Our Skin Problem: America’s Toxic Bias of Color

We cannot dismantle race, but perhaps there’s another way to escape it.

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For the last decade, many Americans have steadily fought the structure of race to achieve a united-country and post-racial state — some opting for colorblindness, and others challenging the historical bias attached to skin color. Even right now, as we’re surviving a novel pandemic, the racial one is met with more urgency. But to find a cure, we must analyze the problem. So, let’s rewind four centuries to the genesis of race.

Historians say racial categories weren’t officially established until 1790. After the European Spaniards stole West Africans and native lands, other groups migrated over the Atlantic to America. Once the Dutch, the British, and the French arrived — the Spaniards recognized in order to keep their dominion, they needed a structure to uphold their power. So, they considered constructing a hierarchy based on ethnicity. But there was one huge problem; the foreigners’ skin was identical to theirs. And because of that, each group could homogenize with “Spaniard” to acquire control. Not only that, but another pigment was also in question. There were also brown Dutch people, brown French people, and brown Spaniards. Even their slaves were “brown” — and after recognizing these “color loop-holes,” they understood ignoring them could inadvertently dismantle their entire supremacy.

However, the one thing neither of these groups could do, the slaves or the free, was lie about their pigment. Therefore, they created the superficial system of race, which doesn’t care about who you are, but what you look like.

But this piece is not about slavery. It’s about what it did to our skin.

From 1790 to 2020, race has withstood rebellions, an emancipation proclamation, a civil rights act, 45 presidents, thousands of protests, good intentions, and malicious intent. Many Americans would say, “we’ve come a long way,” and I would agree. Many other Americans would say a “post-racial country should be the next goal,” but I would disagree completely. Not because I’m entirely against the notion, but because this notion is actually impossible. And the reason is simple, because we all inhabit one inescapable thing — our skin.

Let’s go through why: First, our skin is cloaked with color, and that color is stained with centuries of racial connotations. Therefore, our skin is not only a pigment, but a pigment that represents racial signifiers. The tricky thing here is, these racial signifiers are legitimatized through society’s perceptions. According to a Harvard study, “[society] uses skin color as a vehicle for exploring the complex history of American racial dynamics, and in particular to show how political mobilization around one form of illegitimate hierarchy –between nominal racial groups.” Therefore, to enjoy a post-racial America, everyone must literally become one pigment, or remove their skin, or die — and unfortunately, those three options are more practical than jettisoning our racial problem from this nation.

Even though these signifiers are fictitious, their essence is intertwined within our biology, making them seemingly “genetic,” making them into our “pseudo-genes.”

And because these pseudo-genes are optic through color, society assumes an individual’s pigment is a proper introduction to their character. These assumptions are subconscious reflexes based inside historical subjectivity, also known as implicit bias. And according to Berkeley professor John A. Powell, “Implicit bias confirms that race and gender matter — even among those who consider themselves non-racist and non-sexist.” Powell continues, “Researchers have begun to recognize that most cognitive and emotional responses to our environment happen without our awareness.”

Which brings us to the 1940s, when renowned psychologists Kenneth Clark and Mamie Clark conducted a controversial experiment examining color. During the tail-end of segregation, the Clarks tested school children’s perceptions of race with two dolls, famously known as “The Doll Test.” The Clarks used these babydolls, one white and one black, to prove two things: that implicit bias has adverse psychological effects on perception; and that implicit bias forms during early childhood development.

The Doll Test’s results showed both white and black children perceived the black doll as undoubtedly “ugly” and “bad,” while perceiving the white doll as inherently “good,” and “smart.” In rural Arkansas, Kenneth Clark asked one black child to, “point to the babydoll that looks like you.” The child pointed to the black doll and said, “That’s a nigger,” then hesitantly pointed to himself, “I’m a nigger,” — a response that disturbed the Clarks, though proved the experiment’s point.

