Colorism panel draws students to discuss modern black culture

Arbrion Chambliss

Focused on the modern issue of colorism, or discrimination based on shade of skin color, an open panel discussion titled Fifty Shades of Black drew more than 50 students to Oscar Ritchie Hall Wednesday night.

Mostly Kent State students comprised the panel, hosted by Focus on the Future and Black United Students.

Devin Bates, Amanda Paniagua, Jakim Harvey, Tiara Antoine, Chris Hall, Damien McClendon, Janae Garrett and Iniah Dunbar focused on relevant topics including skin tone (light skin versus dark skin), what is “good hair,” social media issues, self-hatred, entertainment industry and other unique questions black people are faced with daily.

The audience was split up based on “light skinned” or “dark skinned” qualities based on how their skin color compared to that of a brown paper bag, a commonly used test in among American society in the early 1900s, and a ribbon was placed between the two groups. The test, it was explained, was often used to determine if a black person was “light enough” to gain admittance into a social event.

After a video explaining the “Willie Lynch Letter,” a document that established slavery techniques in 1700s U.S., the panel was asked to explain their opinion on the difference between “colorism” and “preference,” and what it means to be oppressed.

“I think colorism is a prejudice that separates us as a people,” Devin Bates, a junior public communications major, said. “Colorism is an attitude and preference is a choice.”

The conversation then shifted to the hair of black women: women who wear weave, women who don’t and what “good hair” means. Both the panelists and the audience members were asked for their personal definition of “good hair.”

“When I think about what is good hair, I think about a world who doesn’t value blackness; it values whiteness,” said graduate student Amanda Paniagua. “So until we value blackness, I can’t blame black women for doing what they have to do to survive. Don’t blame the women, blame the media that perpetuates what is and is not attractive.”

Paniagua said she believes that the media has control over what is considered acceptable, and until society recognizes that, the cultural definition of beauty will fail to evolve.

“Why you’re striving to be someone else, step back and see how they are admiring you from afar,” said Chris Hall, who isn’t a Kent State student but was asked to be on the panel by his sister, a Kent State alum.

“We’re changing our hair to the standard of what society says is good, which is long straight European hair,” audience member John Jones, sophomore entrepreneur major said.

Also discussed was how social media effects the ongoing debate over light skin and dark skin.

“I feel like social media tries to make the topic cool by reflecting certain biases on people based on the color of their skin by making it a joke,” said Damien McClendon, a senior pan African studies major.

The black community has to question where exactly those jokes stem from and who is making them before posting them, he said.

At the end of the discussion the ribbon that separated the “light skinned” and “dark skinned” sides was removed. Audience members had the opportunity to answer the question of what the black community can do to help solve the problem of colorism.

“We have to change the language and the way we describe ourselves,” said Matthew Thompson, president of Black United Students. “We have to stop calling ourselves a minority because the word minor means less than and we are not less than any other group.”

Tilo Jordan, a senior fashion merchandising major, said she thought the audience members were candidly honest and that she hopes Kent State’s black community will keep this conversation in mind in the future.

Contact Arbirion Chambliss at [email protected].