really makes it easier for you to talk about your experiences, or at least gives you some sort of weight when you are talking about your experiences, because you have that background and that ability to really articulate those experiences for, well, not me because I have those same experiences, but for other people who really may not understand what that's like. Um, so speaking of your book Hair Story, which we read a little bit, and have really started to think about this concept of Black hair and what that means both for Black people and for non Black people.You mentioned that it started as a master's thesis and kind of snowballed from there, but can you talk to us a little bit about the history of black hair and kind of contextualize that for us?

Tharps:

Sure. I'm going to go back to the 15th century because what my coauthor Ayana Byrd and I wanted to do was to really kind of isolate what hair meant to Black people before they were brought to this country under the circumstances that they were brought. Because we know what the result was, right? We know that Black people's hair has been demonized in this country since the moment they were brought here. So we wanted to figure out what was the relationship like before European contact. And we discovered that Africans had a very reverential relationship with their hair. The hair was considered like sacred space. The here was where their identity was shown. So a person could look at another person's hairstyle and tell everything about that person. So you could tell what family they belong to, what ethnic group they belong to, what status in society they had. So typically a lot of societies were patriarchal, so the men had more elaborate hairstyles. If a man was going off to war, he had a certain hairstyle. If a woman was waiting for her man to come back from war, she wore a particular hairstyle. If a woman was in mourning , there was particular hairstyle. So the hairstyles were really significant. Only certain people were allowed to touch and do the hair. There were hair braiders or hair stylists that were kind of craftsmen, who would have their skills and their tools passed down from generation to generation. And there was even a sense that the hair was somewhat sacred, because it was the closest thing to the heavens on your body. So the hair was really, really revered. And then we get to this country, and along with this color of our skin and our other unique physical features, the hair was really pathologized, such that the slave owners would declare that our hair was more like animal fur . And you know, in their efforts to make Africans appear to be less than human, they would utilize different propaganda to showcase that we were closer to an animal than we were to a human look at our hair. It's fur, it's not actual hair. And you'll see in descriptions of Black people from that time period that they would say "their wool is like this," as opposed to their hair. So it was very deliberate to make the attributes that made us uniquely African, make us feel inferior. So there's this long, long history of Black people being made to feel that their hair was inferior. And it's not something that stopped when the emancipation proclamation was declared. I mean, to this day you have so many incidents of people saying we cannot hire you. You cannot stay in school because of your hairstyles, those hairstyles that are, you know, intrinsically, I won't say African, but intrinsically showcases Black hair in its natural state, are still being policed and demonized as unfit for polite society. So that was 400 years of history, but that kind of gives you the underlying understanding of how come this fight for acceptance, both acceptance by a non-Black People, but also self-acceptance because it's not like Black people were able to withstand the onslaught of brainwashing, like multiple generations of Black people believe that their hair was inferior, and that it needed to be straightened and styled in a way that approximated European hair in order to be considered human, in order to be considered attractive, in order to be seen as a sentient being. So it wasn't initially about beauty; It was literally about being seen as human. Maybe if you see me as human, you will not beat me. Maybe you will not take my child and sell them to somebody else. And so the hair became one of those things that could be manipulated to try to show one's humanity. For men often they would shave their hair. If that was the thing that made you think I was subhuman, why don't I just shave it off? And that way you won't see me as sub- human. So you can manipulate this part of our body in such a way that can conform, that can help us assimilate. And then in the 60s, during the civil rights movement, people used the hair as a symbol of our refusal to continuously assimilate. Because once you stop straightening natural Black hair, it doesn't lay down and keep quiet. It sticks up and says, see me, look at me. I'm not hiding. It's impossible to ignore. So the hair has been there as a symbol of where Black people's politics have been for a long time. And because of that, to this day, Black hair is still considered political. The way Black people wear their hair is still considered political, even when it's not. Even when, today in 2019 , many men and women are wearing their hair in natural styles because it's a movement, now. It's kind of a beauty and style movement, but they may not get that response from the public. The public might see their Afro or their dreadlocks as something political, because it did mean something political in the 60s, 50s, and even a little bit in the early 70s. So that's pulling apart those ideas from the past to the present is still something we are really struggling to do.