And decades following the Clarks’ research, the experiment has been administered numerous times, most recently captured on CNN with Anderson Cooper in 2015. Where again, white and black children heavily favored the white babydoll and overwhelmingly rejected the black one. But, the significant part of the test is while the color of the babydolls was different; each doll “looked” exactly the same; their clothes, their hairstyles, their facial expressions — everything was identical.

Additionally, these dolls were not alive. There were no personality traits or cultural signifiers at play to decipher the doll’s race. In which I mean, the white babydoll could have been a black Albino doll, and the black doll could have been a middle eastern Indian. Which further proves racial categories are inescapable, but more interestingly, exposes how they can be fooled. So, instead of looking at “race” to deconstruct, perhaps we should search inside its boxes to find answers?

This seems optimist and even a contradictory position to page one, but hear me out. Let’s discuss passing.

Passing was a method where black individuals could “disguise’ themselves as white if their skin was fair enough. This racial transition eradicated their black identities in exchange for privileges and sovereignty. This racial trick, if you will, was depicted fictionally in Nella Larsen’s renowned novel Passing, where her central character, Clare Kendry, lived as a white woman in Harlem.

Even after Kendry transitioned, she was astonished by how unaware the white community was about her. “White people were so [ignorant] about such things,” she said, “they asserted they were able to tell [if someone was black]; by their fingernails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot.” Larsen continued, “They always took [Clare Kendry] for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a Gypsy. Never, suspect that she was a Negro.”

The exciting thing about Kendry was the longing for her former “black life.” And because of this, she would revisit old friends, family, and community to “absorb blackness” by proxy, literally passing “in-and-out” of race’s backdoors.

Perhaps this dangerous to-and-fro was more suited for a fictional New York, but in real America, a man named Albert Johnston, and his wife, and their four children, passed on the east coast. Not only that, but Albert Johnston then applied to Harvard Medical School, got in, and became a practicing doctor in Keene, New Hampshire. For over 12 years, the Johnstons’ were the typical well-to-do family, living white in suburbia until early 1941.

After Johnston tried to volunteer for the Navy, his physical exam results found him “ enable to meet naval physical requirements.” And the “physical requirements” in question was the discovery of his black identity. However, unlike Clare Kendry, he was evicted from whiteness but went physically unharmed due to his professional ties within the town.

Now, let’s reverse it. Remember Rachel Dolezal? The light-skinned black woman with the tight curly afro, who turned out to be a fair-skinned white woman with a tight curly afro…

For over a decade, she managed to impersonate as a black woman, and as a Black Lives Matter activist, and the NAACP president for Spokane, and an African-American studies educator who taught “The Black Woman’s Struggle” at Eastern Washington University.

We all know what happened next.

During an interview in 2015, a journalist confronted Dolezal about her white biological parents, which sparked a controversial debate about racial identity, cultural appropriation, and even the idea of “trans-racial living.” After Dolezal was “canceled,” she did not reimpose her natural state. Instead, she expressed throughout her decade of passing, “[she] began to feel even more connected to [blackness],” which caused her to think she’s lived a black plight, “seeing the world through black eyes.” More recently, another woman named Jessica A. Krug, a self-proclaimed black activist and established African-American studies professor at George Washington University — similar to Dolezal — confessed she “culture leeched” from the black community and has “canceled herself.”

Here’s the complicated thing. We’re told racial experiences are magnetized to its correlating skin colors. And though controversial, as we’ve discovered, an individual can “choose” a race based on their disguise and the shade of their skin. The one thing they cannot do is escape race altogether. And contrary to popular belief, these white women aren’t the first individuals to imitate a black identity.

(Though, this next one proved a point about racism).

In 1959, a white journalist named John Howard Griffin medically darkened his skin to experience the “Deep South” as a black man. This social experiment lasted for six weeks and later became Black Like Me. In chapter one, Griffin states, “If a white man became a Negro in the Deep South, what adjustments would he have to make? What is it like to experience discrimination based on skin color, something over which one has no control?” The rest of the chapters are journaled entries on Griffin’s experience as “a Negro in a land where we keep the Negro down.”

