Colorism in Kathleen Collins’s “Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?”

 

“Whatever Happened to Interracial love” Granta 2016 is a compelling collection of short stories written by the late Kathleen Collins. Published in 2016,  the collection features stories written by Collins throughout her life. The narratives focus on the intersection of race and varying subjects such as family, gender, friendship and relationships. The story titled “The Uncle,” is centered around the intersection of race and familial relationships, and speaks to the impact of colorism within the Black community. Colorism is defined as a system in which individuals place a higher value on light skin and European-esque features, and lower value on dark skin. “The Uncle” is written from the perspective of the nice of a failed track and field athlete. She recalls her memories of him and chronicles his life as she saw and remembers it. She describes the relationship between her uncle and his wife, and describes how their contrasting complexions – hers being fair and his being dark – results in their contrasting attitudes towards life, as the aunt expresses a sense of privilege ( afforded to her by the lightness of her skin) resulting in her laziness, and the uncle feels a sense of inadequacy ( due to the confines of his dark complexion) resulting in his overwhelming depression. Collins’s portrayal of this relationship illuminates the significance of the impacts of colorism within the Black community. Collins demonstrates the sense of privilege felt and exercised by the aunt, which not only perpetuates colorism and its effects within the community, but simultaneously forces the uncle to remain in a limited position, as the color of his skin dictates his privilege within his family, the black community, and on a larger scale, society.

The narrator of “The Uncle” – the niece – introduces her aunt by reminiscing of her beauty. She depicts her aunt as “exquisite”, a perfect product of “mixed breeding” meaning “her skin was the palest white imaginable, her hair back and silky, her features keen.” She then goes onto remark how she and her sister “idolized” both their aunt and uncle for their good features. (Collins, 11) Collins utilizes the introduction of the characters to emphasize the significance of colorism within the text and within the relationship between the aunt and the uncle. Collins employs the use of carefully selected diction in order to subtly implement the significance of colorism to the aunt’s character. Collins uses the phrase “mixed breeding” as it connotes pro-creation for the sake of achieving a desired result, rendering the aunt’s appearance a  preconceived, predesigned, blueprint for privilege. 

The aunt’s sense of privilege comes from the racial dynamics in the United States at the time the story was written. Collins wrote the stories from the collection throughout the sixties and seventies meaning “The Uncle” was written during the civil rights movement. In this context, the phrase “mixed breeding” highlights the way in which the aunt’s features give her the ability to identify as a black woman but receive and exercise the privilege of a white woman, allowing her to ascend in society at a time when African American’s were fighting for equality. This not only demonstrates the significance of colorism within society, but simultaneously highlights the impact of colorism on the aunt and uncles relationship as she is able to ascend in society, and he is bound and confined by his complexion. Through Collins’s careful selection of diction she defines the aunt’s character as well as the role her appearance plays in her relationship with her husband. Furthermore, collins’s craft enables her to speak to the socio-cultural influences that surround the characters and the narrative all within a single phrase.

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Works Cited:

Collins, Kathleen. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Granta Books, 2016.

2 thoughts on “Colorism in Kathleen Collins’s “Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?”

  1. I admire your close reading analysis of her diction, especially with the phrase, “mixed breeding”. However, I think you can further analyze the other words in the selected quote as well, specifically the phrase, “her hair black and silky”. The description of her aunt’s hair is important because it also contributes to her privilege. I wonder if she was fair-skinned but with afro-textured hair, would she have the same treatment? You can also analyze how the word “silky” has a positive connotation, which contributes to her aunt’s privileged and pragmatic reputation. Because these specific words indicate the European-esque phenotypes, you could analyze further about how colorism not only means skin-tone, but is also comprised of other physical traits.

  2. I like the selected moment you decided to focus on, as it portrays the blatant notion of “mixed breeding” and the white standard of beauty which allows only certain people of color to be considered “exquisite.” To improve your argument in terms of this assignment, however, it might be more establish the literary devices you want to analyze more specifically. For example, when you mention the “carefully selected diction” the author employs in characters’ dialouge that showcases colorism, you can be more detailed on what you mean by diction.

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