Felts:

Yeah. Wow. That is quite a history.

Tharps:

I could go on and on, but I think I'll stop there.

Felts:

There's a lot to talk about there. There's a lot to talk about there.

Music:

[Transition music]

Felts:

Hi everyone. It's Catherine again. I'm sharing some personal anecdotes related to Black hair. I wanted to interview Lori because I have a lot of experience with this, and I wanted to share two experiences that were really impactful for me. So the main thing that inspired me to talk about, read about, and write about Black hair was the first time, and also the last time, that I straightened my hair, which was in high school. I was miserable because I didn't look like anybody else. My hair was weird, my hair was gigantic. I didn't look the same in photos. I couldn't go out in the rain the same way that my friends did. I was just different, and it was really obvious. So I begged my family to let me chemically straighten my hair. And from there it turned into straightening my hair with heat, relaxers, and straighteners. By the time I was graduating from high school, I had been doing that nonstop for the last two and a half years, and I had actually burnt the entire back underside of my hair off , and had to basically shave my head first thing when I got to college, which was traumatic and really terrible. And it all started because I wanted to fit in, and because I wanted to change who I was, to better conform to what I thought I was supposed to be. So it's really meaningful that somebody is writing a book about this, and what it means to have Black hair, and what it's like to have other people tell you that your hair is wrong or unattractive or unappealing. On the flip side, I work at a local retail shop and I have had many people, men and women of all races, ask to touch my hair, or who don't even ask, and just reach out and touch my hair. And there was one experience in particular in the last year, where I had a customer who was there with his wife and small children. And the second they turned their backs, he looked at me and shuddered in a way that I can only describe as disgusting and overtly sexual. And then he said, "I just want to put my hands through your hair." And again, his wife and children were a short distance away. I'd never met this man. I'd never spoken to him, but he felt absolutely entitled to talk to me in that way and to make those gestures and motions at me. So I guess this is all to say that this is a really real thing that people with Black hair experience; both adoration and admiration, and lots of compliments, but also some really gross and oppressive things. So thank you again to Lori for being here with us to talk about some of these issues.

Music:

[Transition music]

Felts:

I appreciated that you brought up, not just that the personal is political and that the hair has been something that is politicized, but it also something so personal, but that there's this aspect of assimilation to Black hair now in the way that we do our hair and style our hair and how we present ourselves to the world. So talking about that, and thinking about this idea of fitting in and modifying how you look to be more human, or to be more accepted, or to look more like the people that you're engaging with, can we talk a little bit about hair straightening? Your book mentions some of the drastic and extreme lengths that people went to, and still go to, to change their hair, and especially to straighten their hair. Could you talk a little bit about some of those processes, and maybe define a little bit more deeply, in your words, why are Black people so compelled, why are we so driven to change our appearance in this society?

Tharps:

Sure. So, again, you have to go back to the days when slavery was the norm and Europeans brought Africans to this country as enslaved beings, right? They created this inhumane system of keeping people subjugated and under the threat of death, to work them to death. And I don't know if anybody can truly understand how cruel and inhumane this life was. It's impossible for anybody, I think, to truly understand what that must have been like. And so when you try to talk about, well, how does hair play into that? You have to understand, again, that the way that white people, that the Europeans, that the Americans, the white American slave owners, justified their inhumane treatment of Black people was again, to create this sense that they were of a different species. That they were closer to animals, that they weren't really human, they weren't like us, they didn't have the same feelings. Now of course Black people were like, that's just not true, obviously. And the way that the Europeans were trying to maintain their system that they knew was wrong, was to keep trying to show the Black people as something so separate and so different. So when Black people were like, we aren't different, we're human. We're just like you, we are literally just like you. We got two eyes, two legs, two arms. We have children, we want family, all of that is the same. So how can we show these people that we bleed the same way they do? How do we show these people that we want our children next to us? How do we show these people that we hurt , that we want to have lives? And the way to do that, again, was to show them that we are just like you. And so how do we do that? Well, we can talk like you, we can walk like you, we can dress like you. But when you are enslaved you don't have control over any part of that. Like they didn't have agency over their lives. The only thing they could really do was, well, maybe if we get our hair to look like theirs, and like I said before, the hair was one of those things that the slave owners were real intentional about making that how we can tell that these people aren't real humans, they're something more like an animal. So it was like, what can we do? Well, if we look like them... We're gonna try with our hair. And the idea of straightening the hair came real quick, cause that's what makes our hair different. Our hair's kinky and curly, their hair is straight. Let's try to straighten it so we can style it and look like them. And so from very, very early on, we saw that the enslaved women and men would do anything to straighten their hair. They would use axel grease, oil, butter, anything to kind of make their hair straight. They would wrap their babies' hair in yarn to try to pull the curls out because they would hope that if they could at least get their children on a better footing, simply because they looked closer to the master, maybe the master would take pity on them. Maybe they would treat them just with a little bit more humanity. So straightening the hair from the beginning was one method that the enslaved people used to try to make themselves be seen as human, seen as equals in some way. And they became pretty creative about it. They would use cloth and heat that over the fire, and pull that through their hair, as an early version of a flat iron. There were all levels of techniques and methodologies that they used. And once the rapes started and you had what we would say would be biracial or mixed race people , there became a hierarchy of color. Enslaved people with lighter skin and looser curled hair because they were the offspring of a white person, of a white man for the most part. And it was clear that those people would get preferential treatment, mostly because they were the master's offspring, if those were the ones getting preferential treatment. But also because there was a true belief in biological racism: people really believed that the more European blood that you had in you, the smarter you were, and the more potential you had. So again , if you had white blood in you, then you might be selected to be a slave in the house, and have more access to good food , less work in the fields. Sometimes, because the slave owners believed in biological racism, they'd think, well, this slave has more potential, so I'm going to teach them how to manage the books, or even run the household. So you had so much more opportunity and access. So again, if I don't have any white blood in me, but I see the way that person looks, I can see there's a pattern. All the people who have hair like this and skin like this are the ones that get that access. Well, how can I make my hair look like this, so that perhaps I'll get that access? And they were even trying to lighten their skin with arsenic and things like that. But that didn't really work in any positive way. Not that they didn't try, but the hair, again, the hair could be manipulated. And like I said, that idea of manipulating the hair to curry favor and to get access has never disappeared, because even after slavery was abolished, you still had a hierarchy in society that was reinforced by both blacks and whites where people with lighter skin and "good hair," were able to access more white spaces, or more spaces of privilege, and the privileged could be light skinned black people, or the privileged could be white people. And so if you weren't born with that hair that was loosely curled and looked more European, well, you could try to find different ways to make it look like that with different products. Whether it was a straightening comb, which is a comb made out of iron that you would heat on the stove and pull through the hair, or, eventually in the early 20th century, we had the p ermanent relaxers where you would put a relaxer c ream on the hair to straighten it. It's kind of like a reverse perm, like that a white person would use to curl their hair. Black people would use it to straighten their hair. I mean, those were very caustic chemicals. And the early versions of these chemical relaxers were very dangerous, very, very dangerous, a person could lose all their hair. But it was worth it, because you literally couldn't get a job without it. You wouldn't be considered marriageable material if your hair wasn't straight. So it wasn't a conversation about beauty, and not to mention because men were straightening their hair too. And so it wasn't just beauty a nd a f ad. Like you could just skip going to a certain job interview or going to a certain church to worship or joining a certain social club if your hair wasn't straight. So that straightening of the hair has been about access. It wasn't about beauty until much, much later. But it really started as a question of how do I get access to a level playing field. And that's what hair s traightening really was about. Now, today you can't make those same assumptions that people are wearing their hair straight because they're trying to look like a white person. Although there is still an expectation in many places in corporate America and mainstream America where there is an expectation for a Black person to come to the job with their hair, let's say, assimilated. The hair should be straight. It should conform to a European standard of beauty and cultural appropriateness; which means to look like white hair. And you know, that's challenged in a lot of places, and sometimes the challenger wins, and sometimes they lose, and t hey a re fired or not hired or have to cut their natural hair off or put a wig on. We've seen all of the different variations of how, even today in 2019, people are still being asked to have hair that that conforms to a European style of beauty.

