Ms. Barbara Perkins
Career Agent, Teacher, and Cook
“In using terms to identify your racial identity, what is your preference?”
Back then, I was considered Negro and Colored. I used to be hated being called colored though because “I was not white and you colored my skin.” I am Negro but things have changed so African-American is good. To me that is the best description because “Black” is what your blouse and my pants are. But I’m African-American and our roots are probably African and we are Americans.
“Thank you for clarifying how you would like to be identified. I wanted to address you by the term you identify with. I know that people would like to be identified in different terms, black or African-American and so forth.”
We can’t agree with it amongst ourselves. We’re prejudice among ourselves especially against people that are of a darker nature. Some of them don’t particularly like me because my skin is lighter, but yet I’m African American. I’m all Black. History has a way of showing up in my lighter skin because we know what happened back then in the slave days.
Where does this light skinned prejudice stem from?
It came back from slave days. Because the lighter skin slaves worked in the house and it meant you didn’t have to work in the fields doing manual labor. Some of them may have had the better grade of hair because they were mixed, the long wavy, curly hair, they didn’t have to worry about it napping up. I had to press my hair to get it straight. But the one’s that were mixed and working in the house, their skin was lighter and they probably had hair down to their waist and I’m thinking back then, a lot of them in the house may have thought they were better.
Do you feel hypervisable because your lighter complexion?
I’m usually not aware of it. It’s more that I become aware of it. It’s not a problem until I have to identify that this is where the person is going with it. I’ve had women of a darker complexion that have not been very friendly to me, initially because they think I think that I’m better then them. That this (points to her skin) is better because it’s closer to white. I usually have to bring them back to the fact that it’s how you may perceive me, but that’s not how White folks see me. I’m black. That’s how they perceive me, as black. They don’t see me as a lighted skinned Black or you as a dark skinned Black, they just see us as Black. I used to make Caucasians mad because I would tell them this (my complexion) is the result of your great grand daddy getting with my great grand mother. Then they turn beat red and let’s just call a spade a spade.
“What made you have to state that?”
It’s when Caucasian people would say “well I sick of Black people doing this and blah blah blah” and “look at you…” I said “no…my great grandma was not willing to sleep with your great grandfather.” But you know, they wanted to go there but you know, I was going to leave it alone. It doesn’t matter to me, its over, it’s done, it’s history. It is what it is. And you see the results in the parts of history you cannot erase. As much as you want it to go away it’s not going to go away. That used to be my comeback and it would stop the conversation.
How did these prejudices affect you growing up?
It’s interesting. Within the Black community is where you find the prejudice amongst each other. To me, it’s more hurtful because I expect you to respect me. We’re the same and you have these preconceived notions about me. It was very hurtful because people are judging me on something that’s not true. I don’t present myself in a way where I think I’m better so why are you coming at me like that.
It reminds me of when Barbie came out with her friend Midge, who was Black so that Black girls had dolls. All the dolls that were Black, they were real dark. As a young girl I couldn’t relate to that doll because it didn’t look like me and the blonde one didn’t look like me either but it was closer to my skin completion. I remember the first year my mom bought me one of those dolls, I cried like a baby. I hated that doll. I wouldn’t play with it; I wouldn’t do anything with it. And my mom was hurt but my sister next to me was very dark competition.
Even as a child, I was always a little bit confused because in the back of my mind I always asked myself “am I really Black?” In the 6th grade I got to bring my little sister to school. All I kept getting told was “that’s not your sister!” “You don’t look anything alike.” I was so upset that no one believed she was my sister. My mom had to explain the reason why we don’t really look alike cause I look like more like her (she was fair) and my sister looked more like our father who was darker. It was our skin tone that the kids were looking at because her complexion is much darker than mine. When we talk about it, we laugh but my sister still has a complex that she is dark skinned.
And it was along time before, in the late 60’s that Black is Beautiful Movement came about.
