In the work place, schools, restaurants, and even tourist attractions, light skin is all-too-often catered to. Why does whiteness dictate entitlement?
Privilege: a right, immunity, or benefit enjoyed only by a person beyond the advantages of most. Everyone wants to know that there is something innately special about him or her that affords him or her some sort of privilege. An expectant mother, more times than not, will get a seat on the bus. A killer body and superior sense of style always saves someone a wait in line at the nightclub. But where is the line drawn? When does it move from being special to unjust? What happens when you are consistently denied entrance passed the velvet rope, a structural divide that you will always be discounted based on your race? Bodies fade, fashions change, and babies are born, but race lasts a lifetime.
Inequities are rampant in society. It is difficult, however, to detect these inequities in some instances. Minorities are often asked to reveal proof of the realities of racism and privilege to skeptical white people. Gone are the days when it was socially acceptable to name call, assault, and physically segregate people based on color. In the beginning, laws and documents like the Constitution of the United States were based upon the protection of dominant members of society who were mainly white. Now that minorities are afforded the same rights, how does that change the dynamic? When the privileges were granted to the masses, was the playing field then leveled with say, the promised 40 acres and a mule? Base-level education and healthcare systems? Let’s say there was a considerable game of catch-up that needed to happen. Many will argue that minorities are not all caught up.
White privilege stems from white power and the insidious ills of racism still linger and manifest on the peripherals through privilege: privilege based on assumption, economics, opportunity, entitlement and even perception. There is power in perception and perception of power creates the same inequity. How people feel about race is manipulated by this control. If we are made to feel that children who are being bussed to better schools outside of their district are receiving the “privilege” of a better education, then it distracts us from investigating why the school in that child’s neighborhood is sub-par to begin with. The way in which the dominant culture wants and allows us to feel about our places in society carries with it great power and privilege. While black people may have prejudices, and at times even feel hatred towards white people, which can even cause fear, the reality is that black people’s possible dislike of white people doesn’t have the same kind of impact on the lives of white people. On the whole, it does not preclude a white person’s ability to get a loan, receive fair treatment by the justice system, acquire education, or find housing in an area of their choosing, the way it would for a black person. Were the residents of New Orleans afforded the privilege of a safety net to protect them from forewarned danger in August of 2005? The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina shed light on the existent and growing inequities between whites and people of color in the US as residents remained in New Orleans without water, food or shelter. The deaths of citizens by thirst, exhaustion, and violence days after the storm itself had passed also fuels the notion that race and class contributed to delays in government response. It further created a scenario of poor needy black refugees that needed to be rescued by a great white hope.
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL?
In the US, the Civil Rights Movement was launched not only because of the violence minorities had experienced leading up to that era, but also because the separate but equal laws did not hold true. Separate but equal was to offer the same qualitative and quantitative rights to services and facilities, just separately. However, schools, hospitals, water fountains and public bathrooms were far from equal. Are we still living in an age of separate but equal? We have been pacified to believe that because everyone is afforded the same rights and there isn’t rampant cross-burning-white-sheet-wielding-violence-by-horseback that everyone lives equally. Everyone certainly has the right to apply for whatever job they want; it doesn’t necessarily mean they will ever be considered for it. Just because everyone has the freedom to show up to the nightclub doesn’t mean they make it past the velvet rope. While white people are raised with an assumption that if they work hard and live well, they can achieve whatever they want or deserve, they are equipped to feel confident and comfortable in their own skin and are often times rendered oblivious. Minority groups inherit an unconfident, uncomfortable, and alienated armor. Whiteness creates a protection from many kinds of hostility, distress, and violence, which many are subtly trained to see as an issue with and for people of color.
Are whites more privileged in society or is it that minorities still have not reached a level of equal social achievement? And if so, why not? Have minorities not measured up in business, medicine, the arts, education, sports? Why in the new millennium are we stilling looking at the first and only? For the first time in the 41 year-history of the NFL (National Football League) in the US, two black head coaches (Tony Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears) made the Super Bowl. When Tony Dungy won, that too was a first. There were just three black head coaches in the NFL when Dungy started nearly a decade ago. Most coaches were at one time players of the game. In a sport that boasts approximately 70 percent of the league's players as black, is it possible that the league was hard pressed to find a black coach that was able to lead a team? Lovie Smith turned the Chicago Bears around and put them into the playoffs two years straight. He is the lowest paid coach in the NFL. Where white coaches have been paid a top salary based on potential, Smith must first meet certain benchmarks.