Felts:

Whew. Yeah. So it seems like, obviously like you said, it really started from a place of wanting to access, not even necessarily wealth or fame or the best jobs, but really just having basic respect. And you know, during slavery maybe that meant being in the house, or maybe that meant that your children weren't whipped as often as you were. But it does seem, and as you mentioned, that there are still some spaces where changing your hair, and straightening your hair specifically, is what's required to access a space. There was an example pretty recently of a 16 year old wrestler who had dreadlocks, and who was forced to cut them or he was going to be pushed out of his wrestling match. So we've obviously come a ways away and things have changed and Black people, I think, have more access now to wear our hair in whatever way we deem appropriate than we've ever had. But there still are a lot of moments of intentional and unintentional policing about how we look and behave and present ourselves. Um, so thinking a little bit about that kind of colorism that you mentioned, this idea that looking closer to whiteness or having lighter skin or straighter hair gives you privilege and gives you more access, before we really get into colorism, can we talk a little bit about some of the ways that hair was used to bar people in the past? I knew before reading your book what the paper bag test was, so this idea that if you're lighter than a brown paper bag, that you are more worthy or that you might get into certain places. A friend was telling me a long time ago that she knew of a community, a very wealthy community in a small East coast town where you could only live there as a Black person if you were lighter than a paper bag. And it was only for Black people, but only for a certain type of people. But in your book, you also mentioned the comb test. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and are there any things currently that you can think of that are kind of the equivalent in 2019 to this comb test?

Tharps:

Well, the comb test was similar to the paper bag test, and the comb test was used also like in churches. They would literally hang a comb in front of the church door, and if you couldn't pull the comb through your hair , and it'd be a fine tooth comb, like the kind they give out on picture day in public schools. If you couldn't pull that comb through your hair, then you weren't the kind of person that they wanted in their church or their organization. So this also just kind of shows you how Black people themselves were equally brainwashed about this idea of people with looser hair and lighter skin having a higher value than people with darker skin and curlier kinkier hair. In South Africa that comb test was utilized all through apartheid, until apartheid was abolished in the 90s. South African citizens would have to go in and get "race tested" to see what race they were. And they used the comb test for them. They would be like, does this comb fall out of your hair or not? And if it did fall out of your hair, you were white or maybe colored. And if it stuck in your hair, then you were definitely Black. And of course, people learn to game the system. They'd perm their hair, straighten their hair, so that they could get a higher ranking on the social scale of apartheid. Which when you think about that, first of all, you're like, dude, I permed my hair. Like they're so stupid. Like it couldn't be like, wait, maybe her hair is permed and that just shows you how ephemeral and random these ideas of race testing are, right? Like if I can change my hair with chemicals or a straightening comb, and you're going to base your whole system of who's better than the other on that, and I totally just gamed your system, it just speaks to the absurdity of trying to quantify or qualify race. And as far as your question about, is there anything in 2019 that's similar? I don't see a mainstream test. I mean there are still private clubs all over the country that may or may not have some kind of skin color or hair texture requirements. But I do think that there is a very dangerous precedent in this hair typing that has developed since the beginning of this new natural hair movement. There's a way that people are categorizing hair types. There's a 1A, 2A, I think all the way up to a 4C, I think that's the curliest or kinkiest of hair types, and it supposedly was created to help people understand what type of hair they had and what type of products they should buy for that type of hair. And yet, anytime you create a hierarchy, there's going to be a power grab, right? And there's going to be a sense of who's at the top and who's at the bottom, even though this should be just random, but it's not. And so what you've seen in this new kind of natural hair movement is you've seen this desire for people to have a certain hair type. I really, really make it a point for this reason to not get into those conversations at all, but there's definitely stigma around 4C hair, which is the kinkiest hair. And there's this obvious fawning over hair that's basically the hair of somebody who might be biracial, like , um, Tracee Ellis Ross is often held up. It's like the person whose hair everybody wants, and it's like, Tracee Ellis Ross has a white father. So there's no amount of product that's gonna make your fully Black hair look like that. And yet that's the aspiration, right? So again, there's not a comb test, but there is still this kind of fawning over and lusting after and talking about hair types that makes it clear that there's a good one and a not so good one. So , that's kind of like some stuff that's internalized within the Black community that I feel needs to be addressed. And the bad thing is that , I'm in a lot of spaces where you have white mothers of Black children, whether through adoption or through interracial marriages. And people are really adopting that terminology, and I don't think people are aware of how potentially dangerous it is to start talking about hair with these types, and what it's doing to create this kind of new form of hierarchy.

