Dismantling the Color Construct

By Jonathan Maye-Cates

For over 400 years in Western civilizations, Europe, Sahara and sub-Saharan Africa, the color construct has been a defining element in identification and subjugation of cultures and people of color across the globe. 

Evidence of this preoccupation with skin color and the inevitable mixing of people of different backgrounds and origins is at the forefront of political and social discourse in the waning days of 2020. This comes as Kamala Harris is set to become the first person of South Asian descent, the first woman, and the first Black Vice President of the United States of America. 

Elected white male officials, as well as uninformed individuals across the political spectrum, debate this accomplished woman’s light skinned appearance, and offensively and outwardly state “she’s not really Black.”

These nationalistic, rhetorical  and demeaning comments,  are being spewed across social media, news outlets and from the paltry mouths of the likes of U.S. Rep. Steve King and Fox News pundits.

It represents a very sad commentary about our populace, especially with the wealth of information available at the click of a button. Furthermore, it’s extremely insulting to the diverse citizenry of our nation, people of all shades and hues, many of which are direct descendants of slave owners, the perpetrators of forced rape and the miscegenation laws, very much akin to a caste-like system of racism.

Colorism can be defined as a tenet of discrimination by which those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than others with darker skin. This can be viewed as a product of racism in the United States,  inasmuch that it holds white standards and benefits white people in the practices of oppression. 

Conversely,  colorism, a term coined by Alice Walker in 1982, is also defined as the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone typically of the same ethnic or racial group.

This is at best a very complicated issue which has been fiercely debated and dissected, many times over.  Words matter, especially when used to denigrate, hurt or define ethnicities for the purpose of power and control. 

In 1946, a distant relative, Otis Gaus Fletcher, from Lexington, Kentucky, penned a treatise entitled, “Ten Corrupt Bombs”.  Fletcher considered “bombs,” the names and words used to describe Black Americans, as being more destructive than the atomic bomb. Fletcher, the head of an organization known as The Moral Reform League of United States American Citizens,  petitioned then President Harry S. Truman and the Congress of the United States, to examine “with scrutiny and patience,” the ten vicious words and objectionable names.

Otis Gaus Fletcher’s 1946 pamphlet, which called for racist epithets to be deleted from dictionaries.

Fletcher wrote, “Objectionable names that we would especially ask your consideration of are Negro, Nigger, Negress, Wench, Mulatto, Pickaninny, Sambo, Darky, Quadroon and Octaroon.”

Furthermore he said, “None of these names are human, nor are they suitable names for human beings.” Fletcher’s overall moral stance was that we as a people be called “… born citizens of the United States of America, so our name is United States Americans. We are just one indivisible nation of people.” These were back then and especially now, lofty and idealistic goals, yet attainable. 

Of course, Vice President-elect Harris isn’t the first to be defined by her skin tone.  President Barack Obama, was beset by birtherism; golfer Tiger Woods was a self described “Cablinasian,” a nod to his Black and Asian roots. That was until he was arrested for a DUI and domestic altercation – his police mugshot labeled him as just another Black man. There are too many examples to cite where skin tone is a defining factor of a person’s existence and humanity. 

For the sake of brevity,  here are a couple of definitions of the “bombs.”  As defined in the Websters Collegiate Dictionary from 1913: Darkey is defined as being Negro. Mulatto – the offspring of a Negro and a white person. Mulatto they say, is of Spanish or Portuguese origin and is a derivative of Mulo or the word mule…a hybrid beast. Quadroon is derived from the word Quadrumana, a division of animals, encompassing monkeys and apes.

In contrast, in Black culture, terms such as “redbone” or “high yellow” refer to the lighter hued individuals within our group. Moreover, most white people speak on skin tone,  in terms of a “ruddy complexion,” or “olive toned skin.” Also they seem quite emboldened when they say, ” I’m so tan I look Black,” or “I’m almost as Black as you,” (Ha hah!) Frankly,  I’m pretty sure Black people didn’t invent the phrase “poor white trash.” But, I digress.

In Kentucky, for example,  where I hail from, it is not unusual to see Black people with reddish complexions, natural red hair, green eyes and freckled skin. Yes, the Irish and Black peoples commingled. There are lots of Black people, across the country with McGowan or McCann as surnames. President Obama as well as the late-great Muhammad Ali’s ancestry can be traced back to their Irish roots. My family’s surname, Cates, is of English/Irish origin.

Jan Bell Dew.

A longtime friend,  Ms. Jan Bell Dew, says, “Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s the struggle was real. Feeling confident about your Blackness was bittersweet.  Even the infighting of colorism within, if you were thought not to be Black enough, if you were fair skinned. I felt proud anyway to signify that I was Black and Proud, because I wore an afro, owned an afro pick and bell bottom jeans,” Dew continued.  “I could quote Paul Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask. Yet, I found Blackness was a state of mind, rather than what I adorned myself with.  It’s  a recognition and pride of my history,  culture and royal ancestry.”

Finally,  I certainly don’t have the answers to the myriad of questions surrounding the color construct in America. I’m a proud American who just happens to be Black. 

My Aunt Ruby from Louisville,  Kentucky,  makes it very clear as a strong Black woman, who refuses to be defined by societal norms. “I like to describe my beautiful skin tone as caramel, ” says Aunt Ruby.

I like caramel.

Top image credit: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0. Jonathan D. Maye-Cates studied journalism at UW-Milwaukee and was an editor of the original Black student newspaper, Invictus, on campus. In 1979, Jonathan was hired as the Los Angeles Times/Washington Bureau’s first paid Black intern. He later worked as a reporter for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Jonathan now works as a bartender at the Charmant Hotel and serves as a commissioner on the La Crosse Human Rights Commission. He lives in La Crosse with his wife Laurie Ann Cafe.

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