The American Caste System

February 13, 2014
caste system in america

The caste system is a system of social stratification which historically identified groups of people in India as having a specific social rank, grouped by hierarchical order, and fitting into one of four basic groups, or colors.  You had the priests and learned class, the rulers and warriors, the traders and other commercial livelihood, and the servile laborers, often referred to as untouchables and considered impure.  Each class had a special role to play in society as well as a unique function – this system was a means of creating and organizing an effective society.  Eventually, as Aryans conquered India, they used the caste system to keep themselves in the higher ranks and the darker-skinned people were pushed into the lower class, and treated as outcasts.  Thus skin color became an important factor in this Indian caste system.  So was there a caste system in America, as well?  But of course, but I use this term loosely as a comparison to how blacks grouped themselves during and after slavery based on skin color, facial features, and hair texture.

The New Negro

It was during this time when slavery had ended and blacks were pronounced free that blacks in America wanted to “reconstruct” the image of the stereotypical savage African.  They wanted to turn this image into more of a civilized and progressive race.  Blacks turned away from the “Old Negro” of slavery and tried to recreate the race by renaming it “New Negro”, which was a metaphor for a new self-sufficient and more attractive race.  At the turn of the century, “New Negro” suggested education, refinement, money, assertiveness, and racial consciousness.  You had blacks like Booker T. Washington who sought to advertise a public image of the Negro for whites and blacks alike by turning the image of the blacks in America from those stereotypes brought about by plantation tales, black-face plays and art, and incorrect identity from Darwinism and other racist pseudo science.  This was a monumental task, as blacks had no control over mass media; but through writing and educating about the positive achievements of blacks, Washington helped shed light on the progressive lives of blacks in America.

Image and appearance were central to the project of the black race reinvention.  The 1904 essay “Rough Sketches: A Study of the Features of the New Negro Woman” by Professor and artist John Henry Adams demonstrates the importance of image, giving desirable physical traits one should have in order to be accepted in affluent society..  These women are “prototypes” after which other women and men might model themselves:

the ideal new negro

To be fair, this image was not only about the ideal -looking new negro; these leaders in the now black community were trying to turn blacks away from the old subservient way to the way of learning and education.  And they wanted to change the white view of blacks in America to make them more appealing ad accepted in society.  Even though these authors tried to provide a sense of pride, not for having a certain skin shade or hair texture, but for being educated and accomplished, there was still the ideal within the black community that in order to be successful and affluent, one must have paper bag skin and narrow-tooth comb hair.

Upperclass blacks consisted of the light-skinned, straighter-haired “Negro elite” who had often gained more opportunities because their appearance was more acceptable by Whites.

Middleclass blacks consisted of darker-skinned Blacks who straightened their hair to be more acceptable to Whites.

Lowerclass blacks consisted of darker-skinned Blacks who did not have their hair straightened and thus were generally the least accepted and with the fewest opportunities.

Mulatto descendants made up the majority of Black college graduates, teachers, and ministers — many historically Black colleges and universities had been founded by the Mulatto-elete.

Some of the lightest-skinned and straightest-haired Blacks chose to “pass” for White legally and socially, denying all ties with their African heritage and claiming only Caucasian ancestry.

Blacks were seen by most Whites as a single entity — “you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all” — so looking “respectable” in the eyes of Whites was important not only to individuals, but instrumental in the opportunities of all Blacks.

Men straightened their hair using the “cold soap” method: leaving soap in the hair, and tying it down with a cloth to hold the wave patterns.

When the short flapper hair style became popular, women whose hair had become short because of heat and chemical damage, and women whose hair had always been short, found relief in the popular short style.

1920 flapper style

Much of the intellectual debate around color distinctions was taken up by African American newspaper editors who regularly wrote columns condemning the chauvinistic exclusivity that many lighter-skinned people practiced. One such editor was Benjamin Davis, who, in his Atlanta Independent, aimed his invectives against politicians, clergy, and educators, including W. E. B. Du Bois. On one occasion, he described light-skinned African Americans in Atlanta as

the artificials, the superficials, the seemers, would-bes, race leaders, posers, wish-I-was-white social sets, [and] educated idlers….(quoted in Gatewood 1990:158) 

Most of the “would-bes” in Atlanta attended the First Congregational Church and tried to uphold an unwritten law that promoted exclusive membership. As indicated earlier, mulattoes organized a number of churches so that they would not have to fraternize with darker African Americans. Still in other churches, members were segregated according to color, in much the same way that European Americans organized their congregations.

Ironically, while darker-skinned African Americans railed against mulatto behaviors and their sense of superiority, they themselves aspired to acquire the looks and habits of people of European descent.

This was made manifest by African American efforts to straighten their hair and to lighten their skin, and in some cases, even Anglicize their noses and lips. One Azalia Hackley (1916:33–38) provided what might be considered the most profound example of negative views of African features. She proposed that African American girls were unattractive given the shape of their lips, nose, and mouth. Ostensibly their mouths were too large because of excessive grinning and loud laughter. According to Ms. Hackley, “grinning must cease” because it also widened the nose. She averred that the African American nose needed a “hump” which she thought could be obtained by pinching, thinking, and willing the hump.

