Friday, July 15, 2011

Colorism is Not a One Way Street

Over the years, I have often heard accounts of discrimination against dark-skinned women from various sources. Darker victims of colorism frequently express their pain and frustration at backhanded compliments such as, “you're pretty for a dark-skinned girl”. They discuss their feelings of being invisible and overlooked when a woman of a lighter hue walks into the room. They want, like any other woman, to have their unique beauty appreciated. Some young women erroneously believe that the grass is greener on the other side without realizing that this is not always true. Colorism is just one of the symptoms of racism and it goes both ways. Women of color come in various shades from the lightest end of the spectrum to the darkest. Although light skin does carry a modicum of privilege in some instances, it seems that there is very little acknowledgment of how colorism affects both sides. Colorism continues to be perpetuated to this day. It occurs when we praise the physical attributes of one child while ignoring or even belittling another. It occurs when we shun potential friends and lovers based on factors such as complexion and hair texture. It occurs when we make negative assumptions about another woman because her very appearance stirs up painful memories of being picked on or chosen last or not chosen at all. 

Image Credit:  Jason Stitt/Fotolia
As a woman of mixed race, I have a somewhat different perspective on colorism. My fair skin and ambiguous looks have elicited many reactions throughout my life, and only a handful have been positive. Even when the reactions were positive, I detected a hint of animosity. I grew up in a Jamaican family, seeing my darker cousin receive special treatment while I was made to feel deeply ashamed of my light skin. She was, and still is, considered the “pretty” one. Unlike me, she possesses the hair type coveted by some members of the Black community. I recall numerous times when her soft, flowing curls and deep brown skin were openly admired, while my kinky hair and creamy complexion were objects of scorn. It is difficult to be caught in the middle of racism from whites and colorism from other minorities. Many light-skinned women can attest to being accused of thinking they are “all that” or being called “redbone”-which, by the way, is not the compliment that some people think it is. I have had darker individuals attempt to tear me down as a way to level the playing field or correct perceived injustices. 

My mother has also shared stories with me about her experiences as a biracial woman. There was one chilling incident that occurred about fifteen years ago, when four dark-skinned women threw rocks at her car and shouted insults. They threatened to beat her and cut her hair. She was simply driving down the street and minding her own business. I believe that colorism, as it relates to beauty standards in America, played a part in this. These women did not know her, but her appearance obviously stirred anger within them. Perhaps they were made to feel inferior as children and this developed into hostility for light-skinned women.

As I grew older, my experiences were similar to hers. I came to realize that colorism hurts us all. No one should have to apologize for the way they look. No one should be made to feel that their features are inherently ugly and that their skin or hair is somehow a curse. Being light-skinned might come with benefits sometimes, but in my experience, it does not guarantee a life of smooth sailing. Like many of my darker sisters, I often feel both objectified and invisible. However, I no longer view colorism only in terms of how it affects those darker than me. It goes both ways and we can choose to fight back against color prejudice in all forms, instead of perpetuating it and promoting division. We can stand in solidarity with one another to prevent future generations of young girls feeling that they are defined by the color of their skin and the texture of their hair. We can modify our actions and our language to ensure that we do not continue the cycle of ignorance by assigning value judgments like “good” or “bad” to certain features. We can recognize that there is worth in others as well as within ourselves. We can listen without judging and, above all-we can teach our daughters that whether they are light, dark, or in between, they are beautiful.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Is There More to Maureen Peal?

