When I was twelve years old, a boy told me I would be perfect if I were a few shades lighter. He and another boy in our class actually closed their eyes and smiled as they began to picture me with lighter skin.
“I can see it now. In my mind, I’m going over her face with an eraser,” one said to the other as they smiled.
As crazy as it sounds, these boys were supposed to be my friends and they thought they were giving me a compliment. I’m certain that this wasn’t my first encounter with colorism but for some reason, it was the most memorable and definitely the most hurtful.
I thought that I’d buried that experience, but then I gave birth to a baby girl and flashbacks of that encounter come back to me more often than I’d care to admit. I was raised by parents who were never hesitant to tell me that my Black is beautiful. They would run up to my school with the quickness if another child tried to make a slick remark about my complexion and they had no qualms checking our colorist relatives over backhanded compliments and anti-black remarks. Still, even with all of that protection, it would take years before I could fully appreciate the girl who I saw when I looked into the mirror.
We’ve come a long way as a people since the early ’90s, but we’d be fooling ourselves if we said that colorism is no longer an issue in our culture. Among the many other concerns I have as a parent, one that causes my chest to tighten, my heart to palpitate, and my breathing to grow shallow is how to protect my daughter from being tainted by similar experiences. If you ask Dr. Donna Oriowo, therapist and author of Coco Butter & Hair Grease: A Self-Love Journey Through Hair and Skin, she’ll tell you parents who want to raise up a generation of children who are not broken or burdened by colorism and texturism should be looking to “equip” their kids in addition to protecting them.
“We can’t actually stop it from happening — not completely,” Dr. Oriowo said. “We don’t stop racism. We know that our kids are going to experience racism in this world. We do a lot of work to guard them as much as we can. We have conversations about the fact that there are people in this world who are going to be mean to you because you’re a Black person in this world. We have those conversations. We champion our kids. We fight or them. We’ll go up to school. We’ll do whatever needs to be done to make sure that they’re going to be okay in the face of racism. We don’t often do that when it comes to color.”
Part of the reason that some don’t react as quickly to issues of colorism as we do to racism is the fact that many are in denial that colorism is even an issue, to begin with. As a result, Dr. Oriowo said the first step to raising Black girls in a colorist world is to first acknowledge the problem.
Recognize colorism for the problem that it is
“Number one, recognize that there is a problem,” said Dr. Oriowo. “Many of us don’t even see it as a problem. As a community, we’re not always on the same page about it. If we don’t recognize it as a problem, it’s kind of hard to move towards solving anything.”
Check your sh*t and do your own work
Oftentimes, even as people who have been scarred by colorism in our own lives, we unknowingly perpetuate these same ideals. Thus, according to Dr. Oriowo, a major step towards protecting and equipping our kids is “checking our own sh*t.”
“A lot of us are perpetuating it simply by accident,” Dr. Oriowo pointed out. “More than anything, kids are watching what we do. There are parents out there who will say, ‘Your dark skin is beautiful, but dark-skinned mommy is dating and she only dates light-skinned people. Mommy will say, ‘Your dark skin is beautiful,’ but then only turn around compliment every child who is not dark-skinned.”
Talk to them
Some parents fear that talking to their children about colorism with make them self-conscious, so they don’t talk about this at all. But ignoring the problem is unhelpful, and by avoiding difficult conversations parents leave their children ill-equipped to deal with issues of colorism and texturism.
“Let them know that it’s a thing in the first place and don’t let them find out when it happens. We have to be proactive about the conversation,” Dr. Oriowo stated. “We think that we’re protecting them by not having a conversation. No, you actually need to have a conversation as soon as you’re able to. As soon as they’re interacting with others, let them know, ‘Hey, you have this brown. She has this brown. I have this brown. Sometimes, people are not going to like you based off of your brown.'”
Additionally, it’s great to build up your children by telling them how beautiful they are, but that can’t be our only defense as parents.
“Many people are using my book with their kids and I did not that write that book for kids, but they’re using it as a mommy and me activity. Many didn’t realize that their kids had issues with their skin or hair texture until they began having those conversations.”
As a parent, only you know what your child can handle, so you’ll have to be the judge of how deeply you will delve into conversations. The key is that as kids get older, discussions around images portrayed by media platforms have to continue.
‘”As they grow and learn and can talk, that means having conversations around media literacy. Letting your insights be known and getting their insights,” said Dr. Oriowo. “Sometimes it might be explicitly pointing out, ‘Hmm, I’ve noticed that all of the girls that they consider pretty girls on this TV show have super light skin. What do you think about that?’ Call it out to them and allow it be a conversation.”
Call out your colorist relatives
When it comes to colorism and texturism, our children aren’t the only ones with whom we must have uncomfortable conversations. Equipping and protecting our kids may also require the correction of loved ones, including elders, when they spew anti-Black rhetoric in the presence of your children.
“Who else has access to your child? What’s grandma saying? What’s auntie saying? Are they calling this child nappy headed? Are the saying they can’t manage her hair?” Dr. Oriowo said. “It’s also about making sure that the people who are closest, they are checking themselves or that you are checking them when they need to be checked.”
These conversations should take place both in the presence and the absence of your child. When your child is present, a simple “we don’t do that” should suffice, while a sterner “don’t do that again” may need to be issued in your child’s absence.
“She needs to know that you know that what just happened is a problem,” Dr. Oriowo advised.
Be mindful of the programs they’re watching on television
“Making sure that you’re watching movies with your kids that also feature people that look like them, that are dark-skinned like them,” is important Dr. Donna emphasized. “They’re also going to get messages from TV and media that lighter skin is better, that certain hair textures are better. As much as it gets reinforced outside, you want to be sure that you’re doing your piece on this side.”
Use resources to support dialogue.
According to Dr. Oriowo, having resources to present to your children during these conversations is also helpful.
“Part of the reason that I wrote Cocoa Butter and Hair Grease was that there wasn’t an abundance of resources that talk about colorism and texturism. When someone says something to you and you’re like, that tasted like racism but I’m not sure. It’s the same with colorism. It’s like, did I hear the thing the way I think I heard it? And just being able to give somebody confirmation that says, ‘Yeah, that’s a problem.’ This thing is real.”