Felts:

Yeah. I know about the 4C scale, and I hadn't thought about it as an additional kind of classification or gatekeeping kind of tool before now. But thinking about colorism, and thinking about that comment that you made earlier, like I can game the system, I can just straighten my hair and I might get a better rating. Um, I am a biracial woman and I do have very curly, very thick hair. And you know, I was talking about that paper bag test earlier. The first time that I had heard of that I was, I think 20, and that was the first time that I had really come into contact with this idea that black people are policing each other. Like, even among us, there is this hierarchy and that some of us, and I say some of us because I do have a lot of privileges as a light-skinned, biracial woman, we are seen as, like you said earlier, "Oh she might be smarter, she has better hair, she is pretty," or whatever. You know, all of these arbitrary and not necessarily true things are being assigned to me just because I have this proximity to whiteness because I am so light and because I was raised by my white mom, and you know, those are the kinds of things that I grew up with.

Music:

[Transition music]

Felts:

Hey everyone, it's Catherine . Now felt like a good time to talk about UW Tacoma's Center for Equity and Inclusion. The CEI offers a range of programming and services that are designed to create a more equitable environment for students, faculty, and staff. The Real Talk series, for instance, provides a needed venue to discuss challenging issues of the day, from gun violence to racism. Then there's the Pantry, which provides free, supplemental, and culturally relevant food, as well as hygiene items to all UW Tacoma students. The CEI also hosts different workshops and conferences on everything from proper pronoun usage to ways in which educators can include more indigenous perspectives in the classroom. For more information, simply go to the UW Tacoma website and type equity and inclusion into the search bar.

Music:

[Transition music]

Felts:

So thinking about colorism and thinking about light-skinned privilege, what does that look like in our society? I know you mentioned Tracee Ellis Ross, and I've seen a lot of things online lately, like where Amandla Stenberg and Zendaya are talking about, you know, should I really be taking certain roles like in Black Panther or things like that. And it seems to be more of a conversation that's happening among Black people, but is there anything that you feel is missing from that conversation, or is there anything that you feel we should really definitely be talking about when we're approaching colorism and this idea of privilege based on skin color?

Tharps:

Yeah. I'm so glad you asked that, because when I started to do the book, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism and America's Diverse Families, the thing that I really wanted to convey is that colorism is not a Black people problem. I really wanted to explore the topic of colorism through the prism family, but specifically in African American families, Latino families, Asian American families, and mixed race families. Because my goal, and what I believe I achieved, was to show how even though each culture comes to colorism from a different place, you know, Asia , East Asian people tend to come to colorism from conversations about class , Latino people come from colonialism, from Spaniards colonizing all of South America. Obviously if you are coming from a mixed race community, you are bringing whatever combination of people from all of the above. And African Americans are coming from this system that we just talked about of enslavement where there was a clear premium put on people with lighter skin and looser curled hair. But despite all of the different historical ways that people came to embrace colorism, the result is all the same. Wherever you are on that cultural spectrum, and wherever you are on the color spectrum, we're getting the same false messages that there is something good about light skin and something bad about dark skin. And on top of that we are actually believing that there is some inherent worth or significance about the color of our skin beyond a biological adaptation to proximity to the sun. You know, like that's all it is. It's just genetics. It has nothing to do with how smart you are or how talented you are. And yet we're still all clinging to that nonsense, right? Oh , you have darker skin, you must not make very much money. If you actually break that down, like how does that even make sense? Like how does the color of your skin indicate what's in your bank book? It doesn't. And yet we are all clinging to that, and we all have mothers who say don't play in the sun, don't get too dark. Like across the cultural spectrum, the mothers are telling their children the same thing. You will not find a husband if you are too dark. I believe that problems get solved when you have diverse people at the table coming up with solutions. And if we are all in our little silos like, oh, Black people are so worried about colorism, oh Asian people--actually we're all afflicted with the same disease. If we came together, we would probably come up with a solution. But the other part of this that is never discussed is that the conversation is always kind of a binary one, where darker skinned people are the victims in the colorism conversation, and lighter skinned people have privilege. Now that, without a doubt, is at a baseline, true. There's research upon research upon research that people with lighter skin, in whatever culture you're talking about, are privileged over people with darker skin. But when we talk about colorism, my definition of colorism is discrimination based on the color of one's skin, not discrimination for dark people. Because the fact of the matter is that people with light skin, while they will experience privileges that people with darker skin do not have, they also experience a level of discrimination, isolation, and what is considered a silencing that doesn't get talked about when we have this colorism conversation. And so if you are trying to solve a problem and you're only fixated on half of it, it's like an unbalanced Seesaw. Then what do you do with the people who have light skin, and they have experienced this isolation. Like there's so many patterns where we see people with lighter skin not being recognized as a member of their tribe, right? Not being recognized as, fill in the blank, really Black, really Latino, really Asian, because they're perceived as white and so they don't feel connected to their community, or they have to fend off all of the assumptions about them, and sometimes it's violent. I mean, it's not just like, "Oh, she thinks she's better than someone else," but true isolation, true actual negative behavior that they experienced because of the way they look. Blackish did an episode earlier this year about colorism that I think they did a really good job, in the 22 minutes that they had , cause in the Blackish family on ABC, if people aren't familiar with it, there's a father who has brown skin, the wife is played by Tracee Ellis Ross, who is biracial in real life and plays a biracial person on the show, and their children truly range in skin tone and hair texture. And so on this episode, I think they did a really good job of allowing the conversation to be heard from all sides. It wasn't just people with dark skin complaining about people with light skin, although they did, but then the light skinned people were allowed to share their truth as well. So I think if colorism is going to get solved, we have to do two things. We have to expand the conversation to a more global audience, because colorism truly is a global disease. We don't need to be talking about it as if it's only affecting a certain group of people. We also need to include white people in that conversation, because white people definitely practice colorism. They tend to privilege people who look more like themselves. They tend to privilege lighter skinned people, and may or may not even realize that that's what they're doing. So first is to widen the conversation to a larger group of people. The second thing is to acknowledge that there are two sides to this story. It's not like colorism only affects people with darker skin tones: the discrimination is felt across skin tones. And truly the people who are least affected by colorism are not light skinned people; it's the people in the middle, the people who are just like, I'm happily in the middle, I'm kind of brown, kind of medium. Those are the people like myself. I'd never thought of myself as either dark or light. And so colorism wasn't even in my worldview until I happened to have three children who are three different colors. And it became something I had to pay attention to. But truly the people who are least affected by colorism are not light skinned people. They're middle range people who, you know, fall out of this idea of "I'm dark or I'm light." So I feel like that conversation, if we're gonna get to a place where we can truly normalize difference, which I believe that is the solution to colorism, we've got to have everybody at the table, and we have to allow all people on the full spectrum of the color wheel to share their truth .

