Color Struck and the Diversity of Brown Skin

Several years ago, a friend of mine asked me for my opinion on a fiction manuscript. While I had many things to say about it, one of my comments stood out to me.

There was one thing I thought I’d mention, though there is really no need to address it. It’s a pet-peeve of mine, and it has been since I was a little girl. I always hated reading books and hearing the white characters described so interestingly (“he had big, cobalt-blue eyes,” “thick, jetty black hair,” etc.), while black characters were simply described as… well… black. “He reached his black finger out to do this” or “His black face took on a frightened expression when he heard that.

One thing I always love to see is a little bit of diversity when describing black characters. Yes, most of us do have black hair; the vast majority of us have brown eyes. But the thing I love is that, even though we are called “black” (which I greatly prefer to the term “African American,”), we’re not, really; we’re brown. And we’re any brown from chestnut hues to pecan tones to caramel hues to mahogany hues.

I went on to share the way my favorite childhood author, Mildred D. Taylor, describes the character of Papa in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry: “Papa was a tall, pecan-brown-skinned man with both a reputation and a bearing that commanded respect.”

There are not a lot of words there, but the picture she painted gave ten-year-old me a beautiful view of this man from his honorable insides out to his brown skin.

Have You Gotten Darker? 

When it comes to skin color, black people have a tendency to see in shades. And the message that my mother got from her grandmother growing up was that the lighter the grandchild, the more beautiful.

My great-grandmother, a mulatto woman who had spent her youth “passing” as a white lady and had married the fairest black man she could find, would always give her lighter grandchildren (of which my mother was one) a Kennedy half when she came to see them. She would give her darker grandchildren a quarter.

This blatant display of favoritism carried down into our generation with an older relative who exclaims every time she sees me, “Have you gotten darker?”

My mom, who married what she calls “a giant of a chocolate man,” taught me to say, “I sure hope so. I’d love to be chocolate.”

My mother’s great grandfather on one side was full-blooded Cherokee, and the one on the other was full-blooded Choctaw. We’ve already talked about her great-grandmother, who was the daughter of a white plantation owner. We have diversity by the bucketfuls and a blue-eyed grandfather to prove it. But while my mother and her sisters grew up with the not-so-subtle message that brightest is better, I grew up with parents who showed me the beauty of all sorts of shades — including brown skin.

I Must Marry a Man who Sees Chestnuts 

Still, my cousins and I are somewhat of a rarity in our generation. A documentary, Dark Girls, highlights the fact that the favoritism of lighter skin is still rampant in our culture.

And it’s not just black women.

We all want to be bronze beauties of androgynous origins. I remember reading a magazine survey last year about how, in the 80’s, blonde and buxom was the national goal, while, in the new millennium, we’d all give our left arms to look like the racially ambiguous chick on the sarcastic Kotex commercial.

What I always tell people is that red or yellow, black or white, I must marry a man who sees chestnuts. What I mean by that is, I must marry a man who sees the beauty and diversity and will pass that eyesight on to our children.

The Lord’s Creativity 

Some people look at my butterscotch-toned mother and chestnut-hued me, and all they see is black.

I think that’s sad.

Not because I hate my ethnicity, but because I see the beautiful diversity within my ethnic background.

Where some people see monolithic brown skin when they look at my huge family, I see a rainbow. And where some black people see a favorite in my bi-ethnic younger brother, I see just as much beauty in the chocolate-skinned one after him.

We were all created in God’s image, for his glory. And while I could draw a myriad of punnet squares and talk Mendelian genetics with you all day, it is only the uniting beauty of the Gospel that gives us a handle on just how lovely diversity is.

I serve a God who has called “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all the tribes and people and languages” (Revelation 7:9) to partake as sons and heirs in his kingdom (Galatians 4:7). His love for us transcends lines of gender, class, and ethnicity, and who allows our horizontal love to do the same (Galatians 3:28). I serve a God who put chestnuts, chocolate, caramel, butterscotch, and pecans all under the same roof just because he’s creative like that.

So You Don’t See Color

The answer to this light-skinned, dark-skinned favoritism isn’t to stick our heads in the sand and claim we don’t see color. Because to do that, in my opinion, is to ignore the beauty that the Lord has poured into our skin.

It’s also a little silly: I see red hair, and blonde hair, olive skin and alabaster skin, tall, thin people and curvaceous people all with the same eyes you could claim don’t see my brown skin.

I know what people mean when they say that: they don’t let their perception of people’s color determine their treatment of those people. But if that’s what they mean, that’s what they should say.

I am not going to go on some, “My black is beautiful” tangent here, or tell you that, “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” I’ll tell you like I plan to tell my daughters, should the Lord bless me with them, and should they be as chocolate as I always wanted to be or as fair-skinned as my great-great grandmother would have loved:

You are fearfully and wonderfully made. You are part of a gorgeous tapestry the Lord is weaving in his creation. Whatever your shade, hair color, eye color, or stature, the Lord gave it to you on purpose and for his glory. And when you are his, your beauty radiates from within and reflects on every feature the Lord has given you on the outside. 

Become Known & Loved Through Christ’s Finished Work

Read my 5-day devotional and discover how an identity rooted in Jesus can defeat your shame and fear of failing to live up to extra-biblical expectations.