BHM Panel Discusses Issues Of Skin Color, ‘N Word’
Published: Thursday, February 14, 2013
Updated: Friday, February 15, 2013 14:02
Within the context of a single racial community, what is the significance of different skin tones? What does it mean to have light or dark black skin? What is the historical significance of the “N word?” How is the word used in American society today? Why shouldn’t people use it?
As a part of the Office of AHANA Student Programs’ Black History Month events, two panels of Boston College professors addressed these questions on Wednesday night, one titled “Battle of Complexions: The Significance of Skin Color in the Black Community” and the other titled “Why can’t I say the N word?”
The discussion of the first panel was centered on the differences in how black people of various skin tones are perceived in American society and how they are treated, primarily by other black people, but also by other races.
“There are several black communities,” said C. Shawn McGuffey, associate professor of sociology. “I think the historical context is a serious issue. There are places where you can see lots of solidarity. You see more solidarity particularly on the West Coast.”
“Cities saw the development of a black elite during the antebellum period,” said Martin Summers, associate professor of history. “There was a freed class of African-Americans who were biracial that accumulated more wealth and proliferated to create an elite class in places like New Orleans and Charleston, S.C.”
“The question of class is very important and perhaps more significant than the question of color,” said Akua Sarr, associate dean for the freshman class. “The black elite just happened to be lighter skinned.”
While addressing how different communities responded to the issue of skin tones, the panelists also discussed the origin of “colorism.” Drawing on European history, Summers suggested that it originated in the initial contact between Europeans and Africans and that it was related to the perception that white skin is the standard of beauty. McGuffey referenced the fact that European elites were known to powder their faces to appear even more white, as it signified the fact that they did not have to engage in manual labor.
“House slaves did tend to have lighter skin,” Summers said. “The domestic servant was seen to be a reflection of their masters—the more beautiful looking slaves, who were often lighter, would make a better impression on people who were visiting. There was also an assumption that darker skinned slaves were healthier. Slaveholders would even enhance darkness when they went to auction.”
One of the factors that the panelists thought influenced societal beauty ideals was social media. Sarr believed that social media perpetuated the idea that lighter was more beautiful, citing Beyonce as a prime example.
Comprised of Rhonda Fredericks, associate professor of English and director of African and African Diaspora Studies, and Chauncey McGlathery, adjunct professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies program and director of Voices of Imani, the second panel addressed the historical significance of the “N word” and its modern usage.
“The phrase, the ‘N word,’ is a cop-out,” Fredericks said. “If you want to talk about it, you have to say ‘n—ger.’ If we are going to truthfully engage the word and its use, we must use the word.”
The panelists each had a slightly different take on the difference between “n—ger” and “n—ga” and how they responded to the different words.
“The difference is in the ways in which the person is trying to engage me,” McGlathery said. “If they use ‘n—ger,’ they are trying to engage me as an adversary. If they use ‘n—ga,’ they are trying to engage me as a colleague. In no way is it appropriate to engage me with this.”
“I don’t care what way you say it, it is something I don’t use and don’t like,” Fredericks added. “It’s all the same word for me. The word has a lot of historical baggage.”
One of the issues raised was how generational differences impacted different people’s reaction to the word. McGlathery relayed stories from his childhood and how his grandmother had a vastly different reaction to the word’s usage than his cousins. Both of them stressed that people don’t consider their usage and that they need to think about how they engage the complicated historical and social baggage that comes with usage of the word.