Cynthia's Interests

The world as it unfolds - told from an African American woman's perspective...

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Colorism is real (Cases that prompted the 20/20 segment on Colorism)

September 3, 2003 Wednesday
Racism at its worst: 'Brown paper bag test'

Biloxi Sun Herald

Each year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission receives about 85,000 discrimination cases, a phenomenon to be expected in a society that touts itself as a "melting pot."

Many of these cases involve the complaints of minority groups against majority groups. We rarely expect a member of a minority group to discriminate against someone else in the same group. But that is exactly what happens among African-Americans.

More than any other minority group in the United States, blacks discriminate against one another. The discrimination, called "colorism," is based on skin tone: whether a person is dark-skinned or light-skinned or in the broad middle somewhere.

Most African-Americans refuse to discuss this self-destructive problem even in private. According to the EEOC, though, the number of such cases are steadily increasing, jumping from 413 in fiscal year 1994 to 1,382 in 2002, a figure that represents about 3 percent of all cases the agency receives yearly.

The most recent case making news in the black press involves two employees of an Applebee's restaurant in Jonesboro, Ga., near Atlanta. There, Dwight Burch, a dark-skinned waiter, who has left the restaurant, filed a lawsuit against Applebee's and his light-skinned African-American manager.

In the suit, Burch alleged that during his three-month stint, the manager repeatedly referred to him as a "black monkey" and a "tar baby." The manager also told Burch to bleach his skin, and Burch was fired after he refused to do so, the suit states.

Colorism has a long and ugly history among American blacks, dating back to slavery, when light-skinned blacks were automatically given preferential treatment by plantation owners and their henchmen.

Colorism's history is fascinating: Fair-skinned slaves automatically enjoyed plum jobs in the master's house, if they had to work at all. Many traveled throughout the nation and abroad with their masters and their families. They were exposed to the finer things, and many became educated as a result. Their darker-toned peers toiled in the fields. They were the ones who were beaten, burned and hanged, the ones permanently condemned to be the lowest of the low in U.S. society. For them, even learning - reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic - was illegal.

When slavery ended, light-skinned blacks established social organizations that barred darker ex-slaves. Elite blacks of the early 20th century were fair-skinned almost to the person. Even today, most blacks in high positions have fair skin tones, and most blacks who do menial jobs or are in prison are dark. Believe it or not, popular black magazines, such as Ebony and Essence, prefer light-skinned models in their beauty-product ads.

For many years, entrance to special social events operated on the "brown paper bag" principle, which I will explain. Until quite recently, black fraternities and sororities, for example, recruited according to skin tone. Spike Lee's film "School Daze" satirizes the problem, and Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple" makes it a biting subtext.

In his 1996 book "The Future of the Race," Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard, described his encounter with the brown paper bag when he came to Yale in the late 1960s, when skin-tone bias was brazenly practiced: "Some of the brothers who came from New Orleans held a 'bag party.' As a classmate explained it to me, a bag party was a New Orleans custom wherein a brown paper bag was stuck on the door.

"Anyone darker than the bag was denied entrance. That was one cultural legacy that would be put to rest in a hurry - we all made sure of that. But in a manner of speaking, it was replaced by an opposite test whereby those who were deemed 'not black enough' ideologically were to be shunned. I was not sure this was an improvement."

Gates was overly optimistic. The brown paper bag test remains in black culture in various incarnations, as the Applebee's case and the EEOC's statistics confirm. We separate ourselves by skin tone almost as much as we ever did. Check out the female beauties in rap videos.

Back to the Applebee's case. A spokesman for the chain issued this statement: "No one should have to put up with mean and humiliating comments about the color of their skin on the job... . It makes no difference that these comments are made by someone of your own race. Actually, that makes it even worse." Although the chain denied the allegations, it paid Burch $40,000 to settle the suit.

Now for the irony of ironies: Applebee's has added a protection, along with cultural sensitivity training, against skin-tone discrimination to its antidiscrimination policies.

In other words, the company must protect African-Americans from other African-Americans.

Discrimination from whites and other groups remains a big problem for blacks. But colorism is just as serious, if not more so. Colorism saps our strength from the inside. It weakens our power and ability to fight the outside forces that keep us marginalized in larger society.

Bill Maxwell is a columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1211, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. E-mail,

SEPTEMBER 1, 2003 SECTION: Volume 13, Issue 13

HEADLINE: Color bias suit raises issues for employers

BYLINE: Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

The Applebee's restaurant chain has agreed to pay $ 40,000 to a dark-skinned African- American waiter who claims he was harassed on the basis of his color by his light-skinned African-American supervisor. There has recently been a significant increase in these types of charges filed with the EEOC.

According to a lawsuit filed by the EEOC in Atlanta against Applebee's, the supervisor called the waiter derogatory names, such as "tar baby" and "black monkey," and suggested that he should have his skin bleached. The waiter further alleged that he was fired when he complained about the supervisor's conduct.

As part of the settlement, the company has agreed to add "color" to the list of protected classifications in its discrimination policy. According to the director of the EEOC's Atlanta office: "It is important that employers realize that 'color' is a separate protected basis under Title VII. Employers violate federal law when they discriminate based on color, including the harassment of employees because of their respective skin colors."

