Hablemos: How Do I Talk To My Family About Colorism?

Discussing the anti-Blackness that lives in our communities is necessary for Latinx families. We talked to Afro-Latinx Psychotherapist and Founder of Glow in Therapy about how to break the cycle.

Black grandmother and granddaughter hugging

When Jennifer Aguirre's little sister was born, her paternal Afro-Latinx grandmother exclaimed, "!Mira, salio blanquita!" Those words, which translate to "Look, she came out white!" have stayed with the 37-year-old Puerto Rican and Dominican Afro-Latina for over 30 years. It's one of her earliest memories of colorism and anti-Blackness at just 6-years-old. But certainly not the last.

"I questioned my mother as to why my grandmother said that. She didn't really have the words to explain. It was a topic no one really wanted to bring up and discuss," says Aguirre, who lives in South Florida.

Now, as a mother of three, Aguirre says she notices the colorism in her family once again—like when she witnesses her youngest and lightest-skinned child get preferential treatment over her two older and darker-skinned siblings. "I don't think (they) realize it, but it's obvious in my eyes, and my two older kids see it too," she says.

According to the Project on Ethnicity and Race in Latin America (PERLA) at Princeton University, Latin America is composed of roughly 130 million people of African descent—that's about 25% of the entire population.

Within the United States, we also have 2.4 million individuals who identify as Black and Hispanic as of 2019. But these statistics can be deceptive due to a number of factors, including prejudicial practices and the effects of anti-Blackness and colorism that remain pervasive throughout Latinx communities. For example, when asked about race, Pew Research finds "only 18% of Afro-Latinos identified their race or one of their races as Black," while 39% still preferred to identify as White. Additionally, when we look at the 2020 Census, we can also see that 45.3 million individuals of Hispanic/Latinx origin self-identify as "some other race" (either alone or in combination with another race)—which could include Afro-Latinos who may identify more with terms like mestizo, mulatto, and trigueño.

The reasons behind why these statistics remain ambiguous are complex and stem from a history of colonization that began in the 1500s by Spaniards who implemented a racial caste system based on skin color—African descendants who were placed at the bottom of the caste were enslaved. And while slavery lasted longer in places like Brazil and Cuba, it was finally abolished in Latin American in the mid-1800s. This history runs so deep that Black Latin Americans, Afro-Latinx individuals, and darker-skinned Latinxs continue to deal with unnecessary inequities and racism until this day in our culture. Even, as we've seen, in their own families.

From blatant bias within popular telenovelas, to the lack of Afro-Latinx representation among Latin American TV news anchors, to the hurtful phrases that permeate our own households, many Latin American and Latinx children grow up absorbing anti-Black messaging throughout their lives. This messaging causes psychological and emotional (and sometimes even physical) harm, often destroying families in the process. "I have a cousin who is considered 'dark-skinned,' and he married a Black woman. His mother, my mom's second cousin, disowned him for this," says Rosalia Rivera, a Salvadoran consent educator & abuse prevention expert. "Her reasoning is that he would have darker skinned children and she felt that it was going to darken her bloodline more than it already was." Rivera says she and her mother both cut ties with her cousin's mother as a result.

"It made my mom realize how she had unconsciously behaved similarly with us by trying to prevent us [her children] from being in the sun too long and getting "too dark" as a result of her own trauma growing up, being discriminated against in her youth for being dark skinned," says Rivera.

So how can we as Latinx and Afro-Latinx parents begin to dismantle the racist, colorist, and anti-Black attitudes of our elders? How do we begin to hold stronger boundaries, and work against this within our own households? For that, I spoke with Gloria Osborne-Sheeler, the Panamanian Afro-Latinx, LCSW and CEO, Founder, and Licensed Psychotherapist of Glow In Therapy, Inc (a virtual Private Practice).

What are some ways in which colorism can affect Afro-Latinx children?

