The experiences of journalist and broadcaster Melba Toliver, who was pressured to conceal her natural hair style because it appeared “too black” and was seen as threatening to white viewers, were characteristic of race relations throughout much of the “post-Civil Rights” era, when matters of race were supposed to be put behind us. While African-Americans finally enjoyed the rights long-assumed by whites and other ethnicities, however, more subtle forms of racism continued to appear. Such was the case with the issue of hair styles among the African-American community, in which the “Afro” became increasingly synonymous with militancy and anti-establishment radicalism when, in fact, the afro was never anything more than the natural way in which the hair of many people of African heritage grows.
When Kathe Sandler produced her documentary film “A Question of Color,” which was released in 1993, the mere fact that African-Americans continued to have to contend with issues of racism served as a stark reminder of how much further society had still to evolve. Filmmaker Spike Lee had already tackled the sensitive subject of racism within the black community with his 1988 film “School Daze,” in which divisions among African-American students on the basis of skin tone – in effect, light-skinned African-Americans were considered ethnically superior to darker-skinned ones – but Sandler’s documentary approached the subject from a nonfictional perspective. “A Question of Color” presents interviews with African-Americans who had encountered instances of such racism within their own community, and traces the development of such sentiments to the virulent racism endemic throughout America’s history. Until the 1960s and 1970s, when social upheaval facilitated greater advancements in civil rights, blacks were openly treated with contempt by some whites, especially in the American South, but also in the Midwest and Northeast.
The legacy of white racism, of the notion of racial superiority at the core of racism, instilled among blacks a similar notion of ethnic superiority on the basis of skin color – in other words, lighter-skinned blacks enjoyed a higher status in society than darker-skinned blacks. De-Africanizing hair styles was a prominent component of this phenomenon, in which black women were encouraged or incentivized to straighten their hair and make it less “African.” Such was the environment in which Toliver defied newsroom and political convention and rebelled against the system by allowing her hair to appear naturally.That Sandler’s documentary appeared in the 1990s, a quarter-of-a-century after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, illuminated the depth of the problem of racism that has survived the country’s founding.