Paw'd Defiance

Hair That Won't Be Quiet

June 05, 2019 Season 1 Episode 12
Paw'd Defiance
Hair That Won't Be Quiet
Chapters
Paw'd Defiance
Hair That Won't Be Quiet
Jun 05, 2019 Season 1 Episode 12
Temple University Associate Professor Lori Tharps.
A discussion about the history of Black hair in the United States.
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.

Speaker 1:
0:01
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
Speaker 2:
0:24
from UDaB Tacoma. This is pot defiance. Welcome to pod defiance where we don't lecture, but we do educate. I'm your host Catherine fouled sitting in for Maria. Chris Hoff's demo today on the pod black hair with temple university. Associate professor Laurie. Thoughts. Tarps 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,
Speaker 1:
1:06
my American melting pot. Laurie, can you tell us a little bit about your background? Sure. Um, so I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and um, I have lived as an exchange student in Morocco and in Spain. I lived in New York city and I now live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I am a journalist and storyteller. Um, I have a blog and a podcast both by the name of my American melting pot where we have, uh, where I create content that kind of lives at the intersection of race and real life. And, um, when I'm not working on the podcast or the blog, I teach journalism at temple university in Philadelphia. 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 that influenced your work?
Speaker 1:
2:12
Sure. So I identify as a black woman and it, the fact that I am a black woman affects everything that I do. And um, I firmly believe the personal is political. Um, 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 in their hair from 15th century Africa to modern times. And that book actually started out as my masters thesis in graduate school. Um, 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. Um, not in a major way, but in a way that was clearly different from the white people around me. Um, and also I recognize that black hair was misunderstood in so many contexts in American popular culture.
Speaker 1:
3:07
I wanted to figure out why. So, um, and then my, my, the book that I most recently wrote called same family, different colors, which is, was a book about colorism in different family structure in different families, in different communities, in the African American community, in the Latino community. And the Asian American community also came from my own experiences because my husband is, um, Spanish and we have three children who all look phenotypically different. So they're all different colors, they have different hair types. Um, and it was something that was affecting my life as a parent. And so I decided to write about it. Um, 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 that, you know, um, experience life differently from what's kind of portrayed as let's say, mean the mainstream isle version of American life.
Speaker 3:
4:14
You know, you mentioned obviously you have a journalism background, so I'm sure that really makes it, um, 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, um, articulate those experiences for those of, well not me cause 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. Um, could you tell us a little bit about, um, I mean, you mentioned that it started as a master's thesis and, 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?
Speaker 1:
5:08
Sure. Well, I'll actually, I'm going to go back to the 15th century because, um, what my coauthor Ayanna bird 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. Um, because we know what the results was, right? We know that black people's hair has been demonized in this country since, you know, any since, since the moment they were brought here. So we wanted to figure out like, what was the relationship like before that, you know, before European contact. And we discovered that Africans had a very reverential, um, 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, what um, ethnic group they belong to, what status in society they had.
Speaker 1:
6:11
So typically like a lot of societies were patriarchal, so the men had more elaborate hairstyles and the women, um, 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 was a particular, a particular hairstyle. If, if, um, a woman was in mourning, there was particular hairstyle. So the hairstyles were really significant. Only certain people were allowed to touch and like do the hair. They were like, you know, hair braiders or hair stylists that were kind of, um, craftsmen who would have these, you know, their skills and their tools would be passed down from generation to generation. And even there was a sense that the hair was somewhat secret because it was the closest thing to the heavens, you know, on your body. Right? So the hair was really, really revered.
Speaker 1:
6:59
And then we get to this country. And along with this color of our skin and our other unique, um, physical features, the hair was really pathologized, such that, um, you know, 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, um, showcase that we were, you know, closer to an animal than we were to a human look at our hair. It's furry, it's not actual hair. And you'll see in descriptions of black people from that time period that there they would say their will is like this as opposed to their hair, you know. So it was very deliberate to make the attributes that made us uniquely African, make us, um, feel inferior. So there's this long, long history of, um, black people being made to feel, um, that their hair was inferior.