Colorism, a product of racism, is a form of discrimination which occurs worldwide and is based on the color or shade of someone’s skin and how close or far away it is from the perceived white ideal. It is distinguished by how lighter skin tones are preferred, and darker skin tones are considered to be less desirable. This is a problem within all communities: Indian, Chinese, Hispanic, Japanese, Native American, Arab, and African. Historically, organizations perpetuated this divide in communities. Groups like “The Blue Vein Society,” which discriminated against blacks on the basis of whether blue veins were visible through light-enough skin and “Brown Bag Parties” of the ‘60s and ‘70s which disallowed entry of people darker than the brown paper bag and the “Color-Tax Parties” of the ‘20s where men would have to pay a tax on a scale of how dark their dates were, the darker the date, the higher the tax.
Colorism is a real problem in which the EEOC (Equal Employment Office of Commission) has been forced to recognize and deal with. According to the EEOC, “The number of cases involving allegations of skin-tone discrimination jumped from 413 in fiscal year 1994 to 1,382 in 2002.” Many would argue that colorism has invaded the mind in the selection of leaders in organizations for social change based on how close they are to whiteness. Many of our most fierce leaders are fairer skinned - - Frederick Douglass, Huey Newton of the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Booker T. Washington, to name a few. Even the women that stand by the side of these great black men are light-skinned women. Look at the wives of Eldridge Cleaver, Al Sharpton, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and Martin Luther King, Jr.
In India, Professor Shallini Bharat, a socio-psychologist with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, believes many Indians’ obsession with lighter skin is a result of the country's history. “India's rulers have always been fair, be it the Aryans in the early centuries or Europeans in later years. Fairness is equated with superiority, power and influence, therefore the preference for lighter skin.”
Betting that the fair-complexion craze in India will continue, American and European companies have established their market share on bleaching products. Popular western brands such as Avon, L'Oreal, Lancome, Yves Saint-Laurent, Clinique, Elizabeth Arden, Estee Lauder, and Revlon, offer whitening products. In addition, cheap knockoffs like Cure and Lovely of the popular Fair and Lovely Indian product are making the rounds. Even though proven to be harmful and damaging, Asia is wrought with skin bleaching products. There’s India’s Jolen Creme Bleach (specifically for hair lightening) slathered over the face as a fairness treatment, Fair and Handsome, Exclusively for Men by Emami Industries and, in China An Shilves Skin Lightening Cream and Arbutin Powder. Advertisements for these products many times showed sad dark-skinned women with no prospects of a boyfriend lightening their skin and finding love and jobs as flight attendants. Indian freelance writer, Nicole Leistikow, WeNews correspondent, reported that Natural Skin Lightening Series Hindustan Lever Limited, one of India's largest manufacturing and marketing conglomerates, discontinued two of its television advertisements for Fair and Lovely Fairness Cold Cream, after a year-long campaign led by the All India Democratic Women's Association. The skin-fairness industry accounts for 60 percent of skincare sales. Emami Industries is the Indian subsidiary of Unilever PLC, based in London and reports the domestic skin-lightening cream industry is valued at over $190 million.
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome author Joy DeGruy Leary, Ph.D. states, “If humanity is to evolve we need to notice the differences among peoples, understand them, celebrate them, learn how to integrate these differences and become a true world community.” But as long as racism and the denial of race-based privilege exists, there will always be a problem with inequities whether it is actual or perceived. The most socially marginalized people in the world are people of color and the disease of racism and bigotry will always infiltrate the consciousness of the one who perceives they got (or actually did) get the short end of the stick. As long as race-based inequities exist, will you wonder if your race had anything to do with the length of your wait to hail a taxi? If you are ever confronted by a police officer, would you think you had a right to reach for your wallet to identify yourself at the risk of being shot 41 times?”
We simply need to call a spade a spade and take ownership and responsibility for the discourse of our society. The only way it could work is with complete abandon and surrender. White people need to make a supreme effort to abandon once and for all their inherent and at times subconscious sense of entitlement, and practice patience with a minority race that may be bitter and suspicious. And minorities need to trust in good faith, through a corresponding effort to forgive for the past and remove suspicion that may still linger in their hearts and minds.
The Iranian Oxford scholar and leader of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, advised in the case of racism: “Let neither think that the solution to so vast a problem is a matter that exclusively concerns the other. Let neither think that such a problem can either easily or immediately be resolved. Let neither think that they can wait confidently for the solution of this problem until the initiative has been taken, and the favorable circumstances created, by agencies that stand outside the orbit of their immediate community. Let either think that anything short of genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent, and prayerful effort, can succeed in blotting out the stain which this patent evil has left on the fair name of their common country.”