I have always loved Toni Morrison's classic novel The Bluest Eye.  It provides a brilliant glimpse into the world of Black American womanhood in the early 1940s, showing how race and class intersect.  My only regret is that this great work has never come to life on the big screen, unlike Alice Walker's The Color Purple.  Like many people familiar with The Bluest Eye, I empathize with its protagonist, young Pecola Breedlove.  Her story is ultimately one of tragedy and the destruction of innocence.  However, there is one other character whom I believe is noteworthy.  Her name is Maureen Peal.  With all due respect to the author, I have always felt that Maureen is somewhat one-dimensional.  She is never fully explored and, after one chapter, is never mentioned again.  I often wonder, is there more to Maureen?  She is first introduced in The Bluest Eye as the popular new girl from a wealthy family, with light skin and braids described as "lynch ropes" hanging down her back.   Maureen is symbolic of colorism, the conflict between light-skinned Blacks and those of a darker hue.  She befriends Pecola for a short time, only to dismiss her later as being "black and ugly" during an argument.   It is clear that both Pecola Breedlove and Maureen Peal have something in common-they have both internalized Eurocentric beauty ideals.

Image Credit:  IKO (Fotolia)

Outwardly, they seem to be very different characters.  Pecola is dark-skinned, poor, and considered ugly.  Maureen is obviously of mixed race and considered beautiful.  But the two girls share the same oppressed mentality from opposite ends of the color spectrum.  Maureen feels a sense of smug superiority because of her fair, creamy skin and long flowing hair but there is little insight into who she is beyond that.   This is my only criticism of The Bluest Eye, which is, in my opinion, a true literary masterpiece.   Maureen is portrayed as an obnoxious girl with no redeeming qualities besides her brief kindness to Pecola, and even that is lost through the cruelty of her final words.  I would have liked to see Maureen develop more as a character, shattering the stereotype of the "uppity" light-skinned girl.  Being a woman of mixed race, I have personally experienced varying degrees of colorism myself.  As readers, we are only left with a hateful impression of Maureen, when it would have been satisfying to see her become a true friend to Pecola despite their differences.  After all, Maureen may be relatively privileged, but she is also a victim of the racist society around her, just not in the same way as Pecola.

She is not accepted for what she is.  Rather, she is accepted because of what she is not-that is, she is not like Pecola.   Her Caucasian blood and near-white appearance elevate her to the status of a princess in the minds of those who would just as soon ridicule her if she were darker.  She is blissfully unaware that her appearance is the ticket to all of the benefits she receives in life.  If she were like Pecola, her outlook would be much different.   It can also be argued that for all of the pain and torment Pecola endures, she is filled with more beauty than Maureen can ever dream of.   In the absence of privilege and physical beauty based on white standards, Pecola has constructed a rich inner world in which she attempts to find beauty in the smallest things.   Unfortunately, her imagination descends into madness in the end.

Perhaps one can say that Morrison created Maureen Peal as an empty, one-dimensional character to reflect the superficial society in which we live.   I prefer to view Maureen as a character who is frequently misunderstood.  Every time I read The Bluest Eye, I come away with a sense of understanding all the characters except Maureen.  She is a conundrum because she is both cruel and kind to those darker than herself.  Who is Maureen Peal?  The answer seems to lie in one's individual perspective.  The Bluest Eye contains something for everyone, including people who have little understanding of what it means to be a woman of color in America.

Who is Maureen Peal and what does she represent to you?   Please share your thoughts!

If you haven't had the chance to read other works by Morrison, I highly recommend you check out some of her lesser known works including Jazz, Sula, and Tar Baby among others.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

We Are People, Not Paychecks

As someone who has battled severe clinical depression for a number of years, I have visited many mental health professionals.  Lately it dawned on me that only one of those professionals treated me with genuine respect and compassion.  I believe that most qualified therapists are truly caring individuals who want the best for their clients.  However, there are just as many that are unethical and insensitive in their approach.  In some cases, it is clear that they are only in it for the financial gain, not because there is a true desire to help others.

Image Credit: Albert Lozano Nieto (Fotolia)

I understand that therapists are human, too.  I understand that it is a livelihood and there is money to be made.   I realize that it can be a very difficult job at times.  But from a client's perspective, it is every bit as tough to reach out to others when one is hurting.  There is nothing more painful than opening up and sharing one's innermost feelings, only to be ridiculed or condescended to.  Some of us endure our pain in silence because of the reactions we receive from our loved ones when we do open up.   A client should never have to deal with a judgmental therapist who reinforces this feeling of shame by telling us to "get over it" or accuses us of playing the victim.