Statistics reveal that an increasing number of color discrimination charges are being filed with the EEOC. Those charges have increased by more than 200 percent over the last eight years, making it critical that employers ensure that their discrimination policies include color and that all managers understand the meaning of that term. Copyright 2003 M. Lee Smith Publishers LLC

Atlanta Journal and Constitution
August 8, 2003, Friday

HEADLINE: Applebee's Settles Intraracial-Harassment Complaint

BYLINE: By Tammy Joyner

A former Applebee's employee who said he was harassed by his black supervisor because of his color has received a $ 40,000 settlement in an agreement reached between the Kansas-based restaurant chain and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The lawsuit, part of a rare but growing trend of intraracial harassment claims, was resolved through a consent decree filed with the U.S. District Court in Atlanta. In addition to paying Dwight Burch, who worked at the Applebee's in Jonesboro, the company must provide anti-discrimination training to its workers.

Burch said he was called derogatory names by the store manager because he is dark-skinned. The manager is light-skinned. Burch said he was fired when he threatened to report the store manager's behavior to Applebee's headquarters in Overland Park, Kan.

Applebee's spokesman Frank Ybarra said in a statement that the company admits no wrongdoing and settled "to clear the way for the sale of our restaurants in Atlanta to one of our franchisees."

Burch joined the suburban Atlanta restaurant in December 2000 and was fired in March 2001.

"I am grateful that the EEOC filed this lawsuit, not just for me but for other workers, too," Burch said in an EEOC statement. "No one should have to put up with mean and humiliating comments about the color of their skin on the job."

Color bias filings have risen from 413 in 1994 to 1,382 in 2002.

"It's an important case," said Robert Royal, EEOC regional attorney in Atlanta. "People don't realize color discrimination is [covered] under Title VII. It affords protection not only to African-Americans but Hispanics ... and everybody of color."

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

August 7, 2003
EEOC Settles Color Harassment Lawsuit With Applebee's Neighborhood Bar and Grill

Charging Party Dwight Burch (right) is pictured in front of Applebee's with EEOC Atlanta Regional Attorney Robert Royal
Rare Bias Case Involves Dark Skin Color of African American Employee

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) today announced the settlement of a rare color harassment and retaliation lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against Applebee's Neighborhood Bar & Grill, an international restaurant chain headquartered in Overland Park, Kansas. The settlement provides $40,000 to Dwight Burch, an African American former employee who was discriminated against based on his dark skin color by a light skinned African American manager, and terminated when he complained to corporate headquarters.

The lawsuit was resolved through a Consent Decree filed with the U.S. District Court in Atlanta that sets forth the terms of the settlement (Case No. 1:02-CV-829). In addition to the monetary relief for Mr. Burch, the Consent Decree requires training and reporting by Applebee's. Prior to the lawsuit, Applebee's did not have a written policy in effect at any of its nationwide restaurants prohibiting discrimination based on color. Applebee's now has amended its harassment and discrimination policies to include color as a protected basis in accordance with Title VII. In both its Answer to the lawsuit and in the Consent Decree, Applebee's denies any liability or wrongdoing.

Mr. Burch filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC alleging that the store manager, a light skinned African American, had consistently made derogatory remarks to him about his dark skin color, and had discharged him when he threatened to report the store manager's harassing remarks to Applebee's headquarters office. Mr. Burch began working for Applebee's as a server at its Tara Boulevard, Atlanta, Georgia, location on December 16, 2000. The store manager, assigned to the facility on January 1, 2001, terminated Mr. Burch on March 26, 2001 – less than 90 days after his arrival at the restaurant.

"I am grateful that the EEOC filed this lawsuit, not just for me but for other workers to," said Mr. Burch. "I liked my job and got along well with everyone. No-one should have to put up with mean and humiliating comments about the color of their skin on the job. My mother taught me that we are all God's children and each one of us is special. It makes no difference that these comments are made by someone of your own race. Actually, that makes it even worse. That person should know better, especially if he is a manager."

The EEOC investigated Mr. Burch's allegations and concluded that there was probable cause to believe that the allegations were true. The agency filed suit only after exhausting conciliation efforts to reach a voluntary pre-litigation settlement with the company.

Bernice Williams-Kimbrough, Director of the EEOC's Atlanta District Office, said: "We are pleased that Applebee's has agreed to resolve this case. We are committed to fighting discrimination in all its forms, including issues of color harassment and retaliation for opposing unlawful practices. It is very important that employees are able to engage in protected activity without fear of retaliation. It is equally important that employers realize that ‘color' is a separate protected basis under Title VII. Employers violate federal law when they discriminate based on color, including the harassment of employees because of their respective skin colors."

The Commission has observed an increasing number of color discrimination charge filings at agency field offices across the country. Color bias filings have increased by over 200% since the mid-1990s from 413 in Fiscal Year 1994 to 1,382 in FY 2002. The majority of charge filing last fiscal year were in the Northeast (44%), followed by the West (21%), South (15%), Midwest (12.5%), and Southwest (7.5%).

In addition to enforcing Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex (including sexual harassment or pregnancy) or national origin and protects employees who complain about such offenses from retaliation, the EEOC enforces the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, which protects workers age 40 and older from discrimination based on age; the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits gender-based wage discrimination; the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities in the federal sector; Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities in the private sector and state and local governments; and sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Further information about the Commission is available on the agency's web site at

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