The color of prejudice

Forum at the Root examines the complexities of attitudes about skin color among African-Americans

BRATTLEBORO — Shela Linton did not experience racial prejudice until her first day in kindergarten.

The child of mixed-race parents and with light-colored skin, she led a sheltered childhood until that moment she was pushed on the ground by her playmates who told her, “We don't want you to play with us, nigger.”

Stunned and hurt, Linton did not even know what that word meant. When she explained to her parents what had happened, they feebly tried to console her by turning it into a joke: “Well, at least half of you could play with the kids.”

“The point is that until I was 5 years old, I was just a little girl,” says Linton, “and from 5 until my current age of 36, I became a black woman. Those are two very different experiences.”

On Saturday, March 29, from 2 to 5 p.m., The Root Social Justice Center (RSJC), at 28 Williams St., will present its second quarterly social-justice forum for 2014, “From Ghetto to Granola: Shades of Reality Among Black Women in Vermont.”

This free event will include a discussion following the showing of excerpts from Dark Girls (2011), a documentary by D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke which explores “the deep-seated biases and attitudes about skin color, particularly dark skinned women, outside of and within the Black American culture,” according to the film's website.

According to the film's publicity materials, Dark Girls examines “the prejudices dark-skinned women face throughout the world,” as women share their personal stories, “touching on deeply ingrained beliefs and attitudes of society, exploring the roots of classism, racism and the lack of self-esteem within a segment of cultures that span from America to the most remote corners of the globe.”

While most people are familiar with the racism that occurs between different ethnic and racial groups, less universally acknowledged are forms of racism that occur within those groups.

A term coined by author Alice Walker in 1982, colorism is discrimination based on skin color and, while it is a factor in all sorts of racial prejudice, it is often prevalent within communities of color: The darker one's skin, the greater the chances for discrimination.

The poster for Dark Girls offers the tagline: “White people made me appreciate my skin color. Black people made me question it.”

Such internalized racism has been recently highlighted by the Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o, in a speech she delivered at the annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence when she shared how her personal experiences as a dark black woman had an impact on her self-esteem while growing up.

Hosted by RSJC members Shela Linton and Shanta L.E. Crowley, “From Ghetto to Granola” will continue this conversation. Ten local women of color will be put into what Linton and Crowley call the “fishbowl” for an interactive discussion about their personal experiences of internalized racism living in Vermont.

Organizers hope that this forum will go beyond the individuals affected and “provide an opportunity for honest dialogue and exploration about what to do to become more aware as a community.”

Crowley, who identifies herself as a dark black woman, has personally wrestled with these issues. She remembers when she was a 6-year-old growing up in Hartford, Conn. at home alone with her dad one evening watching Charlie's Angels, the television show from the 1970s about three beautiful white women who solve crimes.

Quite out of the blue, she asked her father, “When I go to heaven, will my skin turn white?”

Crowley's dad tersely said no, and a long silence followed.

“Will I have long flowing blonde hair?” she then asked.

Once again, he tersely said no, and another silence followed.

“I don't even know why I asked those questions, or how such an idea first came to me,” she says. “But we spoke no more about it and returned to watching Charlie's Angels.”

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