black , brown, or yellow– are we all in the same box?

October 6, 2010
Black people come in a variety of skin colors, from dark brown to light brown — the key word here being “brown”. Yes. Despite the fact that we are called “black” our skin is actually brown. Even the darkest of “black” skin is an ebony tone. Similarly, our hair texture varies from the very tightly kinked to the very loosely waved. To put it plainly there is great subtlety and genetic diversity to people of African descent. Given this, I often wonder how we came to be crammed into one box and labeled “black”.

Black, brown or yellow– are we all in the same box?
Words Leila Noelliste for BGLH.com

I’m not sure of the origination of the term. The word “negro” — used in reference to black Americans prior to the Civil Rights movement — is Spanish for black. Is this how people of African descent chose to refer to themselves prior to slavery/colonialism? Was the term “black” self-imposed. I couldn’t find the answer to that question… but a large part of me really doubts it.

I sometimes feel that the term “black” serves as a contrast to other ‘peoples’… a lower peg on the color scale. It is a natural counter to the term “white” (another questionable label, since no person is actually white.) Because of the terminology, “black” and “white” people are often perceived as cultural and physical opposites. Genetically, of course, this is TOTALLY not true… but the power of wording makes it culturally true for many people.

Being in a community of natural women has made me feel that “brown” (or any term that isn’t “black”, lol) is a better descriptor — just as “kinky”, “curly”, “coily” and “wavy” are far better descriptors of our hair than the term “nappy”.

Within black culture we have come up with our own ways to describe our color variance, like “yellow bone” and “redbone” and (in Jamaica, where I grew up) “coolie” and “browning”… but I’ve often heard these terms used in derogatory fashion or as a slur against darker-skinned women (pointing out what they are not.)

So perhaps the whole “naming system” when it comes to black people needs to be overhauled.

What do you think? Do you ever wonder about the term “black”? Does it make you uncomfortable in any way? Does it matter to you at all?