“The Problem of the Color Line”
By Ronald Yates
In the early years of the twentieth century, WEB Dubois made the now prophetic statement that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Dr. Dubois was, more than likely, referring to the issue of pervasive racism. What he may not have realized, at the time, is the depth of psychological damage that colorism was having on his own people. Initially, it was subtle… Black men and women would subject themselves to harsh chemical treatments in an effort to change the texture of their hair, apparently straight hair was all the rage, kinky, or so-called nappy hair was a badge of shame. The focus then shifted to the dark African skin, many of us, of a darker hue, would be ridiculed, often called “Blackie” or “Tar baby.” Imagine Black people ridiculing other Black people for being black. But it happened and continues to happen, not just here. Around the world, people of a darker hue are exposing themselves to skin-lightening treatments, so much so that some nations have issued a ban on some of these treatments that have done irreversible and irreparable damage. But why? What is so wrong with being black? Why are we so feared and rejected? Do we continue to change the texture of our hair or seek to have surgeries to make our noses or lips less prominent? The truth is… only we can turn the tide of how we and others perceive and treat us.
Today we use different terms to describe the issue Dr. Dubois outlined in 1903. We use words like “colorism,” or being “color struck; but the damage is done. It is deep-rooted, insidious, and doesn’t just affect our relationships with people of other hues, it also affects how we see and interact with one another. The mass media projects images of Black people in this nation as being inherently violent, but the overwhelming recipients of this violence is other black people. In the 1990s a new term was coined to describe the phenomenon, it was called “Black on Black Crime.” The colorism issue, that began with the changing of hair texture, morphed into virulent self-hatred, during the late 1980s into the 90s. During this time we killed more of our own people than the KKK could ever have accomplished within the same timeframe.
Self-hatred is just as pervasive as racism. In fact, it is, in many respects, much worse. Racism is something we have come to expect in America and even become complacent about. However, what we did not take into account was the depths of the destructive nature of self-hated and how it has helped to destroy generations of talented and remarkable Black and Brown people who had the potential of contributing much to the enhancement and advancement of the world, in general.
The good thing is… the story is as yet incomplete. We still have time to change not just the world’s perspective of who we are, but also our own. What we need is a resurgence of the Black Power Movement” that awakened our sense of self and our connection to Mother Africa. During this time, straight hair was no longer the rage and we proudly wore our dashikis as a visual symbol of our connection to our culture and people. We began to teach our younger generations the true history of Africa and the invaluable contributions Africans made to humanity. We learned to respect ourselves. Black women were referred to as “Sisters and Black men as brothers.” Groups like the Black Panthers for Self Defense, The Nation of Islam, The Five Percent Nation, and a host of others were spreading like wildfire throughout the Black Community. We were beginning to rise after centuries of oppression. If it worked in the sixties and seventies, it will work now.
We are the same people today. Our needs have not changed much from six decades ago. We have time to re-write our legacy and give our next generation a future that offers hope where there was once only despair.