A few months ago, Twitter went ablaze on the topic of colorism. This, on the heels of a heated discussion on Jada Pinkett-Smith’s Red Table Talk, which deep dived into the complexities of our skin tones. Even more recently, Tracee Elis Ross’ Elle Magazine’s State of Black Beauty cover sparked virtual debate about the lack of media representation of darker skin Black women with kinkier hair types. No matter the platform in which this conversation ensues, it’s clear that colorism is a deeply rooted construct unwillingly hurled upon us long, long ago.
Discrimination and prejudice solely based on skin tone stretches across diasporas and throughout the world – but like most Black Americans, it is an experience that truly hits home. There is a spectrum of skin tones in my own family – from the deepest mahogany to almond beige and everything in between – every last one uniquely beautiful. However, I learned early on how the emotional and psychological battles over complexion have been used to divide us.
Growing up, I witnessed colorism firsthand. My mother is light skin – and I am a deep russet-brown. I was made aware of the differences in our skin tones early on from family, friends, and even strangers. Whether it was a sly comment about me “looking nothing like mom, but more like daddy,” or requests to stay out of the midday summer sun – without anyone muttering the word colorism, it didn’t take me long to figure out what was happening. As a young child, I deduced that lighter skin – because its proximity to whiteness – had more value.
I examined past (and current) feelings about complexion and looked at the many ways colorism presents itself in real-time.
Although my mother never really directly addressed colorism, she did her best to make me feel like I was worthy, even when the outside world didn’t. And it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned how my mom felt about her complexion, too. Being the lightest of all her siblings, she told me that despite unwanted attention because of her complexion, there were also times when she didn’t feel quite “Black enough.”
When I gave birth to my daughter five years ago, I was shocked when the first words uttered from the attending nurse was about my daughter’s complexion. “From the earlobes, I can tell she’s going to stay pretty light… how’d you two make such a light skin baby anyway?” I was infuriated with her comments. After just having an emergency c-section post 36 hours of labor, all you can comment on is my precious baby’s skin tone?
The nurse’s comments hit me like a ton of bricks. And I began to think about how I’d approach colorism with my own daughter. After all, I knew that she was bound to experience colorism as most Black folks do. Beyond the unconditional love that we give her at home, she’ll likely encounter colorism from various angles, so how can we best prepare her?
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Charnaie Gordon, founder of Here Wee Read, emphasizes the importance of navigating our own beliefs even before approaching this topic with our children. “It was important for me to first unlearn all of the negative things I believed about skin color growing up as a child. I grew up believing that having lighter skin was ‘better’ than having darker skin. In hindsight, my former thinking was very naive, but after being bombarded seeing white as the default in all forms of media from books to televised ads, you start to believe it’s true,” says Gordon, who spends her days curating diverse books for young children.
I, too, had to examine my own experiences with colorism before I could even think about opening up to my daughter about it. I examined past (and current) feelings about complexion and looked at the many ways colorism presents itself in real-time.
Like Gordon, part of this reflection included unlearning what the media and institutions have taught us about complexion. “Once I worked on my own personal inner work, then I felt like I was ready to begin the conversations with my children in an age-appropriate and honest manner,” adds Gordon.
“Teaching kids about colorism is one of those tough topics that many people may be faced with at some point during their parenting journey,” says Gordon. She continues, “the more you can expose children to people with different skin tones and teach them to love their own skin tone, the better. I did this by constantly pointing out how amazing it is to see so many people with different skin tones, hair types, and eye colors. Not only did I do this while we were out in public, but I did it while reading books and watching movies.”
Although my mother never really directly addressed colorism, she did her best to make me feel like I was worthy, even when the outside world didn’t.
One of the best ways to start conversations with children is through reading. And I agree. Just last year, an older kid at the playground told her [my daughter] that I was too dark to be her mother. I knew immediately it was time to have the talk. She asked me why we were different skin tones, and I framed our discussion around Sandra and Myles Pinkney’s Shades of Black. Having these conversations early and often is vital for younger children, especially.
As parents, we can instill confidence in our children and teach them to appreciate the full spectrum of Blackness. The real-life photographs of Black children with different skin tones, eye colors, and hair textures. As well as having an open platform to ask questions and express feelings – helped my preschooler to understand that: yes, we all come in many shades; and yes, we are still all beautiful human beings.
If you are uncertain about how to have the colorism conversation with your children, I highly suggest using literature to frame the discussion. In addition to a few books that I’ve selected, Gordon recommends these titles about colorism, self-esteem, and discovering that the truest beauty comes from within:
Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison(Ages 4–8)
I Am Brown by Ashok Banker, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat (Ages 5–8)
Chocolate Me by Taye Diggs, illustrated by Shane W. Evans (Ages 4–8)
Skin Like Mine by LaTasha M. Perry, illustrated by Bea Jackson (Ages 1–12)