Three weeks into the experiment, Griffin describes a night in Mississippi, where he traveled to a local diner. Since he was now black, he ate where he was supposed to — outside. As Griffin ate his 0.25 cent meal, he heard “hoots and shouts” in the distance, and instantly “felt disaster” because the familiar screams were of white men. “[If they saw a black man] alone, their lust to beat or kill would flood into them.” Griffin wrote in genuine fear because even though he was born white, on this night, he was not.

Griffin telephoned his friend P.D. West, a racial justice activist who was also white. After West arrived, Griffin got into his car and thought, “I was embarrassed to ride in the front seat with a white man.” He was startled by his internal thoughts, then realized, “[He] had grown accustomed to being a Negro, to being shown contempt, that [he] could not rid [himself] of the cautions.” West, unaware of Griffin’s inner battle, watched him uncomfortably sit in the passenger seat. He gazed in “amazement” at Griffin, not because he was physically black, but at Griffin’s changed behavior because he was black.

Before I continue with Black Like Me, I must bring in cultural critic Thomas Chatterson Williams.

Last year, Williams was featured in a piece called “Unraveling Race,” which explored his journey as a self-proclaimed “ex-black man” who no longer identifies as black or white — and wants to “discard traditional racial categories” altogether. Additionally, these unorthodox views are tackled in Self- Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, where he writes, “I’m retiring from race and stepping out of the flawed and cruel game,” feeling no guilt because “blackness and whiteness aren’t real.” Unlike Albert Johnston, Rachel Dolezal, and Jessica A. Krug — Williams doesn’t wish to “pass” as any racial identity, and feels these categories “are failing us.”

But, because Williams has skin, society will still see a color on him, making his racial goal an impossible one to achieve. Perhaps he hasn’t exited race, but merely left one identity and entered inside his other one.

Regardless of these individuals’ motives, unbeknownst to them, they’ve shown racial categories’ fragility by exposing its blind-spots. Because if one’s skin is light enough, you can sneak into blackness or whiteness based on your presentation. I’m talking about your clothes, accent, diction, hairstyle, friends, music taste, political affiliation — -the list continues. This notion of “disguise” could validate Williams’ argument that “blackness and whiteness aren’t real.” Though, it proves the contrary — blackness and whiteness are very real; it’s just blackness and whiteness can be easily manipulated.

Back in Self-Portrait, he mentioned he could “forget about [his] racial categorization entirely with a sense of existential levity [he] doesn’t believe [his black] father has ever known.”

Similar to Griffin’s mental transformation from white to Negro — Williams, at his own admission, described “whiteness” as “non-existent,” further stating, “There’s no such thing as white — it exists solely in our perception of the world, not as a color per se but as the absence of such.” Even though this statement could be true, Williams accidentally correlates his own “forgetfulness” of his race as one “inhabiting a white psyche” — which reveals his societal identity, perhaps, is white. These points are not to interrogate Williams, but to demonstrate how race is inescapable even if one proclaims they’ve run away from it.

Both men in Self-Portrait, and Black Like Me, undergo a similar experience, but in reverse. Williams attempts to emancipate from race, and Griffin shackles himself right to it. More importantly, their memoirs reveal the indestructibility of race — not because they are stuck with being their genetic color, but because they are stuck within a color because they have skin. That everyone is confined, and will have a racial experience because society will not allow us to escape from “this cruel game.”

But, there is one main take-a-way on the table. The same evidence that shows the endurance of racial categories inversely proves our perceptions contingent on them cannot be trusted — that our implicit bias is what’s not real. And perhaps that’s the part Americans can strive to destroy, — to judge each other by the “content of their character,” — not their skin. Ring a bell?

Even though I’m still skeptical it’s possible on the whole — hopefully, I’m proven wrong.

Written by

Freelance writer. MA in Journalism from NYU. Studied under Ta-Nehisi Coates in his “Writing for Reporters” course. My weapon is My pen. @b.talissa on IG.

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