Whether it's through family members, media, or peers, there are many ways children can be exposed to colorism. And despite what adults may think, they absorb everything. "Hearing it [anti-Black rhetoric] from anyone in general will negatively impact a child's sense of belonging and identity," says Osborne-Sheeler. Ultimately leading to Afro-Latinx children questioning themselves on things they don't have control over such as race, skin color, and hair textures. "They will begin to feel different, isolated, and most likely lean towards their differences being a 'bad thing' which can cause individuals to develop a fragmented sense of being, questioning where they belong, how they fit in, and where they are accepted," says Osborne-Sheeler. This identity struggle becomes even more difficult for Afro-Latinxs who encounter rejection from Black communities as well. "Something I often experienced growing up was feeling not Latina enough to be Latina, and not Black enough to be Black," says Osborne-Sheeler. "There was no box for me to check off that made me feel a part of a group."

How can individuals broach these subjects with their families in order to have productive conversations?

"As a social worker at heart, I lean more towards speaking up where there is an injustice—or when something just isn't sitting right," says Osborne-Sheeler. While these conversations are difficult they're necessary to stop the cycle of racism. "Oftentimes these beliefs are outdated and unconsciously transferred from generation to generation—no one questions why this is a belief to begin with, or why they continue to uphold it," says Osborne-Sheeler. She suggests broaching the subject from a place of curiosity and encourages individuals experiencing colorism to question where those ideas came from and why the person chooses to uphold it.

"It may also be helpful to educate family members by sharing your own positive experiences in collaborating or interacting with other people of color—specifically Black folk." Additionally she encourages patients to make gentle corrections when they hear family making judgments about others.

How can we hold boundaries against those who continue to act in ways that perpetuate anti-Blackness and colorism?

We can't remain complicit when it comes to any sort of prejudice, so being clear on what your own beliefs and values are is key according to Osborne-Sheeler. "When you do this, it becomes easier to hold verbal and physical boundaries with others when necessary," she says. "Speaking up and letting someone know that you're not ok with the statements they're making towards Black communities or that you don't support their beliefs are examples of holding a verbal boundary." She also says to let people know if something makes you feel uncomfortable or disappointed when negative statements are being made. If necessary, you may find it useful to limit your interactions with those who continue to violate your boundaries.

What if a family member makes a racist statement in front of our kids? How should parents speak up to them?

In these unfortunate circumstances Osborne-Sheeler encourages parents to put their boundaries into action. Practice a clear statement for when these events could occur. Here's one example from she shares:

"I'm not in agreement with your beliefs and am requesting that you refrain from sharing these beliefs in front of my children."

How can we talk to our kids about a racist slur they may have been subjected to?

It's important to use age appropriate language and remind your kids about the beliefs in your home. "With elementary school-aged children, parents may respond by acknowledging that the slur is a bad word and that it's never ok to use the word," says Osborne-Sheeler. As kids get older (middle school and high school) she says parents should continue to discuss the inappropriateness of the slur but also give a more historical context for slurs, and how and why they're used to demean others.

How can we empower our own children to call out colorism and anti-Blackness when they encounter it?

Educating our children on colorism involves a few steps. Osborne-Sheeler suggests the following:

  • Make them aware that although colorism and anti-Blackness in our communities does exist, it doesn't make it right.
  • Educate your children through books such as "We All Belong" by Nathalie Goss, "Skin Like Mine" by Latashia M. Perry, and "I Am Enough" by Grace Byers.
  • Teach children to speak up when they see someone mistreating others due to race, which includes asking the perpetrator to stop the behavior, walking away, and/or reaching out to an adult to help.
  • Show them how to be an example for others by choosing kindness and embracing everyone regardless of how they look.

What are some ways in which to heal from the damage done with repeated exposure to colorism and anti-Black sentiments?

Like with most trauma it takes work. "Continue to educate family, facilitate conversations to address colorism, and correct behavior," says Osborne-Sheeler. Finally, she encourages Latinxs, especially Afro-Latinxs who have been directly impacted, to go to therapy to process past experiences and evaluate the changes we need to make in order to move forward.

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