The outcry triggered by the killings of unarmed men by police officers — from Michael Brown’s shooting death in Ferguson, Mo., to the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY — has largely focused on the victims’ skin color.
But little has been said about the fact that the men killed by police are not just African American. They are often dark skinned. That deep, ebony complexion, and all that it symbolizes, is significant, said Dr. Yaba Blay, co-director and assistant teaching professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University.
For dark-skinned black men, Blay said, “The unquestionable state of their blackness invokes fear in others. We haven’t seen racially ambiguous men gunned down by police.”
Such violence is just one consequence of what academics call colorism — the prejudging of others based on complexion.
In a 2007 article called “The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order,” Harvard researchers found that dark-skinned blacks face other consequences, as well. They include lower socioeconomic status, more punitive relationships with the criminal-justice system and less likelihood of holding elective office than their light skinned counterparts.
For some, the scars run much deeper than opportunity denied.
Take Darlene Sutherland, for example. A dignified, well-spoken woman with a Master’s in social work, a beautiful home in historic Queens and the kind of strength that allowed her to survive a stroke in her mid-forties, Sutherland is fortunate in many ways.
Still, Sutherland — a dark-skinned woman whose hair is twisted in thin, shoulder-length dreadlocks — said her childhood in nearby Media, Delaware County was painful because of her skin color.
“As a kid, there were times that I wished that I was white,” she said. “I did not see myself as this pretty little girl — a cute little kid, you know. I was just this dark girl that had this nappy hair and that just wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t acceptable, even when I was surrounded by people who look like me.”
It’s a story psychologist Dan Collins has heard before.
“You have a child who’s just developing their self esteem and developing more specifically their self concept and you start telling them that they’re ugly because their skin is darker, they feel worthless,” Collins told me in an interview from his Delaware County office.
That kind of trauma doesn’t go away, he said.
“Trauma can’t tell time. Even though something happened 5 years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, the trauma feels as if it’s happened just then,” Collins maintained.
That’s the case for Sutherland. Even now, in her late 40s, she remembers how it felt to be treated differently because of her skin color.
“I had a group of friends that would call me ‘Tar,’ because my name is Darlene, but for short a lot of people call me Dar,” she said.
“Instead of calling me Dar they called me Tar, and I didn’t really like it, but I knew that — or at least I believed they were not trying to be hurtful, so I never said anything about it,” she recounted. “It made me feel like I was less; not as good as everybody else. It wreaked havoc on my self-esteem and my self-image for a very long time.”
On the science of it
For some, the loss of self-esteem is so unbearable that they seek medical help in an attempt to lighten their skin. But skin-color variations are normal, said Dr. Nada Elbuluk, assistant professor of dermatology at New York University.
“Skin-color variation is actually related to how much melanin you have, and melanin is a pigment that all of us have in our skin,” Elbuluk said. “Interestingly the cell that makes melanin is called a melanocyte, and all of us, regardless of our race, have the same number of melanocytes.”
Skin color can also be affected by various dermatologic conditions. But sometimes, the issues go deeper than dermatology.
“Working with patients some of them have darker skin from some condition and you want to treat that, but for some of them it might be a psychological issue, where they’re not happy because of their skin color,” Elbuluk said. “Or, they think they’re not beautiful because of their skin color, and that you have to approach differently.”
Collins said helping such patients is rooted in understanding their stories.
“Their story becomes your starting point and, from their story, you want to piece together what was it that made this so painful and as you start to unravel the pain you start to weave into their story threads of hope,” he explained.
For Sutherland, the story begins when she was a child. Her adoptive mother saw Sutherland’s dark complexion, and tried desperately to change it.
“I know my mom didn’t put cleanser on the side of the tub for my brother or sister when they took a bath,” she said. “She only did that for me, because of the three of us, I was the darkest.”
But it didn’t stop there.
Her mother made her use a skin-lightening cream for a year. Such over-the-counter skin-lightening creams can be unsafe. Some contain mercury or high-strength steroids that should not be used daily, especially on the face, according to dermatologist Nada Elbuluk. But there are stores that carry such creams, and they’re not hard to find.
Sutherland and I traveled from her home in Queens to one of those stores in Harlem.
Not long after we ascended the subway steps and crossed 125th Street, we were within sight of the Apollo Theater. A moment later, we were in a store whose simple sign read, “Beauty and Human Hair.”
Sutherland picked up a jar and began to read through the ingredients. They included beta-carotene, DNC green 6, DNC red 17, glycerin, hydrogenated vegetable oil, lanolin, microcrystalline wax and synthetic beeswax. However, one ingredient shocked us both.
“Turpentine?” Sutherland asked incredulously. “Wow, that’s scary. Isn’t turpentine used to remove paint? Wow that’s really scary.”
Equally scary is the fact that while decades have passed since Sutherland was a child, attitudes toward dark skin have been passed on to younger generations.
That’s what Ellen Berkowitz, a white lawyer, learned when she adopted a dark-skinned black child. We met in a busy Mt. Airy coffee shop to talk about her daughter, now eight, whose name Berkowitz wanted withheld.
Berkowitz recalled the time her daughter was chasing a little boy because she liked him.
“She was running after him saying, ‘You’re my brother, you’re my brother,’ and finally he just turned and said, ‘You can’t be my sister; you’re too dark,'” she said. “I knew that there was colorism in the black community. I certainly knew that there was in the United States and in other countries, but I just wasn’t expecting her to get it from a little kid.
“You can grow up in a fairly mixed environment and you can think you know a lot, but you don’t until you’re living it. And I’m not living it the way she is, but you just see things differently.”
So how does one break that cycle?
Berkowitz says it’s about love. Sutherland said it’s about self-acceptance. Collins says it’s about putting traumas behind us. But the most profound answer is perhaps the simplest, and it comes from Elbuluk, a woman who has made skin — and particularly skin of color — her life’s work.
“[I want patients to] recognize that healthy skin is beautiful skin and that they can accept who they are with pride and with happiness, and not be trying to alter what’s already perfect.”
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