Felts:

Yeah. I really appreciate it that you brought up the fact that colorism isn't something that's limited to Black people. It's something that we all either play a part in or perpetuate or experience. I was having a conversation this weekend. I was in California visiting a friend, and I remembered among my Mexican and Filipino friends, colorism was very prevalent and it was just so strange for me to hear that. The difference between like, "oh well this person works outside most of the time, so they're darker," and it becomes not just a class issue or race issue, but then a gendered issue and all of these things. So it is really complicated, and I agree, I think we need to expand the conversation and really start having more of these conversations and also, based on my own experience, really be including the parents of multiracial and biracial children. Because that is something, like you said, you may not have thought about it as somebody who experiences being a person of color but isn't multiple ethnicities or multiple races. It's such a different experience in the way that I experience colorism, against me or in my benefit, to how my other black friends experience it.

Tharps:

It's so funny because when I wrote Same Family Different Colors, I was covering African American, Latino, Asian American and mixed race families. But whenever I would talk to white people about the book and I would tell them what I was writing about, I always felt like I had to explain what I meant when I said the principle question that I was trying to answer is how do skin color variations affect family dynamics. Like, that's really what I wanted to know. And so many white people were like, Oh my gosh, I could have been in your book. My mom's Italian, my dad's Irish. And like I came out light and my sister is really dark and nobody believes we're related, like everybody has a story. So like , I make a joke in the back of the book about how there is no such thing as a really white person. You know, like nobody's the color of mashed potatoes or mayonnaise like, that's white. Chalk is white, and white people aren't white. They come in all different variations of color as well. So if you have eyeballs, I feel like you are in this conversation, because we all come in different colors. We're all treated differently. There's a story that I talk about in my book about this white family in Florida back in the 50s. They were like an itinerant family of citrus pickers and citrus growers. They were a white family. They had six or seven kids and somebody decided once that one of the kids, one or two of the kids was "dusky looking." That was the language. And their hair looked a little curly. And so in the middle of the night, the sheriff burst in their door and measured their noses and looked at their hair texture, and the sheriff decided that these people were Black. So overnight they went from white to Black, because this was the South and segregation was still the law of the land. The children were kicked out of their school, they had to leave the town, their house was fire bombed. And the day before they were white. But because they were rich, they spent the next few years trying to get a judge to declare that they were in fact white. And eventually they did. They eventually got to be white again because nobody could prove they were Black, which again, the absurdity is insane. However, it just goes to the point that, you know, even a white family, if they have, I'm sorry, that word just cracks me up, like they have "dusky" children. Then you could suddenly not be white anymore. So everybody needs to come into this conversation, and what, what does color actually indicate? What does it mean? Why, why can the color of your skin decide whether you get this job or you don't? I actually believe that we are coming to a point where , we know race was a made up construct anyway, I feel like we should be talking about colorism more than racism, because if you are a white person who looks dark, you might be treated differently. If you are a black person who looks white, you are not treated like a Black person, you're treated like a white person. We treat people based on the way they look. So Obama was treated like a Black man, cause he looks like a Black man. He used to say, I could call myself biracial, but the taxi driver sees a Black man. Does it matter what I call myself? It matters what people see me as, because that's how I'm treated. So the colorism conversation, I believe, should be one that a lot of people need to be having, and we need to have this conversation more and more and more and more.

Felts:

I agree. I agree wholeheartedly. Gosh, that's just a lot to think about and unpack.

Tharps:

You can just read the book, start reading the book and then we can talk again.

Felts:

I know, I have to finish Hair Story, and then I'm just going to move through the rest of your work. So thinking about some of the other things that you've written about, I want to touch on this before we have to end. You have written about spelling Black with a capital B rather than with a lower case B, especially, I guess only, in regards to talking about being Black, being a Black person, talking about Blackness. When I read your description about it, it's obvious. It makes perfect sense. It's like, of course we should have been doing this all along, but we don't do it all along. Is there a reason that you can think of, or have you talked to anybody in academia, why aren't we doing this? Why isn't this being taught in schools?