Speaker 1:
8:08
And, you know, even it's not something that stopped when the mass emancipation proclamation was declared. Right. I mean, to this day you have, um, so many incidents of people saying, you know, we cannot hire you. You cannot stay in school because your hairstyles, those hairstyles that are, you know, intrinsically kind of, I won't say African but are intrinsically like that are that showcased natural hair that showcases black hair in its natural state are still being policed and demonized as unfit for polite society. So, um, in that aspect, you know, that was, um, 400 years of history, but that's kind of gives you the underlying understanding of how come this, this fight for acceptance both by a non-black people, but also a self acceptance because it's not like, um, black people were able to withstand the onslaught of brainwashing, like a lot, a lot and ethnicity, all but a lot of, you know, multiple generations of black people believe that it was their, their, their hair was inferior and that it needed to be straightened and, 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, you know, a sentient being, which is so it wasn't initially about beauty.
Speaker 1:
9:39
It was literally 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 it to somebody else. And so the hair became one of those things that could be manipulated to try to show once humanity, um, for men often they would shave their hair too. If that was the thing that made you think of, I was subhuman, why don't I just shave it off? And that way you won't see me as sub-human, right? So you can manipulate this, um, part of our body in such a way that can conform, that can help us assimilate. Um, and that's when the 60s, you know, the civil rights movement, the hair was, you know, 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.
Speaker 1:
10:34
It sticks up and says, see me. You know, look at me. I'm not hiding on, it's impossible to ignore. So, you know, the hair has been there for, um, as a symbol I should say, of, of, of um, kind of where black people's politics have been for a long time. And, um, because of that, to this day, black hair is still considered political. The way black people wear their hair, it's still considered political because even when it's not even when today in 2019, you know, um, many women are wearing their hair naturally. Men and women are wearing their hair natural styles because it's a movement. Now. It's kind of a beauty in style movement, but they may not get that response from um, from the public. The public might see their Afro or their dreadlocks is something political because it did mean something political in the 60s, 50s. And I'm a little bit in the early seventies. Um, so that's, you know, exercise like X, I should say, pulling apart those ideas from the past. The president is still something we are really struggling to do. Yeah. Wow. That is quite a physical on and on. Sorry. Stop there. There's a lot to talk about there. There's a lot to talk about there.
Speaker 3:
11:58
Hi everyone. It's Katherine again. I'm just sharing some personal anecdotes related to black hair. I wanted to interview lawyer 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 and read about and write about black hair was, um, 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, you know, relaxers and straighteners.
Speaker 3:
12:57
Um, so 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, um, and had to shave my head basically. Um, first thing when I got to college, which was traumatic, um, and, and really terrible. And I had R S 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. Um, so it was really, it was really meaningful that somebody who's 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. But on the flip side, um, I work at a local retail shop and I have had many people, both 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.
Speaker 3:
14:06
Um, 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, he shuttered in a way that I can only describe as disgusting and overtly sexual. And then 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, both adoration and admiration and lots of compliments, but also some really gross and oppressive things. So thank you again to Laurie for being here with us to talk about some of these issues.
Speaker 3:
15:09
I appreciated that you brought up, you know, not just that the personal is political and that, um, you know, 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. Um, so talking about that and thinking about this idea of fitting in and modifying how you look to be more humane 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? I, 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. Um, could you talk a little bit about some of those processes and, and maybe define a little bit deep more deeply in your words. Like why are black people's show compelled? Why are we so driven to change our appearance, um, in this society?
Speaker 1:
16:15
Sure. So, again, you have to go back to, um, the days when slavery was the norm and we, you know, brought w I don't know why we Europeans brought Africans to this country as enslaved beings, right? They created this in inhumane system of, of keeping people subjugated and under a, you know, under the threat of death, you know, to basically, you know, to work them to death. Right? And I mean, I don't know if anybody can truly understand how a cruel and inhumane this life was. Right? And so when you are, I mean, I, I mean, I, I, it's, it's impossible for anybody, I think, to truly understand what that must have been like. And so when you try to talk about, you know, 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, right?
