Not long ago, a theology student in Atlanta emailed to ask my opinion on how colorism affects couples and how pastors could help couples dealing with colorism. Though I’ve previously written about colorism in relationships, this email and a recent conversation with a friend prompted me to revisit the topic from a slightly different angle.
We usually discuss how colorism influences people’s decisions on who to date or marry, but we rarely hear discussions about how colorism continues to affect relationships beyond the initial decision to be or not to be with someone.
If colorism is an issue for a couple, here are five ways it might negatively impact their relationship, followed by suggestions for what individuals or couples can do about it.
1. If a partner is insecure about his or her own skin color, this can lead to jealousy, distrust, neediness, and hypersensitivity.
The insecure partner might constantly worry whether or not they’ll be replaced by someone lighter or darker. According to psychology and relationship experts, insecurity in general causes people to need constant attention, affirmation, and reassurance. This neediness often becomes a burden or obligation for the other partner to constantly prove their love and commitment. Even when the other partner gives all the reassurances they possibly can, an insecure person might continue to question or doubt the sincerity of their partner’s show of affection. An insecure partner might also frequently misinterpret words and actions of their partner as insults or criticism. The tension created as a result of personal insecurity usually creates problems where problems would not exist otherwise.
2. People who are insecure about their own skin color or their partner’s skin color might also be controlling or abusive.
The commonly depicted case involves a man trying to control, belittle, or abuse a light skinned woman either to “cut her down to size” or “show her who’s boss” or to keep her from cheating with other men (since the belief is that she could have any man she wanted).
Although this is a common story to tell, I want to emphasize that insecurity can lead to abuse no matter what complexion each partner has. I’m sure we all know that both men and women of every race and color may be perpetrators and/or victims of physical and psychological abuse. And, of course, the complicated issues that lead to abusive relationships cannot be boiled down to colorism alone. However, colorism could be a factor.
One case I know of involved a husband controlling his wife’s appearance, specifically not letting her wear certain colors (bright colors) because he thought they clashed with her very dark complexion. Even more common, perhaps, is controlling a partner’s choice in hairstyles, not letting female partners “go natural” or insisting that they wear extensions if their natural hair is “too kinky.” Women in these circumstances experience high levels of fear, anxiety, and shame in trying to meet their partner’s standards for physical appearance.
3. Colorism might be an external force on relationships in the form of resistance or rejection from friends or family.
Unfortunately, some families are still color-struck, even now, insisting that family members “better the race” or “stay true to the race” by only seeking partners within a narrow range of skin shades. In many cases, couples have to deal not only with rejection of a partner, but rejection of their children also if the children don’t turn out to be the desired shade of the family. Relationships are already difficult due to their own internal conflicts. The added stress and anxiety of rejection, criticism, and mean-spiritedness from one’s own family or a partner’s family could perhaps draw a couple closer or drive a wedge between them.
4. Colorism may lead to anxiety about having children.
Many people base their mating decisions, at least in part, on how their offspring might look. I’ve heard several women bluntly say they’d like to have children with a light skin man, white man, Hispanic man, etc. so that they’d have “pretty babies.” I’ve heard men make similar comments about babies, though men in general might be less direct about their desire for children with particular physical attributes. Genetics may be a science, but there’s no way to guarantee what a child will look like (at least not by ordinary means). In a color-struck relationship where one partner is dark and the other partner is light, one or both partners (and usually their family and friends) will spend the entire pregnancy guessing, speculating, hoping, wishing, praying that the baby will have a certain complexion, hair texture, eye color, and facial features. In some cultures, the woman, no matter her complexion, is blamed and ostracized as having a “dirty womb” if the baby has dark skin and kinky hair. Women in these circumstances have increased anxiety about what their children will look like. Sometimes a color-struck parent may display favoritism or even abuse a particular child because of that child’s skin color.
Not all relationships involve children, but when they are involved, colorism creates an additional set of complicated issues on top of the typical challenges of rearing children.
5. Colorism often means that people are infatuated with stereotypes, fetishes, or ideals rather than truly being in love with a unique individual.
This was at the heart of my response to the theology student in Atlanta. Essentially, people might become infatuated with someone’s skin tone rather than falling in love with the person. If skin color is just as or more important than other qualities, then there’s a problem. Skin color can and does change. There’s also always someone lighter or darker who more exactly matches the idealized skin tone in a partner’s mind. Therefore, couples should be careful not to enter into relationships primarily because of skin color.
The other aspect of this, which I spoke to a friend about, is that many people choose partners of a certain skin color because they believe in reductive and misleading stereotypes about skin color. Dark skinned guys are more manly. Light skinned women are classier. Or whatever. First, these stereotypes are essentially racist and steeped in centuries of white supremacist rhetoric and practices. Second, stereotypes of any kind are a really shallow foundation for a relationship. Is it possible to have a healthy relationship when one or both partners is infatuated with a stereotype instead of an individual with his or her own personality and unique set of characteristics?
Ways to Address Colorism in Relationships
My comment to the Atlanta theologian was that couples should deal with their personal insecurities and learn to appreciate, respect, and love each other as unique individuals. Here’s a more concrete list of steps that couples can take to address colorism, if and when it’s a problem in their relationship.
- The first step to healing is awareness and acceptance. Take time to reflect and have a dialogue with your partner to determine if colorism is a source of any troubles. Sometimes all it takes is recognizing when and where colorism exists to start seeing improvements, but it requires confronting the issue, courageously.
- Work on building individual self-esteem. There are many ways to go about this. Some simple things you can do everyday starting now include collecting and surrounding yourself with positive affirmations and reading self-help books like Ten Days to Self-Esteem.
- For further development of personal self-esteem, try counseling or therapy. Sometimes we need a neutral person to talk to and help us gain some objectivity about ourselves and our circumstances.
- Focus on the uniqueness and individuality of your partner. Maybe you realize you placed much more importance on your partner’s physical features than anything else, or that you’d gotten caught up in myths and stereotypes about skin color. It’s never too late to let those things go and develop a deeper appreciation for your partner beyond skin color and stereotypes.
- Try couples therapy. In addition to working on each of yourselves, seeking help from a professional as a couple could be very effective.
Of course these suggestions work best when both partners really want the relationship to work and to last. And, again, relationship problems are usually too complicated to trace back to colorism as the single cause. But perhaps by acknowledging the ways colorism may be affecting a relationship, couples can work to resolve some of their troubles.