While Hackley’s was among the most bizarre examples of self-degradation and remedies to “fix” what was not broken, it is important to emphasize that her views existed along a continuum of remedies that would “correct” African American features. Beginning in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and continuing in the present, the African American press has played a pivotal role in advancing the idea of the inferior African body.

Think this mindset does not exist today?  In 2014?  Think again – this video will reveal that these feelings are still alive and terrorizing our culture – these thoughts and comments are not made by a white woman, but by a dark-skinned black woman.  This video will make you want to throw something:

At the turn of the century, such products as Black Skin Remover, Dr. Read’s Magic Face Bleach, Imperial Whitener, Mme. Turner’s Mystic Face Bleach, Dr. Fred Palmer’s Skin Whitener, and Shure White were among the concoctions that promised a miraculous metamorphosis. In Chillicothe, Ohio, Dr. James H. Herlihy, a self-proclaimed chemist, proposed that his product, Black-No-More [!] would turn African Americans into people of European descent. Another advertisement in the African American press read:

Colored people, your salvation is at hand. The Negro need no longer be different in color from the white man. [The]greatest discovery of the age [guaranteed to transform] the blackest skin into the purest white without pain, inconvenience or danger. (Quoted in Gatewood 1996:2447)

The skin damage caused by Black-No-More and many other skin lighteners was so severe that in 1905 the U. S. Post Office barred their sale through the mails (2447). An article in the New York Times (1905:12), “Didn’t Make Negroes White,” admonished companies that promoted products purporting to turn

the black man [sic] into a white one….The first to be ruled out is a Dr. Herlihy of Chilcothe, Ohio, and the Rev. Winfield Company of Richmond, Va. Both advertised that they could furnish a prescription for turning colored people into white. The department detectives sent for the stuff, had it analyzed, and found it to be made up of bichloride of mercury, tincture of benzoin, glycerine, and water.

There are a number of firms offering to supply a drug that will take the kinks out of the hair of negroes [sic] and make it as straight and fine as that of the Caucasian. The department is making an investigation of these compounds with a view to throwing them out of the mails.

These legal proscriptions notwithstanding, advertisements for hair straighteners and skin lighteners proliferated in the African American community. While some Africans Americans, then and now, claimed that hair straightening was merely a matter of style, the captions accompanying transformation agents belie this argument.

1967 Dr. Fred Palmer Skin Whitening Ad

Imperial Whitener

Black Skin Remover

discoloration remover

Ford's Hair Pomade

home remedies to whiten skin

Soon, however, as makers of hair straightening products and products to grow hair became more and more popular, some blacks saw hair straightening to look more like Whites was a form of self-hatred, and formed Anti-Hair-Wrapping Clubs.  “If Negro women would use half the time they spent on trying to get White, to get better, the race would move forward,” said Nannie Helen Burroughs, founder of the National Training school for Girls and Women.  Many Black leaders such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, and Marcus Garvey, were against sellers and users of straightening products because they encouraged the spread of the White ideal of beauty; still, some Black leaders maintained ties with these products through their wives’ use of the products and their own business investments.

The tides were changing, and now what was the ideal focus of beauty became less and less popular.

Hair “culturists” and owners of hair product lines were not allowed to be members of the National Negro Business League and were banned by Booker T. Washington from work at Tuskegee Institute.  Individuals still in the South saw the new harsh products to be unnecessary and considered the look to be “citified.”  Others insisted that straightening black hair was less about assimilation and more about appearing modern.  Graham White and Shane White, both anthropologists, compared the straightening of Black hair to the creative adornment of African hair, suggesting that straightening was just another artistic hair treatment.

But many Black Americans still felt ashamed of their hair and skin, and even with the products, they felt that this was not the way they were made.

Come back tomorrow to learn about the first hair entrepreneurs and other women who had an impact on black hair during this time.


  • Reply The American Caste System | 5th Column Cables February 6, 2017 at 9:06 PM

    […] Source: The American Caste System – Ask Me About My Hair (.com) […]

  • Reply Aldrena September 9, 2016 at 1:46 AM

    Do you happen to know about when the above ads were published? I would like to cite these in my thesis.

    • AskMeAboutMyHair
      Reply AskMeAboutMyHair October 24, 2016 at 3:02 AM

      Click on the links and it should take you to the pages. Those pages will also have sources sited. Good luck on your thesis!

  • Reply Cultural Texture: Historical Connections to the Natural Hair Movement | youwilldigthisblog August 11, 2016 at 5:17 AM

    […] This expanded discussion inherently incorporates the lasting impact of African slavery. In response to the devastation of diaspora and the desperation to attain a sense of self worth, slaves began to rank each other according to how little their physical attributes reflected their racial heritage. The skin, hair and facial features of an African were deemed an dishonor–an inescapable curse and burden to bear. As self hatred turned outward, internalized racism began festering within the culture and seeped into its communities, a resulting in an African American color caste system. […]

  • Reply MsConcerned June 16, 2016 at 2:04 AM

    Thanks for providing this information

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