I am not sure why certain questions or thoughts pop into my brain. Sometimes those questions help me figure things out and other times, they get me into serious trouble. I have no idea what this one is going to do, but I had to ask it anyway: Would Barack Obama have been elected President of the United States if he were as dark as Wesley Snipes?
My immediate internal reaction to my own question was: “Hayell to da naw.” I can’t imagine Wesley, looking like America’s worst Ebony nightmare, being given the keys to the Oval Office. In fact, brothers who look like Wesley have to smile 24 hours a day just to keep a damn job. America views black men, especially darker ones, with intense suspicion: Our lives have less value, we are more like to be arrested, and least likely to be employed. This is true even when we “do all the right things,” like obtain a good education and work hard – that’s been my own experience, even as a scholar.
I also remember growing up and hearing jokes about really dark kids, annihilating their self-esteem at an early age. I felt bad for them, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that very dark skin is a beautiful and wonderful thing. I am angry about the part of me that grew up thinking that my lighter-skinned relatives somehow had an advantage over me (I was adopted). What’s so funny is that I am not all that dark myself.
To get an added perspective, I asked the question on my Facebook page, to see what others were thinking. Here is a sample of some of the responses:
“I have another question, forget what white people find palatable….how many Black folks would have voted for him AND continued to lend him their unwavering support if he looked like Wesley Snipes? We know how white folks tend to feel about dark skin, how do we feel?”
“No, he would not have been. It was important that he was light skinned – white folks need to see themselves in him. It makes them comfortable.”
“That man is not light skinned. Good lord. He is what we call BROWN SKINNED. In the middle. Not dark, not light.”
“C’mon man! Hell NO! Its sad, but true. I’m from a border town of Texas and Louisiana Creole/Cajun. I have family with very dark skin and family; including my mom, that very light skinned with green eyes. There has been issues even with in my own family with dark and light skin. Its been a problem in this next of the woods for years. Its crazy seeing people of the same race and coming from the same walk of life fighting with each other over skin tones. And don’t get me started on the whole ‘good’ hair ‘bad’ hair ish. SMH! Sorry I digress a bit.”
When considering whether or not a dark-skinned Barack Obama would have been elected, I first put aside the fact that Wesley is in prison and Barack is not. Then, I realized that this fact may not just be a coincidence. Even the conviction of Wesley Snipes may be related to his skin color, since numerous studies have shown that black men who “look like threatening criminals” are more likely to be convicted. So, it’s probably not coincidental that between Barack and Wesley, one man is in a position to pardon the other.
If you go to the deep south, we know that skin complexion matters a great deal. A woman in Texas can have the face of a pot bellied pig, but if she’s “light-skinndeded,” she’s almost always going to get more male attention than if she were dark. She would also be treated differently by relatives, and be more likely to be labeled “the special child.” This preferential treatment transfers to the way whites see her as well.
While I don’t know if Barack’s skin complexion helped get him into the White House, I strongly believe that his bi-racial background was critical. America was not ready for a president who was 100% black. White people can look at Barack and see a piece of themselves, which makes them more comfortable with him.
So, could a man who looks like Wesley Snipes have a chance to do what President Obama has done? My gut reaction is “no.” At the same time, five years ago, I never would have guessed that a man with a name like “Barack Hussein Obama” could be elected to the White House. So, perhaps even my own mind is constrained by the limitations of racialized thinking.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.