American exceptionalism is a powerful cultural idea of course. It’s even a true enough reading of history at times. One where it’s not is over slavery except in one or two details. Slavery was a commonplace throughout human history. Guinea – as it was then called – was a source of slaves into the Arab world at least for a millennium before any European got involved. One of those details where it was indeed different is in something Jefferson Davis himself noted, that by the time of the Confederacy the vast majority of American slaves had been born there, that natural increase. That was indeed the exception of slave portions of society anywhere – near all requiring a constant influx of newly enslaved to maintain population.
But, you know, history isn’t quite how slavery is talked about in the US. There’s rather more myth to it than reality. Take this for example:[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Colorism – the prejudice based on skin tone – has stunted the romantic lives of millions of dark-skinned black women, including me. We are not as valued as our lighter-skinned counterparts when seeking romantic partners, our dating pool constricted because of something as arbitrary as shoe size.[/perfectpullquote]
That part is true. But this part isn’t:[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Like other systems of racial inequality, American colorism was born out of slavery. As slave masters raped enslaved women, their lighter-skinned illegitimate offspring were given preferential treatment over their darker counterparts, often working in the house as opposed to the fields. This order has since been perpetuated by systemic racism and internalized by black people. It remains alive even now, insidiously snaking into my life. I have many memories of being degraded because of my complexion, the most piercing is from middle school: two girls giggled in my Georgia history class during the showing of a documentary about slavery. As the film explained the origins of skin tone prejudice, one girl – biracial, hazel-eyed, and the only other black girl in class – whispered that she would have been a house slave, but that I would have been a field slave. [/perfectpullquote]
That is to claim, again, an American exceptionalism that isn’t there. For darker skin has long been associated with certain traits:[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Dark skin still not only comes with the expectation of lower class but lessened beauty, not to mention uncleanliness, lesser intelligence and a diminished attractiveness.[/perfectpullquote]
Indeed so. Note what is not being argued here by me, that such prejudice exists or does not. It’s the cause – and the prevalence or solely Americanness of it – which is.
For a decent clue think about that house and field distinction. Leave aside the melanin content for a moment and think of melanin development. Those who work outside, in the fields, will be darker than those who don’t have to. This is as true of those with Wolof, Mandingo, genetic heritages as with Anglo Saxon, or Hindi, or Khmer. The poor who labour in the fields will be darker of hue – not through genes, but environment – than those who leisure indoors. Thus a lighter skin is a market of an enhanced socio-economic status. Which is why we get skin whitening creams across much of the sub-continent. Why Jane Austen characters worry about their bonnets, the absence of which might lead to the terrors of freckles.
And note too what happened when work moved indoors and thus those Northern factory workers (I speak of the UK, but the US would do as well) were pale. Add in jet travel meaning that the rich could go warm for the winter – what then became that marker of socioeconomic status? A tan. This changed in, in societal terms, the blink of an eye – certainly under a generation. We also see that same mimicking in reverse, not the whitening creams but the tanning salons.
Is there colorism? Sure there is. But it’s not caused, as is being argued, by slavery, not even genes. It’s something that has been common – as with slavery itself of course – across human societies and history. Richer people were lighter in skin tone thus lighter skin tone was a marker of being richer. Simply because poorer people worked out in the Sun, richer didn’t.
Why else would redneck have been a description of a poorer section of society if this were not so?