Tharps:

I call it racial or cultural inertia. I wrote about this on my blog, on My American Melting Pot first , because it's a personal pet peeve of mine. As a person who makes her living with words, like words are my building blocks . Some people are carpenters, they build buildings. I build stories with words. And so I pay a lot of attention to words. And every time I see, you know, a list of ethnic groups in a sentence, Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, everybody's word is capitalized. Everybody's group is capitalized except for Blacks. And it's always irked me. It's always made me feel less than. How come I am in a group that is lowercase? So I wrote that piece on my blog, and then an editor from the New York times asked if I would like to write about that for the paper, which was amazing because obviously the New York Times is read by more people than my blog. But once that piece made it into the Times, your question is why do we still do this? It was shocking to me how much hate mail I got. I'm a writer, I teach journalism, we teach AP style, and I'm thinking, this is a journalist question. This is a writer's question. But you would have thought I had just suggested that we enforce Afros for everybody. Like everybody's got to wear an Afro. Even if you're white, you've got to figure out how to get an Afro. The vitriol with which people responded, saying things like, "what are you going to do next? Make us capitalize 'brown people' or 'yellow people?'" "Don't you have something better to do with your time?" "I feel sorry for your students." I mean, all levels of things, like I had asked for something crazy. So going back in history, I discovered that W.E.B. Du Bois had the same fight. He did a letter writing campaign with the New York Times and other newspapers asking them to capitalize the N in Negro, and arguing that Negro should be capitalized because it referred to a group of people. And for years all the papers denied him, and many papers actually responded like particularly... There's one paper in the South, they said, well, if we capitalize the N, Black people will think that they're equal, they'll be getting uppity, they'll expect more. So we will not capitalize it. And it wasn't until, I believe, 1931 that the New York Times realized that keeping Black people, keeping Negro in the lower case was more than a grammatical or style decision, that it was suggesting that we were a people who only deserved a lowercase letter, and they started to capitalize the N, and once the New York times made that change, many other publications followed suit. Not all, but a large majority. So my question is why are we still lower casing the B in Black? Most publications refer to the AP style guide, which still has not made it mandatory to capitalize the B in Black. I've done change.org petitions, like I keep talking about this, right ? And I'm clearly not the only one. And people literally use inertia. They're like, "well, the AP hasn't changed it." The AP actually says you can do either or. But they say that the default is the lower case. But since writing that op ed in the Times, which came out in 2014 I believe, thank God for the internet, that article is accessible to anybody. At least once or twice a year I get an email from somebody saying that their publication has changed. "We've changed our style thanks to your article" or "we're using your article to justify why we're g onna change this in our books or in our paper, our magazine." It's a slow and steady dribble, but there really is no reason unless people are still believing that if you capitalize the B, you're g onna make Black people think that they're worth something. I find it offensive. Like I'm truly offended at this point for anybody w ho's not capitalizing the B in Black. And I know that people can be like, Oh, I never thought about it, which is understandable. But if you are now thinking about it, can you not make the difference? Can you not make the change? It's not even that hard. I mean, it's not like the world is g onna end because you capitalized the B. And yet, people still are like, "well, the AP hasn't changed so we have to wait." Martin Luther King Jr. didn't wait. He didn't wait for somebody to say, "okay, you can march now." So I don't know why people feel like they have to wait to change a l owercase to an upper case. So I actually don't have a real reason for people not doing it because it doesn't make any sense.

Felts:

Yeah. There is no good reason. I think that we are pretty much out of time, so I just want to say thank you so much for talking with us, for writing what you write, for reminding us to capitalize the B in Black, and for talking openly about these conversations about what it means to be a multiracial family, or to be a family of different colors. I'm really, really thankful to have had you on our podcast today. So thank you Lori .

Tharps:

Thank you so much for having me. And this is what I do every day on My American Melting Pot, on the podcast and the blog. These are the topics that matter the most to me, and I want to just get people talking about them. So thank you for having me.

Music:

[Closing music]

Speaker 2:

Thank you to our guest, and a big thank you our senior lecturer, Nicole Blair for letting us play your music on the show. Thank you to Moon Yard, our recording studio, and thank you for joining us today. Be sure to subscribe, and go to iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and Pocket Casts.