Speaker 1:
17:46
That they were closer to animals, that they weren't really human. They weren't like us. They didn't have the same feelings right now of course black people were like, I mean that's not, it's just not true. And obviously, yeah, and the only way, like, like I said, like the way that the Europeans were trying to maintain their system that they knew it was wrong was to again keep trying to, uh, show the black people as, as again, it's 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. You know, we have children, we want family, you know, all of that is the same. Yeah. 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?
Speaker 1:
18:46
How do we show these people that we hurt, that we want to, you know, 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 when you are enslaved and you don't even have control over any part of that. Like you're not like, Oh well maybe we could, you know, that's, they don't have, that wasn't a big, they didn't have agency over their lives. The only thing they could really do was something like, well maybe if we get our hair to look like, and like I said before, the hair was one of those things that the slave owners were real intentional about, you know, signifying as a, you know, that was how we can tell that these, these, these, uh, people aren't real human.
Speaker 1:
19:37
They're something more like an animal. Um, so it was like, what can we do? Well, if we look like them, how, and again, it was, you know, we're gonna try with our hair. And the idea of straightening to here 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 sh style it and look like that. And so from very, very early on, we saw that the, um, enslaved women and men would do anything to straighten their hair. They would use, um, you know, axle grease, oil, butter, anything to kind of pull, make their hair straight. They would wrap their babies here and yarn to try to pull the curls out because they would hope that for the, you know, 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.
Speaker 1:
20:26
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 again, make themselves be seen, seen as human seen as equals in some way. And they became pretty creative about it. They know that the, you know, they would use cloth and heat that over the fire and like pull that to their hair as kind of an early version of like a flat iron. I mean, there were all levels of techniques and methodologies that they used. Um, and again, once, um, once the kind of rapes started and you had, um, what we would say would be biracial or mixed race people, um, there became a hierarchy of um, color like us, um, enslaved people with lighter skin and looser curled hair because they were the offspring of, you know, a white person of a white man for the most part.
Speaker 1:
21:29
Um, and it was clear that those people would get preferential treatment mostly because they were the masters offspring, if those were the ones getting preferential treatment. But also because there was a true belief in biological racism, like people really believed that the, the closer, the more European blood in that you had in you, the more the smarter you were, the more potential you have. So again, um, if you had, you know, white blood in you, then you might be selected to come and like be asleep in the house and have more access to good food, um, less, you know, uh, work in the fields sometimes because the slave owners believed in biological racism, they weren't, they think, well, this slave has more potential, so I'm going to teach them how to manage the books or you know, do things, you know, even, um, run the household.
Speaker 1:
22:30
So you had so much more opportunity and access. So again, well if I'm not, if I don't have any white blood in me, but I see it the way that person looks like I'm, I can see it as a pattern though. All the people who have hair like this and skin like this are the ones that get that access, right? 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 like 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, um, like I said, that 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 were people with lighter skin and quote unquote good hair, were able to access more white spaces or more spaces of privilege and privileged could be people, light skin, black people or privileged, it'd be white people.
Speaker 1:
23:39
And so if you didn't, if you weren't born with that light, with that, um, um, hair that was curled and looked more European, well you could try to find different ways to make it look like that with different products. Um, whether it was a straightening comb, which is a, you know, a comb that, you know, you put on the, is it an a call made out of iron that you would heat on the stove and pulse of the hair. Um, eventually in the, like, early 20th century, we had the, um, uh, permanence, the re relaxers where you would put like a relaxer cream on the here 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, that was a very caustic chemicals. And the early, the early versions of these chemical relaxers were very dangerous, very, very dangerous prisons that lose all their hair.
Speaker 1:
24:33
Um, but it was worth it because you literally couldn't get a job. You wouldn't be considered married marriageable material if your hair wasn't straight. Okay. So it wasn't like a conversation about beauty and not to mention because men were straightening their hair too. And so it wasn't just beauty and a fad. Like you could just skip going to a certain job interview or go to a certain church to worship or join a certain social club if your hair wasn't straight. So, 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, and we're not, again, not to special place, but just to have a level playing field. Um, and that's what, you know, hair straightening really was about. Now, today you can't make those same assumptions that people are wearing their hair straight because they're trying to, um, let's say look like a white person.