Let me state that there is nothing wrong with an honest therapist who provides helpful feedback and an objective view of the situation.   But there is a clear difference between offering a client tools to heal, and invalidating their emotions or experiences.  Like mental health professionals, clients come from all walks of life.  We are not all the same.  What may benefit one client will not necessarily work for another.   When you refuse to listen and treat us like we are merely complainers wasting your precious time, it only adds to our pain.  When you attempt to push anti-depressants on us as the standard quick fix because you want to avoid talking about relevant issues, it hurts.  It could just as easily be you on the other side.  Imagine what life is like for those of us with depression.  We didn't ask for this.  Please do not presume to know more about our lives than we do.  For some of us, you are the only person we can talk to.  I am not suggesting that you cross boundaries with your clients.  What I am saying is that a bit of patience, sensitivity, and real concern goes a long way in therapy sessions.

As a mixed-race woman who has seen mostly White therapists, I do not expect them to fully understand my reality.  I have been told by at least one mental health professional that my experiences with racism, sexism, and abuse weren't real-they were simply, in her terms, false perceptions on my part.  Again, one of the worst things that a therapist can do to a client is to invalidate his or her feelings.  Your clients don't expect you to work miracles.  We simply expect you to connect to us on a human level and act like you care.  No, I do not want pills to turn me into a zombie.  I realize that psychiatric medication improves the quality of life for some people.  Personally, I prefer a different approach, one that actually requires you to engage with your clients instead of dismissively writing down a prescription.  Your clients are more than just paychecks.  We are people with voices that deserve to be heard. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Be Your Own Best Friend

As a woman, I have always longed for close relationships with other women, filled with warmth and joy.  The typical stuff-lunch, shopping, nights out with the "girls".   Women that I can laugh with and share memories with.  However, at 27, I have come to the realization that the last time I even came close to doing these things was some time in high school.  I grew up an only child, envious of girls who had a best friend (and a father)...but that is a subject I will deal with later.

Image Credit:  Anonymous (Fotolia)

The only woman I have ever had a truly special relationship with is my mother.  Friendships have never come naturally to me, which is one of the reasons I feel blessed to have met my husband.  He is not only my partner.  He is also one of the best friends I've ever had.  But there are times when I wonder if I'm missing out on anything by not having female friends.  I'm not referring to acquaintances who can be described as ships passing in the night, with insincere smiles and empty conversations.  I'm talking about real friendships that stand the test of time.  As I get older, I realize that very few people are lucky enough to have true friendships with genuine people.

It may sound cliche, but a true friend is as rare as gold in today's world.  In the era of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, it seems that most "friendships" are based on quantity rather than quality.  Many people seem to lead constantly busy, fast-paced lives.  There is always another bill to be paid, another event to attend, and another demand that needs to be fulfilled.  As a result, it is often difficult to create authentic connections with others around us.  When I was still a single woman in an unhappy semi-relationship (before I met Mr. Cinnamon Kameleon), I spent many Saturday nights alone.  My phone would hardly ring.  Dates became somewhat infrequent.  I succumbed to loneliness because hey, we all need human interaction at some point.  But after a while, I came to understand that being alone does not have to mean a life devoid of happiness and joy.  

I could create my own fun, if only in baby steps.  I could be my own best friend by taking the time to discover my passions in life and tapping into what made me happy.  It didn't require waiting around in the hopes that someone would call or invite me out.  I took action.  I exercised my creativity by writing and drawing.  I listened to music.  I went shopping by myself.  Some women rely on the approval of their friends while shopping, but I learned to trust my own intuition and with time I developed a better sense of personal style than I had in the past.  Sometimes I went to movies alone and dined alone in restaurants.   

I won't deny that it was uncomfortable to be the odd woman out at times, observing people in groups engaged in various activities.   But I also learned to appreciate solitude and in the process I made a new friend...myself.  

Are you your own best friend?  Share your thoughts!