The Skin Trade

Women of all shades, disciplines and universities were drawn this spring to Brandeis University to investigate “Skin Trade: Women, Complexion and Caste,” a conference investigating the intersection of class, race and gender.

This many-layered project was put together and in large part funded by one passionate undergraduate, Jhana Howell, who is majoring in African and Afro-American studies, English and American Literature, and is also completing the Women’s Studies Program at Brandeis.

Her hypothesis, with which the gathering was opened, is that color hierarchies—the granting or withholding of status based on skin tone— operate around the world, and not only in places where white imperialists imposed their law. Furthermore, Howell told the group, “We are here to focus on the experiences of women because it is an observable fact that men in many groups have greater chances of circumnavigating their race/ethnicity and color.”

Panel discussions on history, politics “ethnic erasure” and community included such topics as “Blackness, Whiteness and Cosmetics in Early Imperial Britain”; “Color-Coated, Color-Coded Lives: Experiences of a Multiracial, Multicultural, Working- Class Dyke”; and “The In-Between People: Jews in the U.S. and Color Hierarchies in Israel.”

But while these subjects were topics for scholarly research and debate, they also spoke directly to the experiences of the participants. “It’s something people are very aware of,” said Howell about the participants’ personal experiences with being “ranked” on the basis of their skin tone and other physical attributes by members of their own group. Howell describes the pain expressed by women about men who consistently choose light skin over dark in the black community, or blond over brunette in the Jewish. “If Jewish men and others are not interested in their own women, there’s going to be a scramble for a small pool of women.” And, she said, a lot of hostility and hurt between women as well.