Dr. Yaba Blay on Skin Color’s Meaning and Bringing the Dialogue to CNN

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Welcome to Parlour’s newest smart brown girl series, profiling women of color in academia. Delving into their research, we’ll discuss what’s going on in the hearts and minds of those at the forefront of intellectual discussion in America and around the world. Who said feminism, intellectualism and learning was dead?

In this world of color politics, Dr. Yaba Blay makes sure her students ask questions like, ‘Why are most black news anchors caramel colored?’ And the answer is not be as simple as one might assume. Blay, an assistant teaching professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University, is also the artistic director and producer of the (1)ne Drop Project, an online exhibition around the politics of skin color among blacks, and consulting producer for CNN’s Black in America 5. In the latest installment of reporter Soledad O’Brien’s investigation of race in America, teens and adults openly discussed how their complexion shaped their life experiences. Conversations like these are the core of Blay’s intellectual work on colorism, the idea that different complexions carry varying cache through the lens of white supremacy. Parlour spoke with the New Orleans native about her research focus, what she’s learned about blackness while creating the (1)ne Drop Project and how her Ghanaian roots played into her own views of skin color in the stratified South.

 

Parlour: Why did you begin the (1)ne Drop Project on colorism?

Dr. Yaba Blay: I started the (1)ne Drop Project in 2011 when I applied for a small grant to self publish a few hundred coffee table books. When I realized how much money I’d need, I launched a Kickstarter project to raise funds and that became the marketing platform as people kept spreading the (1)ne Drop Project video and page. We reached our goal and introduced new people to the project, including a producer at CNN’s Black in America.

Then the Black in America producer contacted me to do a feature on their blog, In America, and since I was already scheduled to travel to Atlanta to photograph some (1)ne Drop participants, CNN, which is based in Atlanta, followed my camera crew and I when we arrived. Then CNN anchor Don Lemon happened to call and ask ‘Can Dr. Blay be on my show?’ I dashed to the studio and appeared on CNN Newsroom in early January. Then Don, who’s also from New Orleans like me, said my project really spoke to him and he hooked me up with Soledad O’Brien, the head of Black in America. A few months later, Soledad reached out and said, ‘I’m really thinking of doing something related to your project for Black in America so let’s talk.’

Why is colorism so important to you and how did growing up in New Orleans shape your view of your own complexion?
My family’s from Ghana, my dad came from Ghana to Madison, Wisconsin for his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin and then his first job was in New Orleans and so I was born there. In my household my skin color is normal, I look like lots of Ghanaian people so it wasn’t ever a conversation. But when I walked out of the house, I became painfully aware that I was very dark skinned. Colorism is relative, what people think is light skin in Philadelphia is not the same as in New Orleans.

I was made aware of my skin often, even as a child. I remember being really close, or so I thought, to a little girl. We all went to Catholic school and I lived close to her. I’d talk to her at school and on the phone but I never went to her house. When her birthday party was coming up, I didn’t get invited and when I asked her why, somehow it came up in the conversation with that little girl’s mom said I was too dark.

What was difficult about that experience was that my parents are immigrants, so to go home and tell them about something like that, their reaction would just be, ‘Oh, wow those people are crazy.’ That’s as far as it would go, so that tortured me in a way. But at the same time, my life was balanced because I felt extremely loved within my family and the West African community in New Orleans. I had African American friends in New Orleans with whom I felt very close with their families but it’s those painful experiences that stand out in my head. I’ve always been aware of colorism whether I had the language for it or not. In college I was introduced to the book The Color Complex and I said, ‘Yup,this is what I want to research and talk about.’ Still, reading The Color Complex I felt there was more we needed to know about how this social construct came to be and I became interested in figuring it out.