Speaker 1:
25:40
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 not as you conform to a European standard of beauty and cultural appropriateness, um, which means to look like white hair. And you know, that's challenged in a lot of places and sometimes the challenge, you know, wins and sometimes it, they, sometimes people lose and they are fired or not hired or um, you know, have to cut their natural hair off or put a wig on. Um, we've seen all of the different variations of how, even today in 2019, um, people are still being asked to have hair that is, that conforms to a European style of beauty. Whew. Yeah. So it seems like, I mean, obviously like you said, it
Speaker 3:
26:44
really started from a place of wanting to access, not even, you know, necessarily like wealth or fame or the best jobs, but really just having that basic respect. Um, and you know, in slavery times maybe that meant being in the house or maybe that meant that your children weren't wiped as often as you were. Um, but it does seem like, 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. Um, we were talking about this example pretty recently of the 16 year old wrestler who had lapse and who was forced to cut them, uh, or, or was going to be pushed out of this wrestling match. Um, so we've obviously come a ways away and things have changed and, and black people I think have more access now to wear our hair in whatever way we deem appropriate than we've ever had.
Speaker 3:
27:43
But there still are a lot of moments of intentional and unintentional policing about how we, uh, 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, um, gives you privilege and gives you more access before we really get into colorism can, can we talk a little bit about some of the ways that hair was used to bar people in the past? Like I knew before reading your book what the paper bag test was. So this idea that, you know, if you're lighter than I 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, um, East coast town where you could only live there as a black person if you are 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 this 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?
Speaker 1:
29:00
Well, the contest was again, similar to the paper bag test and sometimes it was, um, I mean the comb test was used also like on churches. Um, they would literally hang at your, a comb in front of the church door and if you couldn't pull the comb through your hair, um, and it'd be like a fine tooth comb, like the kind they give out on picture day in public schools. Um, so, um, if you couldn't pull that comb through your hair, then your, you know, then you weren't the kind of person that they wanted in their church or their organization. So what's, this also just kind of shows you how, um, black people themselves were equally brainwashed, you know, this idea of the hair and the skin color being more, um, having a higher value than people with darker skin and curlier kinkier hair. So, um, and you know, in South Africa that comb test was utilized, you know, all through apartheid, like through the, you know, until the front side was abolished in the 90s.
Speaker 1:
30:05
Um, that people had to go in and like South African citizens would have to go in and get quote unquote race tested to see what race they were. Yeah. And they used the home 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 like white or maybe color. And if it's stuck in your hair, then you were definitely black. And of course, people learn to gain the system. They've turned 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, that's so, I mean, 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 firm and that just shows you how I'm a femural and um, random these ideas of race testing, right?
Speaker 1:
30:51
Like if I can change my hair with chemicals or straight income and you're going to base your whole system of who's better than the other and I totally just gained your system, it can, it just speaks to the absurdity of trying to quantify or qualify race. Right. Um, and as far as your question about, is there anything in 2018 that's similar? I don't see them. I don't see like a test not for, I know, I mean there are still private clubs all over the country that may or may not have, um, some kind of skin color or hair texture, um, um, requirements. I mean there probably is because today in today's day and age, I don't even say like, that's crazy. That would never happen. But, but I do think that there is a very dangerous precedent in this, um, hair typing that we have, um, that has developed since the kind of beginning of this new natural hair movement.
Speaker 1:
31:45
There's all, there's a, there's a, um, a way that people are categorizing hair types. Um, there's a one, a two, a up to like a four C that's the curliest or kinkiest of hair types and pres like 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 of brand, 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, you know, random, but it's not. And so what you've seen in this, um, new kind of natural hair movement is you've seen, um, you know, this desire for people to have a certain hair type. Like everybody wants. I mean, I really, really make it a point for this reason to not get into those conversations at all.
