'Other People's Skin' Hightlights Colorism in Black Community

Elizabeth Atkins is one of four female authors of the new book Other People's Skin, which explores issues of colorism — perceptions based on skin tone — within the African-American community. In this week's Behind Closed Doors, Atkins discusses the book in relation to a recent story making headlines in Detroit.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now I could be wrong about this, but I'm guessing that if you are a white person, the only time the question of your skin's light or dark tone comes up is when you're deciding whether to put on more sunscreen at the beach or whether you're deciding whether you're too pasty to get the shorts out at the beginning of summer. But if you're a person of color, skin tone turns out to be quite a big deal, and we've heard about this from people in the African-American, Latino and Asian communities.

Now the immediate reason we're talking about this is the story of a Detroit nightclub that promoted a party offering free admission for light-skinned women. The promoter canceled the event after complaints from across the country. But we would like to talk about why somebody would consider this idea and why it pushed so many people's buttons. It's part of our Behind Closed Doors series, where we talk about difficult issues that are often hidden from public view.

Joining us now is Elizabeth Atkins. She's a former reporter for The Detroit News, where she covered race relations. She's one of four African-American female authors who contributed to a new book called "Other People's Skin," centered on the question of skin tone. Elizabeth Atkins joins us now from member station WDET.

Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. ELIZABETH ATKINS (Co-author, "Other People's Skin"): Thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: You've been writing about race and identity for much of your career. Why do you think this issue is so important?

Ms. ATKINS: Well, I think it's the hottest topic in America right now, especially during this presidential campaign with Senator Barack Obama running. It cuts to the core of our very identity as individuals and as a country.

MARTIN: You are biracial, as is…

Ms. ATKINS: Yes.

MARTIN: …Senator Barack Obama.

Ms. ATKINS: Yes.

MARTIN: But unlike him, how would you describe your look? As racially ambiguous?

Ms. ATKINS: Very.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ATKINS: I look white. I have long blond hair and white skin. And in the summertime, I'm tan.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Ms. ATKINS: But I'm African-American as well. My father was white. My mother is black. And so, I am biracial. But to the world, if you don't know me and I walk into the restaurant or the store, you'd think I'm white. That's constantly raising questions, both to people I meet and to myself, where do I fit in? Who am I? And what's my purpose here? And I've discovered that, as a writer, my purpose is to use this dual identity and this perception that I have that's very unique because I can see all aspects of the spectrum, to use this identity and this insight in my writing skills to open people's hearts and minds by exploring the issue from a unique perspective.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about the promotion for this party in Detroit where the club was going to offer free admission to light-skinned women. Why do you think that just makes so many people so angry?

Ms. ATKINS: Oh, my goodness. Well, first of all, I think it's horrible and it's naive to think that it's okay to do something like this in 2007. The reason it sparked such outrage is because it wrenches up horrific mentalities and favoritism from the slave era. Back in slave days, lighter-skinned, so-called mulatto slaves got privileges that darker-skinned slaves didn't have. Darker-skinned people were in the field working in the hot sun, pricking their fingers on cotton. Whereas, the lighter-skinned people got to work in the big house and live in, you know, work in the kitchen or be servants in much nicer conditions. It was all slavery and it was all bad, but relatively speaking, the lighter-skinned people had it easier.

MARTIN: And you think that that sort of color caste hierarchy has kind of continued.

Ms. ATKINS: Absolutely, because if you look at the first African-American professionals, they were the offspring of the slave owners and slave women who the slave owners started colleges to send their offspring to get an education. And they became the first doctors, the first dentists, the first African-American achievers.

MARTIN: So that hierarchy was initially kind of externally imposed. But do you think that African-Americans have sort of adopted it as their own and then have internalized this and give privileges or more status to people who are light-skinned within the community, and other communities for that manner? Because this color caste hierarchy exists, as we've discussed, in other, you know, across the world, frankly.

Ms. ATKINS: Right. Yes. Unfortunately, it does persist. But if you look, there's visual proof of it and studies that even shown that lighter-skinned African-Americans are less threatening and intimidating to the mainstream, and therefore more accepted, more highly paid, more celebrated. The standard of beauty has always been the Lena Hornes of the world, traditionally, from Hollywood and in advertising. And that still persists if you look at the standard of beauty in music videos, in movies. It's the lighter-skinned woman with longer, straighter hair, bigger eyes and more keen features.

MARTIN: Yeah. But then, some of the - you know, not that supermodels or standard of, you know, for most women, given that they're, you know, taller, thinner and everything else than most of us, but if you look at who some of the supermodels are, the Naomi Campbells…

Ms. ATKINS: Yes.

MARTIN: …Iman, Bethann Hardison, who was a pioneering African-American model. They're dark.

Ms. ATKINS: Mm-hmm. Well, thankfully, we have made progress. However, this stereotype that lighter-skinned women are more beautiful still persists. And the backlash to lighter-skinned women when someone promotes a party giving that favoritism is hate. We face hate from darker-skinned women who think that we are getting away with something, that we're being prized because of our appearance, of how we were born, which we had no control over.

MARTIN: Do you think this issue is more difficult or challenging for women or for men, or do you think it's the same, this whole skin color question? I hear women talk about it more than men. But then, you know, women talk about everything more than men do.

Ms. ATKINS: Unfortunately, I think it's more acute for women, because our looks play such a huge, huge role in our identities. Our looking good is valued in America and the world. And when you fit a certain standard, you get perks. A man may be more judged by his accomplishments, his income, his status, whereas we, when we walk in a room - regardless of our title, our degrees, our accomplishments - the first impression we make is what we look like.

MARTIN: Finally, as you've talked about, this issue is so deeply rooted in this society and in many other societies. How do you begin to free yourself from the grip of this history as an individual and as a community?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ATKINS: It's a daily struggle. When I get in an elevator with an African-American woman, she might look at me and see my blond hair, my white skin and think, hmm, she thinks she's all that. And I have felt tangible hate from women who, I guess, assume I'm white. I don't know, but it's very painful.

So what I find myself doing is I'm on this one-woman campaign to bridge the racial divide by being friendly and proving that her assumption is absolutely wrong, that just because I am light or blond or whatever I look like, doesn't mean I'm haughty. It doesn't mean I think I'm better than - better than. So through my writing and through our stories in our book, "Other People's Skin," it's our mission to share that we're equal, we've all dealt with similar pain, and we're on a quest for healing and empowerment.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Atkins is a contributor to the new book, "Other People's Skin." She's also the author of nine other books. She joined us from member station WDET in Detroit, Michigan.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. ATKINS: Thank you so very much.

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