In September 2013, I subbed for another English professor at one of the two colleges where I teach English. The other prof's instructions were for me to garner ideas from the class about the qualities of a hero. I divided the multi-ethnic class, which also had a broad range of age groups (some beyond traditional college age), into five clusters. Each cluster discussed and listed hero qualities for 15 minutes. Then I had one person from each group read out their group's list. As each person read, I wrote the items on the blackboard.
By the time three groups had read their lists, I had covered a lot of blackboard space. The young man designated as reader for the fourth group then started his list by saying, "A hero is light-skinned." He then continued to read other items such as courage, dignity, and so forth. Since he himself was a light-skinned nonwhite young man, I thought I must have heard the first item incorrectly and I didn't write it on the board, but instead wrote the second item.
However, I couldn't just let the issue pass. if I thought I had heard "light-skinned," then others might have heard it too. Some dark-skinned students in that class would surely have been upset. I turned around from the blackboard and addressed the young man: "Wait! Did you say a hero is light-skinned?"
The young man responded quite matter-of-factly, as if his words would be indisputable and universally true: "Yes, a hero is light-skinned."
Shocked, I glanced at the darker-skinned students. To my perception, they looked (at best) uncomfortable. What could I say? Recent superhero movies flashed through my mind's eye. Could I think of any black superheros? Not offhand.
"People," I said, "I really think some of these perceptions are media-driven." Class was almost over by then, but we had time for a brief and lively discussion of heroes in the media. One young white man pointed out, "Well, you can't make Thor black." The thrust of my own words was that the media have to take responsibility for the images that they project, because images around us have profound influence on our sense of identity. I was saying that I thought there should be an act of Congress demanding equality in media imagery when I realized that the students were getting up to leave. Time had run out.
This incident preoccupied me. I had made certain not to react condemningly toward the young man who had appeared so certain that an obvious hero quality was light skin. His manner was not that of an aggressive person who would deliberately provoke anger, but of a person apparently raised to think that everyone would agree that a hero should be light-skinned.
A preference for light skin in Haiti had come to my attention more than a decade ago, when I researched Haiti to write a young-adult story of Haitians in Brooklyn. At that time, I assumed that this preference was a particularly Haitian cultural phenomenon.
However, the young man in the writing class was plainly not Haitian. He looked Hispanic, maybe with some sub-Saharan African heritage in his curly-almost-kinky hair and the high yellow color of his skin. And he had spoken those words to a multi-racial American group.
Reflecting further on this incident, I wondered, "What if all the media were forced for a week to show nothing but very dark-skinned African-descent people in every role?" I envisioned such a move made by a president who was determined to reveal America's racism thereby, and consequently jump-start further action in Congress on behalf of racial justice. Eagerly I started researching the situation of race in America.
Again, I was in for a rude shock. The more I researched, the more I discovered that my idea of how much racial justice had progressed since I was a child in the 1960s was very poorly informed. Yes, things are better than pre-Civil Rights Era, but not nearly so good as I imagined. Furthermore, I encountered the term "colorism"---the common term meaning societal preference for lighter skin. To my horror, the more I read, the more I realized that colorism, far from confining itself to Haiti, pervades societies and ethnic communities worldwide.
For several months in the fall of 2013 and into winter of early 2014, I was so depressed I could hardly talk. My parents had raised me to believe in civil rights for all--racial justice for all -- love for all. How could my parents' efforts to support civil rights, not to mention the sweat and blood of so many true heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., have been so betrayed?
For the last 10 months I have devoured books and articles on economics, on race, on housing, on employment, on health. My 2011-2014 study of gangs in America received vital information from this expansion of my knowledge into these other areas. Until last September, I had wanted to believe that the changes in America's laws to outlaw inequality would make everything all right over time. Since last September, I have been forced to see that racism continues to exert a pervasive influence in every aspect of society worldwide.
Many people have spoken out effectively in the United States about race and colorism. I want to join the battle. My book, The Day America Turned Black, is in the process of getting written.I plan to have it drafted by the end of August 2014. My hope is to spark reactions, no matter their nature, so that I can do my small part to fight the good fight for racial justice in my country.