Speaker 1:
32:40
But there's definitely like stigma around foresee here, which is the kinkiest hair. And there's this obvious fawning over here that's basically to hear of somebody who might be biracial, like, um, Tracee Ellis Ross is often held up. It's like year everybody wants and it's like Tracee Ellis Ross who's a light father. So like there's no amount of product. It's gonna make your fully black hair look like that. And yet that's what the, that's the, um, aspiration, right? So again, there's not a contest, but there is still this kind of funding 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, um, that's again, that's kind of like some internalized within the black community stuff that I feel needs to be addressed. Um, and the bad thing is, is that, um, I'm in a lot of, um, spaces where you have, um, white mothers of black children, whether through adoption or through, you know, interracial marriages. And like people are really adopting those, that terminology and I don't think people are aware of how potentially dangerous it is to start talking about here with these types and what it's doing to create this kind of new form of hierarchy.
Speaker 3:
33:57
Yeah. I, I mean I know about the, the like foresee scale and I hadn't thought about it as a way to I guess, uh, as an additional kind of classification or gatekeeping kind of tool. Um, but thinking about colorism and, and thinking about that comment that you made earlier. Like I can game the system, I can just per 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 early. 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 like black people are policing each other. Like, even among us, there is this hierarchy and that's some of us, and I say some of us because I do have a lot of privileges of light-skinned, biracial woman, you know, we are seen as, you know, like you said earlier, like we, 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 kinds of the things that I grew up with.
Speaker 3:
35:19
Hey everyone, it's Kat now felt like a good time to talk about UDaB Tacoma's office of 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, 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 you'd up Tacoma students. The CEI also host 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 UDaB Tacoma website and type equity and inclusion into the search bar.
Speaker 3:
36:16
So thinking about colorism and thinking about light-skinned privilege, like 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 is in there 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 a Persian colorism and this idea of privilege based on skin color?
Speaker 1:
36:53
Yeah. You know, I'm so glad you asked that because, um, so I, when I, um, started to do the book, same family, different colors confronting colorism and America's diverse families, such a long title. The um, the thing that I really want it to convey is that colorism is not a black people problem, right? I really want it to explore the topic of colorism through their 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 idea, like conversations about um, class, um, Latino people come from colonialism, right from Spaniards colonizing all of South America. Um, um, obviously if you are coming from a mixed race community, you are bringing whatever, whatever combination of people you know, from all of the above and African Americans are coming from this system that we just talked about of um, enslavement where there was a clear premium put on people with lighter skin and Lucerne curled hair.
Speaker 1:
38:16
But despite all of the different historical ways that people came to embrace colorism, the result is all the same. We're all like wherever you are on that spectrum of that cultural spectrum and wherever you are on the color spectrum, you know, we're getting the same false messages that there is something good about skin and something bad about dark skin. And on top of that we are actually um, believing that there is some inherent worth or significance about the color of our skin beyond a biological adaptation to proximity to design. You know, like that's all it is, right? 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? Yeah. Oh, um, you have darker skin, you must make not very much money. And why would you even make that?
Speaker 1:
39:17
Like if you actually break that down, like how does that even make sense? Like how does the color of your skin indicate within your bank book? Like 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. Right? Like across the cultural spectrum. You know the mothers are telling their children the same thing. You will not find a husband if you are too dark when you ask what is the so, so 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 were all again afflicted with the same disease. If we came together, we would probably come up with a solution.
Speaker 1:
40:03
Right. But the other part of this that is never discussed is that the conversation is always kind of a binary one where black, darker skinned people are um, the victims and the colors of conversation and lighter skin people have privilege. Now that without a doubt is kind of like at a baseline. True. Like there's just research upon research upon research that people with lighter skin in whatever culture you're talking about are privileged. Over people with darker skin, right? 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 a privilege that people with darker skin do not have, they also experience a level of, of uh, discrimination, isolation. Um, and um, what is considered like a silencing that doesn't get talked about when we have this colorism conversation.
Speaker 1:
41:11
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, right? Then what do you do with the people who have light skin and they have, um, experienced this isolation and they are responded. Like there's, there's so many patterns, um, where we see, you know, people with lighter skin not being recognized as a member of their tribe, right? Not being recognized as, you know, fill in the blank, really black, really Latino, really Asian because they, you know, 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, but they think they're better than, and I mean 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.
