Is Colorism Affecting your Relationship?

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.

Because We Understand Ourselves

“We can continue to respect and love many of these writers, and treasure what they wrote because we understand America; but we must be wary of their depictions of black women because we understand ourselves.”

—Alice Walker

#Lighten Up: Visual Essay by Artist Ronald Wimberly

Artist Ronald Wimberly was working on assignment for Marvel (X-Men) when an editor asked him to lighten the skin color of a biracial female character. That experience inspired Wimberly to create a visual essay titled “#Lighten Up.”

The best word I can think of to describe the piece is smart. Wimberly clearly knows his craft, but he also understands his craft in relationship to the politics and history of color, ethnicity, and race.

I’m particularly impressed with the rhetorical use of web-based color codes (such as #ffffff or #000000 which are the online color codes for white and black) and with the allusion to art history. Using these various artistic and rhetorical techniques, Wimberly takes a complicated subject and renders it with clarity and simplicity without sacrificing nuance.

See the entire piece here.

Colorism on Film: Yellow Fever by Ng’endo Mukii

Yellow Fever is an international award winning film by Ng’endo Mukii. This short film (less than 7 minutes) is a mixed media work of art. I think the film is unique in that it really zooms in (sometimes literally) on the unsettling emotional and psychological experience of internalized white supremacy.


Yellow Fever: FULL from Ng’endo Mukii on Vimeo.

Fairness: The Standard of Euro-American Femininity

“One reason the novels of nineteenth-century black authors abound with white-skinned women characters is that most readers of novels in the nineteenth century were white people: white people who then, as, more often than not, now, could identify human feeling, humanness, only if it came in a white or near-white body. And although black men could be depicted as literally black and still be considered men (since dark is masculine to the Euro-American mind), the black-skinned woman, being dark and female, must perforce be whitened, since ‘fairness’ was and is the standard of Euro-American femininity.”

—Alice Walker

Black Ballerinas

Misty Copeland and Ballet’s Color Problem

“This month, Misty Copeland and Brooklyn Mack made history as the first black ballet dancers to star in Swan Lake, arguably the most infamous ballet ever. In 2015, that means Copeland and Mack are the first blacks to dance lead in Swan Lake in about 140 years. The world of ballet clearly has a color problem.

A Leak in the Pipeline

Of course there are serious pipeline issues. For a lot of people, professional ballet training is just too expensive. Then there’s the factor of location. Many communities simply don’t have the facilities or dance and ballet schools that better resourced communities have.

When long time artistic director of The Washington Ballet, Septime Webre, was asked years ago why he had no African American dancers in his company, part of his reply was:

“that would remain the case until the great training grounds, the great ballet schools of America become welcoming places for 9-year-old black girls. Families need to feel that their daughter or son of color is welcomed in these big ballet academies.” —Septime Webre

Webre’s statement points to the pipeline, the schools and training institutions, as a reason for the lack of professional black ballerinas. However, Webre doesn’t use cost and location as an excuse. His comments get to the heart of something more insidious—interpersonal discrimination.

Your Kind isn’t Welcomed Here

In many institutions, not just ballet schools, students of color are made to feel unwelcomed, alienated, and marginalized as a result of direct or indirect words and actions from their peers, teachers, and administrators. I don’t have space in this post to thoroughly explain this phenomenon, but I will make a few general statements.

  1. Being the only person of color in a classroom or school is often enough by itself (without direct or overt racism) to alienate a student.
  2. Indirect, latent, subtle, well-meaning, light-hearted, humorous, micro-aggressive discrimination or harassment is often invisible to others and difficult to explain or “prove” because of the nuanced and subjective nature of such encounters. And the burden is always on the student of color to prove that their experience was discriminatory or unfair.
  3. The two things I just described add an additional burden and stress on top of the standard task of being a good student and a developing adolescent.
  4. Carla A. Urena and Joyelle Fobbs explain:

“the perception of what constitutes a talented or gifted dancer often effects the quality of training a student may receive.” —Urena

“research indicates that having some or several of these European phenotypes appears to be linked with increased classroom attention , training and opportunities…” —Fobbs

(Implicit) Bias

Even if a black ballerina makes it through the great training grounds of ballet, she will still have to overcome the biases of artistic directors, judges, choreographers, audiences, reviewers, colleagues, and others.

People have preconceived notions about black women that do not match their preconceived notions of ballerinas. While the world may think of black women as physically “strong” and thus suited for sports, many (most?) people do not think of black women as graceful, poised, light, delicate, dainty, feminine, and soft—all the things a ballerina should be. These preconceived beliefs often obscure reality, so that even when a black woman is dainty or soft, she often is not perceived that way. African American ballet dancer Joyelle Fobbs writes:

“For women of color, not resembling a past ballerina may consciously or subconsciously send the message to those around them and even to themselves that they have less potential, will receive less positive attention, training, and opportunities because in this particular area of appearance they do not fit within the established norm.”

But of course, the idea of what and who a ballerina should be can stretch and change. The world of ballet can open up for different types of ballerinas, ones that are shaped differently, ones that are colored differently, ones with their own unique attitudes and rhythms. Especially in a field like ballet that’s purely aesthetic, purely about the visual, purely about how one looks as a dancer.

Ballet’s Color Problem as Colorism

Wherever there’s racism, there’s colorism.

Fobbs writes:

“The ballet world has not been a stranger to the bias of colorism; in fact, the difficulties that a black ballerina already faces in finding a place at a ballet company are exacerbated by darker skin…. [T]here are still dance instructors who believe that darker skin tones are less equipped to meet ballet’s requirements.”

Pointing out racism or colorism in ballet does not mean that successful ballerinas who achieve great successes do not absolutely deserve them. It simply means that an equally talented dark skinned ballet dancer may be overlooked for the same opportunities.

Why Misty Copeland Gives Me Hope

Misty Copeland gives me hope that the ballet world could look very different in the future because she’s actively seeking to make a difference. She’s consciously and purposefully taking on her professional opportunities as opportunities to be a role model for other young girls of color and to change the public’s notion of what a ballerina looks like.

Even though Copeland is fair skinned by African American standards, her complexion and her body type are unique in the world of ballet. Her presence and success in that world can open doors for other dancers who do not fit the norm.

But again, Copeland goes above and beyond doing her job. She utilizes her visibility and media attention to push for change.

Photo Credit: Gilda N. Squire