Sibling rivalries. Estranged parents. Favoritism. Neglect. Abuse. Family should be the place where everyone can experience unconditional love and acceptance. Unfortunately, a lot of folks feel anything but that. Trouble at home can arise for many reasons—one of them is the existence of colorism in families. As Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman (2013) says, “In families, love is present, but … what love looks like may depend, in part, on what you look like” (p. 14). While many families of color around the world think it’s common place to hear casual comments or jokes about skin color, hair, or other features, there are far too many instances where colorism goes beyond mere words and results in outright neglect or abuse.
A lot of anti-colorism advocates focus on external pressures in the media as the primary source of colorism and low self-esteem. But many people tell a different story about how their own mothers, fathers, and other family members were the first to make them feel insecure about their skin color, hair, or facial features. Before a child is influenced by the media, they simply feel the love or lack of love and affection from their family. Research suggests that, “racialized dynamics within [families] can compromise subjective well-being in ways that are more devastating than structural inequality” (Hordge-Freeman, 2013, p. 14).The pain you feel when your own family rejects you can be far worse than how you feel about any images you may see in the media or any issues you may face outside of the home. Images in the media and negative reactions from non-family members are often just reminders and reinforcers of what we’ve learned about ourselves at home from our families. That’s not always the case, but too often it is.
If you’re tired of colorism in your family and colorism in general, I want to share with you some practical tips for dealing with colorism in families. My main goal for providing these tips is to help us protect the young people and the children in our families, but these tips could also provide relief for other adults or even for ourselves.
1. Be COURAGEOUS.
It will take a lot of courage to stand up to family when you witness acts of colorism. Often times you’ll be criticized for being too uptight or for being a party pooper. Family may start to whisper about you, and some may even start to avoid you. You’ll get eye rolls and deep sighs (Oh! Here she goes again!). Prepare yourself for the backlash ( because there will be backlash). But be encouraged by the fact that as uncomfortable as you might feel when you speak out in your family, it’s not as bad as children being made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin.
2. Know the perpetrators of colorism in families.
Because it’s difficult to always be vigilant (I mean, family is the one place where we should be able to let our guard down sometimes, even if just a little), it helps to know which family members are perpetrators of colorism. That way, you can prepare yourself when you’re around them, and be more relaxed when you’re not.
3. Don’t let “jokes” go unaddressed.
People often disguise their hatred with humor. They know it’s unacceptable to state their negative opinions directly, so they turn them into jokes. That way they can say what they really feel, and if anyone tries to call them out on it, they can defend themselves by saying “it’s just a joke.”
But we’re too clever to believe that. Don’t laugh at such “jokes.” You can simply respond by saying, “Jokes are supposed to be funny, and that isn’t funny.” Or you can reaffirm the opposite of what the joke suggests. If the joke suggests that a certain skin color, hair type, or facial feature is unattractive, merely respond by saying that it is, in fact, just as attractive as any other.
4. Spread the love.
One of the most common manifestations of colorism in families is merely gushing over the looks of one particular individual (usually a child). If a baby or a child is light skinned with straight or loosely curled hair, certain family members can’t seem to help themselves. They make much ado about how pretty the child is and they like to show them off to other family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. The lack of such attention and appreciation to other children in the family with darker skin and more Afrocentric features is obvious. People may not think it’s obvious, but it is.
Spread the love. Make sure every child in the room hears something positive about how they look and who they are.
5. Be aware.
In cases where colorism escalates from casual remarks to actual neglect and abuse, families should care enough to notice and do something about it. A lot of times we refuse to see what’s going on because we’re afraid of what we’re obligated to do if we know, or because we want to believe that our relatives could never be capable of such things. But if we ignore the mistreatment, then we’re complicit.
6. Be a mentor.
Sometimes it’s more effective to deal with people one-on-one. If you suspect that a younger person in your family is insecure about how they look, spend extra time with them. Have conversations and do activities that reaffirm their beauty and worth. Let them know that you understand what they’re going through and that they can talk to you about how they feel.
Similarly, if you know that a family member is a frequent perpetrator of colorism, pull them aside and let them know how their comments or actions are hurting the family.
7. Check yourself.
You know what Micheal Jackson said (I’m starting with the man in the mirror) and what Gandhi said (be the change you want to see in the world) and what Mathew 7:5 says (first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye). This goes for all of us, including me as a write this post and manage this blog. We must all watch our own attitudes, comments, and reactions if we’re going to be the role models in our families and call the people we love to a higher standard of love.
8. Be consistent.
Too often, we try something once and then give up when we don’t see full results right away. Resist the urge to say, Well, I tried to tell them, but nothing’s changed, so I give up. I’m just not going to say anything anymore. You may not see the payoff right away, but one day your young son or daughter, niece or nephew, brother or sister, will tell you how you impacted their lives by standing up for them when others were putting them down.
Can we do it? Can we create change with one person, one family at a time? I think we can if we all commit to it and support each other. What’s your experience with colorism in families?
Hordge-Freeman, E. (2013, May). What’s love got to do with it?: racial features, stigma and socialization in Afro-Brazilian families. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1-17.