Speaker 1:
42:11
And people may, I mean, I believe Blackish, they did a, an episode this year earlier this year about colorism that I think they did a really good job at in the 22 minutes that they had, um, to showcase that people 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, you know, 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 sh 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 skin people were allowed to share their truth as well. So I think this conversation about colorism, like if it's, if colorism is going to get solved, we have to do two things.
Speaker 1:
43:09
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 expand that and include white people in that conversation because white people are definitely practice colorism. They pref, they put pref, they tend to um, um, they tend to privilege people who look more like themselves. They tend to privilege lighter skin people. It may or may not even realize that that's what they're doing. Um, but second big, so first is to widen the conversation to a larger group of people. The second thing is to, um, the second thing is to acknowledge that there are two sides to this story. It's not like colorism doesn't only affect people with darker skin tones, that this is again, the discrimination is felt across skin tones.
Speaker 1:
44:07
And truly the people who are least affected by colorism are not light-skin people. It's the people in the middle, the people who are just like, I'm happily in the middle, I'm kind of round kind of medium, right? Those are the people like myself who I'd never thought of myself as either dark or light. And so the color colorism wasn't even in mind like my, my worldview until I happened to have three children who are three different colors, right? And it became part of some, it became something I had to pay attention to. But truly the people who are least affected by colors are not light-skinned people. They're middle, middle range people who, you know, fall out of this. I'm dark or I'm light. So that's what I feel like that conversation, if we're gonna get to a place where we can truly normalized difference, which I believe that is the solution to colorism is normalizing difference. Um, we've got to have everybody at the table and we have to allow all people on the full spectrum of the color wheel, um, to share their truth.
Speaker 3:
45:12
Yeah. Woo. 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 have, you know, either play a part in or perpetuate or experience. Um, I was having a conversation this weekend. I was in California where I used to live visiting a friend and I remembered among my Mexican and Filipino friends, like colorism was very prevalent and it was just so strange for me to hear that. Like the difference between like, Oh well this person works outside most of the times. So they're darker and it becomes, you know, not just a class issue or race issue, but then a gendered issue and, and all of these things. So it is really complicated and, and I agree. I think we need to expand the conversation and really start having more of these conversations and also just based on my own experience, really be including the parents of multiracial and biracial children. Um, because that is something like you said, you know what, you maybe may not have thought about it as somebody who experiences being a person of color but is in multiple ethnicities or multiple races. It's, it's such a different experience the way that I have colorism, you know, against me or in my benefit to how my other black friends experience it. [inaudible]
Speaker 1:
46:28
you know, it's so funny because when I wrote this thing, family different colors. I, you know, like I said, I was covering African American, Latino, Asian American and mixed race families. Um, but when I will, Ted, whenever I would talk to white people about the book and I would tell them what I was writing about. Like I always felt like I had to explain what I meant when I said, you know, the principle question that I was trying to answer is how to skin color variations affect family dynamics. Like, that's really what I just 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 like nobody believes we're related or you know, like everybody has a story. So like, um, I kind of make a joke in the back of the book Lake about there is no such thing as a really white person, you know, like nobody's the color of mashed potatoes or Manny's like, that's white.
Speaker 1:
47:25
Like chalk is white and white people aren't white. You know, 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. Um, they were like an itinerant family of, um, orange, like citrus pickers and citrus growers, right? They were, you know, a white family. They had like six or seven kids and somebody decided, this was in Florida. 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 like their ha like looked at their hair texture and decided the sheriff decided that these people were black.
Speaker 1:
48:26
So overnight they went from white to black because this was the South in segregation was still the law of the land. The children had kicked, kicked out of their school, they had to leave the town. Their house was fire bombed in like the day before they were white. Yeah. But because they were a rich, now they were black, you know. And so they spent the next few years trying to get a court, like 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, 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 out like they have dusky children. Um, you know, then you could suddenly not be white anymore.
