Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Thing About Dividing Blacks Based on Skin Color

I recently got into a heated debate with a colleague who is heading diversity recruitment efforts at my Alma mater. We were talking about what he found out after joining a higher education social work consortium. He was enjoying getting to know the network but felt like he needed to do more research on his own so that he could really understand what other schools were doing to diversify their schools. To him, the results were shocking. For me, well I went to 2 PWI's and have worked at the same one for the past few years. It wasn't all that shocking when he told me several highly ranked universities and colleges' websites did not include any persons of color. His exact words were, "they could at least fake like they cared by having just one person of color on the screen." I agreed, I know the statistics, most schools do not care about diversity. For a short while, admissions decisions could legally be based on race. Schools had quotas mandating at least 15% of the admitted class be persons of color. These laws have all but since ended. However, nearly one-third of public and private colleges claim to still consider race in their admission. I work for an institution that touts their diverse numbers in every publication humanly possible so yes for some being diverse is an aim, for others not so much. 

My friend then went on to discuss more websites he had browsed and described a prestigious university who did in fact have a person of color on their homepage. Immediately my not-that dark skin male friend then pointed out that it wasn't enough to have a light skin student on their homepage. He argued that they could have at least selected a dark skin student, if they were going to choose one.Wait, what? You just said no school had a person of color. Now you've found one and they aren't black enough?!  

I agreed that their fair skin could have been the reason, but countered that their could have been more at play. For one, we do not know how students were selected for the photo shoot or how the "candid" shots of students were taken. He insisted they selected this person "who barely looks black" because they were fair skin. 

Had this been 4 years ago I probably would not have engaged him in any deep conversation and just agreed with his argument. Because during that time, I was simple minded too. "But of course they chose a racially ambiguous with fair skin to be the face of their diversity," I would have exclaimed. "I'm not even surprised," would have immediately followed.  He spent the better half of an hour trying to get me to see his point of view. I told him the reasons I did not agree with his focus on the skin tone of the one person instead of the number of persons of color shown. He continued to argue that they ("white people") had chosen this fair skin black person because they racially ambiguous looking. After another exchange of us just not being on the same page, I politely told him we could agree to disagree. Later on in the day at almost 5pm, he asked me if I had changed my mind based on his argument. Since this entire exchange happened over Gchat, I had just gotten busy at work working and left the conversation alone. I ended up logging off for the day before I got his follow up message. When the clock strikes 5, I am usually halfway out the door and the day was no different.

When I was on my way home I reflected about the reasons why the color of the persons skin wasn't my main focal point. Why wasn't I too enraged that a light skin person being the representative for all black people. Normally I would have just gone along, being that I am a dark skin black woman myself. However, things my thoughts about skin tone have changed over the last four years, for good reason. I now have a almost 4 year old nephew who is as fair as they come. He takes after his father who is half white and Belizean, and who's skin makes can't go without sun block in the sunniest of days. This very fair skin tone has been passed on to my adorable nephew. I remember a few years ago when it dawned on me that my love might not so easily be seen as just black. His mother is black, her sister is black. We're all black, why would anyone question his level of blackness. Are there levels to his blackness? Recognizing that he is an individual, I do not automatically assume he will want to share our identity. His father didn't readily, so I don't assume he will either. I want him to embrace being a black man and I'll support and instill those values in him. I'll be damned if anyone questions his black identity because of the fairness of his skin.

My thoughts are no longer so narrow minded to assume that blackness is simply defined by the intensity of melanin. My beautiful mixed race nephew has opened my mind in ways he can't even fathom. I can only ascertain from his few years on Earth that my views will continue to transform as we both grow older and wiser. To my colleagues dismay, I did not concede my argument after he followed up the next day. Much to his chagrin I stood by my belief that separating a race of people by skin tone was just a decisive measure. We all know where it came from, so I wasn't going to participate in that kind of conversation in 2015. We're all a little mixed up anyway. Why does it matter so much that they chose a light skin person? Especially when other schools do not even have just one.

It's more important that they only had one person of color on the website, not that the one person was a fair skin but obviously (to him) black person.

Is diversity important? Hell yeah. My career in admission is focused on being an advocate for diversity. Is the type of skin tone diversity as important, absolutely not. Could the fair skin of the black person be the reason they were selected to be on the page, absolutely. Let's not divide ourselves based on the darkness of our skin, black people. All my black is beautiful.