Colorism Affected My Sons From Birth—to Understand How Much, I Had To Examine Myself

For one mother, a real understanding of the painful nature of colorism came from looking carefully at relationships within her family.

happy baby boy at home with mother

Anna Berkut/Stocksy

My firstborn was labeled beautiful at birth. Every parent says this about their child, but this was a universal assessment. My older sister was present for his birth and often tells the story of how beautiful he was even before being cleaned up. In Chris Rock’s stand-up, "Selective Outrage,” he joked about the conversation among the royal family, speculating about the skin color of Meghan and Harry’s first baby.

Unfortunately, this was a real conversation I heard many times growing up. Family members comfortably talk about kids’ skin color, who was light-skinned as a baby, and who was “Black from birth.” They would carefully examine a newborn’s ear tips and cuticles, to discover how dark the child would be. The attitudes didn’t shift when I was pregnant with my first son. There was only one difference: His grandfather is white and his dad is biracial. This time the conversation was about how “brown” the baby would be.

A Painful History of Colorism

I am guilty of ascribing to colorism. It’s an unfortunate reality in my Jamaican culture and what I experienced growing up. My older sister, who is a few shades darker than me, was called “blackie fish” in Kindergarten. Luckily my parents removed her from the school, but I don’t remember hearing of them making a report to the school. In Jamaica, the "pretty girls" were all light-skinned and had long hair. Being a teen in the ’90s, with dancehall featuring the likes of Buju Banton, whose lyrics idolized “brownings," how else was I supposed to feel?

Robert L. Reece, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at the University of Austin, tells Kindred by Parents that “Colorism, like many things involving Black Americans, is an outgrowth of chattel slavery. White people highlighted the differences between dark and light-skinned Black people by attaching flawed ideas about biology to the differences.”

He explains that they claimed light-skinned Black people were smarter, prettier, and more industrious because they had "white blood." In turn, light-skinned Black people enjoyed better status on plantations and were more likely to be free, which gave them a head start post-Emancipation. Stereotypes about superiority soon infiltrated the Black community, via both white people and lighter-skinned Black Americans who gained advantages because of colorism. Over time these ideas became more soft-spoken but continued to shape Black lives.

The Impact of Colorism on My Black Family

To this day, at 19 years old, my firstborn is sometireferred to as a “browning.” He has always been described as beautiful. One of his uncles even nicknamed him “Mickey Blue Eyes” as a toddler, and the name stuck. He consistently gets complimented by strangers, and even though many don’t explicitly mention his skin tone, his younger and darker brother doesn’t get the same compliments. Of course, I was also often mistaken for his nanny.

Racism is so insidious and causes so much obvious harm, that colorism often flies unchallenged under the radar. After all, my son is still a Black man when stopped by the police. Being light-skinned doesn’t change that. Still, the impact on Black communities and families is devastating.

Dr. Reece shared that darker-skinned children are often the victims of disparaging jokes aimed both at them and people who look like them, and they receive less attention and support. All of this leads to darker-skinned children growing up with lower self-esteem than their lighter-skinned counterparts. Families also perpetuate colorism through choices around the media they consume and how they talk about themselves. People, especially children, notice how the adults in their lives treat and talk about darker-skinned people and can internalize those ideas.

Vanessa Gonlin, Ph.D., assistant professor of sociology at the University of Georgia says, “Colorism is an intergenerational, global phenomenon across communities of color.” She shared that Black family members may perpetuate colorism through comparative statements like "pretty for a dark-skinned girl" or other overt statements like, "You shouldn't stay out in the sun too long!"

More covert, subconscious ways of perpetuating colorism may be through expressing positive sentiments that are only told to certain family members, for example, one child is consistently praised for their beauty, intellect, or softness/toughness while another child is not. Dr. Gonlin explains that “While the latter is not explicitly told anything harmful, the lack of affirmations will be clear and memorable to them. This perpetuates stereotypes and can lead to within-group strife and animosity.”

“Colorism leads children to feel that they aren’t good enough. For girls, we see this with dolls that are only available in certain skin tones,” says Racine R. Henry, Ph.D., LMFT. She went on to say that “by not having themselves reflected, little girls can begin to think they are inherently ugly or undesirable. For little boys, colorism can create defense mechanisms that manifest into anger or bullying behaviors. Boys are socialized to be aggressive and display 'manliness.' While they feel as hurt as girls do, boys will show it in negative ways.”

Repairing the Damage

It only occurred to me once my son was in his late teens that I was subconsciously perpetuating colorism in my own household. It didn’t matter that I knew I wasn’t playing favorites. By even allowing the term “browning” to be used, I helped reinforce and perpetuate the belief that Black skin was inferior. It is something I will always regret.

Dr. Henry recommends that parents educate their children on bias and discrimination by highlighting the problem as being societal and not internal. She advises encouraging children to recognize their worth and value beyond physical attributes. Additionally, they can expose their children to people of diverse backgrounds and facilitate learning about differences.

Dr. Reece takes it a step further. He says, “People need to get rid of the idea that 'we're all Black' as a defense against colorism.” He reiterated that Blackness is more of a spectrum with data showing that darker people suffer considerably worse treatment than lighter people.

Dr. Reece encourages families to acknowledge that colorism is a real problem and must be deliberate about the choices they make, how they speak, and how they engage with children. “They have to make a point to give attention to darker-skinned children. People can't assume that they are fair, inherently, because without deliberate action people default to subconscious biases,” he says. “Relatedly, people need to be aware of the media they consume and present to children. Children need to see dark-skinned Black people represented positively in the media so they don't associate dark skin with negative characteristics.”

Families need to be willing to talk about color and colorism and honestly address troublesome ideas. When children receive color-based bullying, people must address it as such and help their children understand the problem so that they build resilience. 

Dr. Henry shares that there are all kinds of books and materials available for Black families to discuss colorism, hair texture, ethnicity, language, and more. “The idea is to debunk the concept that there is only one form of 'good,' 'beautiful,' 'smart,' and 'worthy' but also that these things are not tied to physical appearance,” says Dr. Henry. She says some books for children include: Skin Like Mine by LaTashia M. Perry, The Color of Us by Christie Hainsby and Lezette Rivera, A Kids Book about Racism by Jelani Memory, and All People Are Beautiful by Vincent Kelly.

Even though I stopped using terms associated with colorism long ago, I didn’t have a conversation about its effects with my older son until I was assigned this piece. Part of me was ashamed, the other part was apprehensive about shining light on an ugly topic. But he was very open about how he benefited, especially at school, from being light-skinned.

I also spoke to his brother and other family members about it. Everyone denied ascribing beauty to his skin color—they insisted that it was his character and sweet personality. Thankfully, his brother says he doesn't feel harmed by colorism. But truthfully, we will never really know—and that hurts. 

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  1. Reece, Robert, 2018/03/01, 3-21, Genesis of U.S. Colorism and Skin Tone Stratification: Slavery, Freedom, and Mulatto-Black Occupational Inequality in the Late 19th Century, Vol. 45, 10.1177/0034644618770761, The Review of Black Political Economy

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