R&B singer Eric Benet is using an interesting strategy to promote "The One," his first independent album. He is selling tank tops that exploit skin color division among black women. For $19.95 plus tax and shipping costs, his fans can choose a top that bears the name of his latest single, "Red Bone Girl," or an older effort, "Chocolate Legs." The limited edition shirts appear side by side on his website alongside bright red "BRAND NEW!" stamps.
Clearly, there is nothing "BRAND NEW!" about using skin color to create or sustain buzz. Last year we saw a "Light Skin vs. Dark Skin" club night in Columbus, Ohio. Atlanta-based direct-to-DVD filmmakers Nico Woods and Rod Hollimon earned a spot in the ratchetness hall of fame when they dropped "The Truth About Light Skin Vs. Dark Skin: Ignorance or Orchestrated?" in 2009. And then there's the #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin Twitter memes, which don't generate revenue but certainly pay participants in the currency of attention.
Until he started selling these T-shirts, Benet could feign surprise at angry online comments about his "Red Bone Girl," which he leaked to websites widely read by black women in May. To head off accusations of light-skin preference, Benet even declares his love of all women at the beginning of the song. "Yes Lord, I love 'em dark. I love 'em light. Short, tall, thick, thin," he says. "But it's this one lil' particular situation I need to tell y'all about."
The situation: He meets a "honey" whose reputation "ain't squeaky clean," but within a week he's willing to claim her because of her "devil mind and her angel face." In the chorus he sings, "She's my red bone girl./Bittersweet but she's my world./Coffee cream, thick and lean, my red bone girl." In short, he's sprung by a woman who just so happens to be the color of half and half.
While Benet attempts to describe skin tone within a constellation of this "girl's" other features, featured rapper Lil Wayne ruins the singer's decontextualized illusion. The famously colorstruck MC who authored the line, "Beautiful black woman, bet that b#@ch look better red...," contributes his shopworn "I like 'em light skinned/lighter than a feather" line, along with a new riff on the same theme--"I'm high and my girl high yella...'" Of course we all know that from India to the Philippines, Ghana to the Dominican Republic, England to the United States of One Drop, there's a higher premium on pale skin, particularly for women. Lil Wayne's verse celebrates white supremacist beauty standards and obliterates Benet's feeble effort.
Anyway, "Red Bone Girl" hit the internets to tepid response and the album came out in June without much buzz outside of Benet's core fan base. We're only talking about this now because Benet told CBS Local that criticism of the song "was its own form of racism" and because black women's websites have run responses and responses to the responses that have garnered hundreds of comments. Here's what Benet said:
"I think it's its own form of racism, really. A couple years ago I did--I wrote--a song called 'Chocolate Legs' about my experience with this--it happened to be a song about a particular experience with a dark skinned lovely young lady. And there was no anger. There was no uproar of 'How dare you!' You know, so 'Redbone Girl' is one song about one experience with a girl who happens to be light complected...there was quite an uproar about that. You can talk about having an experience with a dark-complected person but how dare you talk about having an experience with a light skinned person."
First of all, Benet isn't using the right word here. "Racism" is about systems of inequality. Racism is why we have to pay attention to irrational birthers, to voter ID laws premised on nonexistent fraud, to SB1070, which really could just be about broken tail lights if it weren't for the pesky specter of race-based mass deportation and private prison economics. What Eric Benet is describing is his perception of intra-racial, interpersonal discrimination. I'm not saying that doesn't generate pain for him. I'm crying a river over the anguish he must feel at not being recognized as an equal opportunity player. I'm just saying there's no economic, social or political system in place to perpetuate this unfortunate condition of his.
Second, I think it's worth pointing out that "Chocolate Legs" is actually a love song about a world-weary black man seeking shelter and solace from a black woman. "I need some reminding that God is still behind me. So baby just take my soul and set me free," he sings. "...I want you to know how much you mean to me, when you just wrap your chocolate legs 'round me." In this context, the "chocolate" symbolizes intimacy and shared pleasure between two people of color. For better or worse, "Chocolate Legs" pays homage to a dark brown woman's exceptional power of nurturing."Red Bone Girl," on the other hand, is about a woman whose only value lies in her lack of melanin and her ability to be an exciting sperm receptacle.
Yaba Blay, Ph.D., a Philadelphia-based teacher-scholar of Africana, women's, and gender studies and the creator of the (1)ne Drop multimedia project, expands on the idea of inherent value and the "redbone" description.
"Redbone is one of several identities that are [mainly] about a racial mixture. It allows people to be a few steps away from blackness," says Blay, who has interviewed several generations of self-described Creole women in her native New Orleans about the relationship between color, hair texture and their culture. "For the so-called redbone, her value comes from the European and Indian parts of the mixture. In this way, the woman is a trophy. She becomes social capital, particularly for a black man who doesn't have this genetic makeup."
Even worse, says Blay, is what the use of the "redbone" label in the song says about the humanity of the woman at the center of it. "The assumption is that you know something about a so-called red bone just by looking at her body. In that way, she's still on the auction block. The message is, 'You ain't sh#@t ouside of what I can see.' And by the way, I see 'chocolate' the same way--it reduces people down to something to be consumed. That kind of thinking robs us of all of our humanity."
For all of my snark and Blay's wise words, I know that Eric Benet is winning right now because we're actually talking about him. And that's what I resent the most here. Colorism is a legitimate problem in our communities. But it's certainly not about whether Benet, Lil Wayne or your cousin and them are willing to give brown women play. Really, who cares what arouses them?
The tragedy is that once again we're playing out internalized white supremacy, a system that keeps so many people of color--and white folks--hypnotized by flawed and dangerous perceptions. We only make this cursed system stronger when we celebrate aspects of it in our music and our merchandise--especially when we put it on sale for the low, low price of $19.95.