Speaker 1:
49:17
So like, like everybody needs to come into this conversation and, and what, what does color actually indicate? What does it mean? Why do we meet? Why, why can the color of your skin, you know, decide whether you get this job or you don't? Um, I actually believe that we are coming to a point where, um, we know race was a, 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. Make people based on the way they look. So Obama was treated like a black man, cause he looks like a black man. Right? He used to say, I could call myself biracial, but the taxi drivers, he's a black man. Right? 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. I agree. I agree wholeheartedly. Um,
Speaker 3:
50:29
gosh, that's just a lot to think about and unpack. Um,
Speaker 1:
50:34
you can just read the book, start reading the book and then like, then we can talk again.
Speaker 3:
50:37
I know I have to finish her story and then I'm just going to move through the rest of your work. Um, 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. Um, when I read, you know, 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 academic, like why aren't we doing this? Why isn't this being taught in schools?
Speaker 1:
51:22
I call it maybe like racial or cultural inertia, which is why, you know, I wrote about this on my blog, on my American melting pot first, um, because it was just, it's, it's a seriously, it's a personal pet peeve of mine. Um, every time. I mean, as a person who makes her living with words like words are my building blocks. Like that's, you know, some people are carpenters. I, you know, 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, you know, 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 just, it's always irked me. It's always made me feel less than, um, how come I am in a group that is lowercase.
Speaker 1:
52:18
So I wrote that piece on my blog and then, um, the New York times and an editor from the New York times asked if I would like to, you know, write about that for the, for the paper, which was amazing because it obviously the near times is read by more people than my blog. But once that, once that piece made it into the times, you know, your question is why do we still do this? It was shocking to me how much hate mail I got. Okay. Wow. I'm like a writer. I teach journalism, we teach AP style and I'm thinking, you know, this is a, this is a kind of like a journalist question. You know, this is a writer's question, but you would have thought I had just suggested that we legalize, I don't know, Affleck, we enforce Afros for everybody. Like everybody's got a way of Afro.
Speaker 1:
53:11
Even if you're white, you got to figure out how to get an Afro. Um, the, the vitriol that which people like responded saying things like, you know, what are you going to do next? You know, make us capitalize like Brown people or yellow people. Um, 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. Yeah. So going back in history, I discovered that WDB do boys have the same fight? He did a letter writing campaign with the New York times and other newspapers asking them to capitalize the end 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 well. There's one paper in the South.
Speaker 1:
54:04
I remember that was um, they said, well, if we capitalize the end and you know, black people will think that they're equal, there'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 realize that keeping black people, keeping Negro in the lower case was more than a 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 end in once the New York times made that change. Many other publications, bottled suit, not all but a large majority. So my question, you know, why wouldn't we, why are we still lower casing than being black? Most publications refer to the AP style guide, which still has not made it mandatory to capitalize the B in black, which I've been like, I've done change.org petitions.
Speaker 1:
55:03
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 like the, the um, default is the lower case. But since writing that op ed and then in the times which came out in 2014 I believe many papers and I'm, you know, thank God for the internet, that, that, that article is accessible to anybody. Um, it's, you know, 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 gonna 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, you know, if you capitalize the B, you're gonna make black people think that they're worth something.
Speaker 1:
55:58
But I find it offensive. Like I'm truly offended at this point for anybody who's not capitalized in the being black. And I know that people can be like, Oh, I never thought about it, which is, you know, 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 gonna end because you capitalize the B. um, and yet people still are like, well, the AP hasn't changed so we have to wait. Um, you know, Martin Luther King jr didn't wait. You know, he didn't wait for somebody to say, okay, you can March now. Yeah. So I don't know why people feel like they have to wait to change a lowercase 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.
Speaker 1:
56:42
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 and black and, 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. Thank you so much for having me. And this is, you know, this is what I do every day in the melting pot, on my American melting pot, on the podcast and the blog. Like 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.
Speaker 2:
57:32
Thank you to our guests and a big thing to our senior lecturer, Nicole Blair for letting us play your music on the show. Thank you to Mooney, 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. [inaudible].
×

Listen to this podcast on