Column: The View From Here: First Impressions of Skin Pigment and Hair Texture By P.M. PRICE

Friday June 03, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell. Ever heard of him? He’s been written up in several national publications, all applauding this bright young New Yorker staff writer and his unique analysis of why and how we think. His two books, The Tipping Point and Blink—which explore the value of first impressions—have become bestsellers. 

But, Gladwell’s literary accomplishments are not what I’m focusing on here. A San Francisco Chronicle article on Gladwell (published Jan. 30) revealed that his mother is black and therefore responsible for the curliness of his hair. When he grows it long, it turns into an Afro. While sporting this Afro, Gladwell was pulled over by cops more frequently than he ever was without the wild, nappy hair. Gladwell decided to cut his locks and it is implied in the article that he did so in order to avoid being harassed for driving while black. 

Which brings me to the subject of Ward Connerly and what I suspect is one of the primary, though unspoken reasons for his advocacy of mixed race classifications: his children and his desire to insulate them from racist behavior such as that experienced by Malcolm Gladwell and countless others who cannot or choose not to disguise the African part of their ancestry by the mere trimming of their telltale hair (a la the action movie star, Vin Diesel, for example, whose head would sprout quite a kinky ‘do if it were allowed to grow any hair at all). 

Now, I don’t know Ward Connerly or his children, however, given that he has light brown skin and wavy hair and that his babies’ mama—pardon me, I mean his wife—is white, I would guess that these young adults look more white than black. Perhaps being subject to the first (negative, erroneous) impressions of racist cops is not an issue for them because there is no trace of Africa in either their hair or skin. Whatever their appearance, I doubt that Ward Connerly’s offspring identify themselves as black or African American not only because that is not all they are but because of the negatives they associate with being black. 

Many years ago I attended a multi-ethnic support group in Berkeley called I-Pride, the “I” stood for “international.” This particular meeting consisted primarily of white women who had given birth to brown babies and did not want their children to be identified as black. During a break I wandered over to the host’s young son who was standing next to his class photo. I asked him to point out his friends in the photo. He named only the white and fair skinned children. Each time I pointed to a brown skinned or more African looking child and asked if this was also one of his friends, he assured me that no, not one of them was. Now, I could be reading into this but I sensed a bit of South Africa in that room, a feeling that the coloreds, while not on equal footing with the whites were at least superior to the blacks. 

And that’s the part that Ward Connerly leaves out of his discussion. He’s from Louisiana so I know he knows better. The black/white/Creole divisions in that state are rooted in slavery, wherein the darker skinned, more African blacks were forced to work the brutal fields while the lighter skinned, straighter haired Creole and mixed race slaves—mixed due to the widespread raping of black women—usually worked in the “big house” and were treated in a slightly more humane fashion when it came to food, clothing and the chance of being educated. For generations, lighter skinned blacks throughout the United States have been given preference over those with dark skin, particularly in the areas of education and employment and have been considered to be more attractive. Many of these race-based attitudes and practices persist to this day, both within and outside of the black community. 

My children have two multi-ethnic parents; a Creole father and me. Even though I have Native American, French, English and Irish ancestry along with the African, I think of myself primarily as a black woman. In the ‘70s I was proud to identify as black, not only as an act of defiance against the dominant culture but to embrace the beauty and true history of African roots we had been taught to disdain. 

My 15-year-old daughter, on the other hand, is equally proud of her Native American, European and Spanish ancestry. Liana considers herself to be “mixed.” She insists that the differences among her friends have to do with personalities, not race. “That’s old stuff,” she says. “That’s your generation, not mine.” Ward Connerly would be proud. And I am hopeful. But I am not naïve and neither is she. When probed, Liana acknowledges that racism does exist—in films, on television and in the classroom—the places where her world is focused right now. For example, she says that some of her teachers tend to only call upon white students and that some white kids receive better grades when they don’t deserve it. And she wishes there were more color-blind casting in films and on TV; casting people of color not only when race is an issue. When asked what she thought should be done about racism, Liana’s reply was that there should be a mass campaign to educate people about racism and its effects. 

Back to Gladwell and his first impressions. What do we base them on when assessing other human beings? Personal experience. Media influence. Peer pressure. Familial and cultural traditions. Instinct. How nice it would be if they weren’t based upon pigment and hair texture as well. ›