In what ways do you still see this?
I’ve had women give me that look like they were measuring me and I recognize it when I see it. I have some very good friends and years ago they told me
“When we first saw you we didn’t like you because we thought you were all that because you came into service with your head up when you walked in.”
Mind that these are Church folks too. My was surprised and thought “So am I supposed to come in with my head down and stooped over? How was I supposed to present myself?”
One thing I learned over the years, especially working with clients who are true African from Africa, I sense it from the males. I had a client that I had to ask my lead to reassign because everything I said to him, he would bite back at me and I was wondering why he kept doing that to me. He had a major attitude and no matter what I did, he did not want me to help him and I knew what the problem was I was a woman and with a light complexion.
I don’t know what they think I think about myself, but when I get the certain reaction that I really can’t put my finger on it its like “ok, I need to know where to go with this conversation” and I’m more friendly and try to not to come off like I’m better then them because that is what I’m reading more off of them, that they think I’m really something because of the color of my skin and I pick up on that. I kind of do those extra things to let them know that I’m just a regular person, this is my job, and how are we going to help you today.
Your complexion has really impacted your identity as an African-American woman. When did you embrace being African-American?
I remember when Black Power and Black Pride and all that happened, I was in high school. In my Junior year of high school they started the African-American club. I remember when we were wearing the Afros and it took me awhile to get to an Afro. The first time I wore one my mom just about had a fit, but she was real old school. We’ve gone through some stuff, some changes and someone my age, you’ve seen it. You’ve seen it happen.
When you start talking about Black, that’s when Black people started calling themselves that. You hear people call themselves Black or African American now. They weren’t calling themselves Black before. There was no pride in being Black and there was really no pride in being a dark skinned Black person because no one ever told you that was beautiful.
It seems like you’ve experienced more personal prejudices and racism as a Black female. How about your professional experiences? Have you encountered any prejudices or racism in the workplace?
In the workplace I never really felt, prejudice about being a black female. There was one time in the workplace and the VP was a Black female and for some reason, she did not like me. She tried to get me fired, it got so bad that it got to other people picking up on it that colleagues even asked why she was harassing me. I don’t know why she did not like me and folks were saying “you know what it is right?” I said that I was trying not to go there because she’s educated and I hope she had more sense then that. The COO took me aside and wanted me to go to the Board with this because what she was doing to me, her harassment, was illegal. There was an email that she had sent out to the staff when the organization was going through a transition and in the email it stated that everyone expect me would be picked up.
I never experience that in all the years I’ve been working. I’ve never been in that kind of situation before and that was scary and upsetting. Its’ been 50 years since I’ve been working. As soon as I was able to get my social security card when I turned 14, because back then you had to wait to get it you didn’t get one the minute you were born, and I always wanted to work. That summer I started working at Head Start in the kitchen because I always loved being around food.
Did you have any challenges with hiring or promotions because of your identity?
No. Through all my jobs that I’ve held, it was through the people I knew. I was either offered the job or asked to take an opportunity that was vacant. The only job that I had to really interview for is the one I’m currently in right now.
Were you ever told that you had to work “twice as hard?” and if, so what did that mean to you?
No one has ever come out and said that. But you figure it out when they change policies or change how we do things and you know your pay check didn’t go up but now you have these same responsibilities and then you hear if you don’t do it, you’re expendable. There’s that underlying hint that if you don’t do it, they can easily replace you with someone who can be paid at a lesser wage and benefits but they would do the job. I’m from the generation in where you just roll with the punches, learn to be flexible and you figure it out. I never used to go to management with my problems but I learned that it’s okay to do that. I learned to be okay in talking with my supervisor when I have a challenge or its nice just to be able to sit down and talk to her just to get it out and than I’m okay. I need her to be aware about where I am specifically with my health knowing that it impacts what I my job so like when I have to leave for my appointments and such.
Is there any final words of advice?
This is something I usually tell my clients.