For this chat, I interviewed my mother. This was eye opening for me because in our face-to-face conversation I learned about details of my childhood that I have no memory of. I hope you enjoy a new voice in this conversation.
Do you consider your self dark-skinned, light-skinned, or neither?
Honestly, I still don’t consider myself a light-skinned African American. I may be a light brown but certainly not light-skinned. I attribute that to where I grew up. There you had a large population of really light-skinned African Americans that sometimes looked more white than black. We called them mulattoes.
What moments in your youth made you most aware of colorism?
I heard on a daily basis comments like, “Girl I don’t like that old black boy” or “That’s why yo momma so black.” It was everywhere. You were aware but just didn’t make a big deal about it. You kept it in, but you thought about it. Lighter skinned girls and guys were always considered cuter and many times smarter. The key is I knew many of them weren’t smarter than I was, so I asked myself how come they get to be selected for this or that.
What do you think were some of the reasons you didn’t make a big deal about it or kept it in even when you were thinking about it?
Because those instances were in my youth, and it was such a part of living that I didn’t think about trying to do something about it back then. Who would you speak out to?
Was there ever a moment in your life that you participated in or agreed with or supported this type of bias? Why or why not?
No, because I knew it wasn’t right. I had dark-skinned people in my family, and I didn’t feel it was a reason to criticize somebody. I never heard my mother speak in those terms with anyone or about anyone. None of my family really spoke that way. I never wished I had lighter skin or that I was white. Part of my youth I did rebel against people thinking that black is ugly because of the generation I grew up in, being a teenager in the 70’s with “black is beautiful” and afros. Perhaps I grew more comfortable as I matured into my teens. Perhaps I wasn’t as empowered as a younger person.
Have you ever dealt with colorism in the process of raising your children? If so, what kinds of situations arose and how did you handle them?
Yes. You see, I have two dark-skinned children and one lighter skinned child. Fortunately for me, they loved each other so much that I never had to deal with this issue in the relationship between them, but definitely from outside. I was asked several times if these were my kids. I would pridefully say, “Yes, indeed these are my babies,” and I would pull them close to me. I knew what people were thinking.
Each of my dark-skinned children had incidents at school where they were called black or charcoaled. My daughter was being called black and charcoaled every day by an African American male child. I thought it was important to let his parents know what he was doing and perhaps make them aware of the need to correct his thinking about his own race. I took my little girl to his house and spoke to the parents. Surprisingly, the mother was very receptive and handled it well. I think that day was an experience all of us will never forget. I know my daughter won’t.
I would constantly let my children know how beautiful they were, and that I wasn’t just saying that to make them feel better. It was true no matter what anyone says, and it was. Especially in the case of my daughter, I recognized and acknowledged her pain. We talked about it; we called it out when we saw it; we didn’t act like it wasn’t happening.
In what ways did your children respond to those situations? How did you observe them grappling with the issue? Did their responses change over time?
It didn’t come up with my male child as much. I don’t think he was as conscious or as affected. I don’t think it crippled them socially or hindered their will to succeed. They definitely didn’t live miserable lives because of it. Sometimes facial expressions when people would make comments let me know that they knew. I also just knew that it exists. They also weren’t afraid to talk about it. My daughter verbalized it.
My daughter was five and had already figured out that people said her sister would be able to attract boys easily because she was lighter skinned. At age five she identified her sister’s lighter skin as the reason they were saying that. I didn’t say to her, “Oh, get over it.” I carried that comment in my mind and did what I could so that she could conquer the world.
Why do you think your daughter was aware of this at such a young age?
Some children have a keener sense. Part of it is that I was a culturally aware mom. I didn’t hide that there are prejudices in the world, so that might have brought it to the forefront. Some people are more conscious and think a lot anyway. She was the kind of girl that always had to know why, and she felt free to ask why and that she had the right to let it be known. I can imagine kids whose parents ignore the problem, and the kids who don’t feel that freedom to express themselves.
To the best of your memory, was that incident when your daughter was five the first time you witnessed colorism in her life, or was it just the first time you witnessed her awareness of it?
It goes back for me when they had to stand up in kindergarten for head counts, and two African American girls stood up to be counted as white. I felt sad about that, that no one told those girls that they were black. Even the teacher, who was white, was embarrassed and not sure how to tell them to sit down. That showed a colorism to me, and it stuck with me. Also when they were younger, again, people often asked if they were mine.
Do you recall times when your light-skinned daughter also showed an awareness of skin color or colorism? If so, how early did you observe her awareness?
She wanted to tan at a young age, maybe since middle school. She was aware because, as with me, people always questioned and made a big deal about her siblings being dark. I will say that I don’t think she ever used her skin color to gain privileges or extra attention.
Did you ever deal with colorism in terms of raising your light-skinned daughter, interventions, conversations, etc.?
No. She was always there in our conversations as a family, so she knew how I felt about culture and equality. We talked about how crazy and bothersome it is to always have to explain that these are her siblings.
Where do you think colorism comes from, particularly for African Americans?
For African Americans colorism definitely came from a combination of things. The separation of dark-skinned and light-skinned slaves, the overall portrayal of dark-skinned people as negative in the early movies. We learned way back that the closer to white you were the better chance you had to succeed. [Perhaps we should add that chances for success were better because of racism, not because of inherent or biological superiority.] We learned that the closer to white you were the prettier you were considered to be. It was everywhere.
What sort of remedies can you suggest for this issue of colorism either collectively of individually?
Talk about it. Don’t act like it doesn’t exist and hasn’t existed for a long, long time. Support magazines and television shows that make an effort to show that there is beauty in all skin tones and are not afraid to showcase dark-skinned women and showcase them in a positive way. Be sensitive to how it impacts our girls at early ages. Every chance I get I purpose to tell a dark-skinned little girl how beautiful she is. I do it because it is true.