Keke Palmer And How We Learn – And Teach – Colorism

October 4, 2013  |  


In addition to addressing the skin bleaching rumors, which she categorically denied, Keke Palmer spoke very candidly about growing up, wanting lighter skin.

According to EUR Web:

When I was like 5 years old I used to pray to have light skin because I would always hear how pretty that little light skin girl was, or I would hear I was pretty ‘to be dark skinned.’ It wasn’t until I was 13 that I really learned to appreciate my skin color and know that I was beautiful,” she said.

Thankfully Palmer was able to resolve her issues around colorism however not every child – or former child – is as fortunate. I’ve written before about being emotionally and spiritually affected by a previous incident involving a former young neighbor of mine, a girl of around 10 or 11 years of age, who confessed to me that she hated her dark skinned and nappy hair. Despite my assurance that she was beautiful, she didn’t believe me for two reasons: First, I was lighter than her with the hair texture she envied (a point she kept emphasizing); and secondly, and more directly, her own mother also thought light skinned was better (another point she kept emphasizing). At best, this young girl thought my sincere expressions were just an attempt at patronization. That was well over five years ago and my young neighbor, who is well into her teenage years now, no longer lives on my block. But I do think about her from time to time.  Particularly, I wonder if like Palmer, she ever was able to accept and appreciate her own aesthetic – in spite of what she was reared to believe.

I also wonder why a child so young should never have to deal with questions of self-worth and what roles we as adult have in ensuring that this subtle yet dangerous form of racism doesn’t get passed down to future generations?

As Ama Karikari, critical writer and author of the positive image tale Sunne’s Gift: Honoring Afro Hair and Celebrating Diversity, stated: “I would say that teaching black children self-love is the most important objective that we should have in the black community. Every day children of all races who do not love themselves, know their inherent worth or feel as if they belong – seek a feeling of love, importance, worth and belonging in very negative ways.” 

After reading the Palmer story, and thus reflecting on my former young neighbor, I reached out to Yawson in hopes of getting more insight to why healthy images of diverse people, particular people of a darker hue, are needed in our community specifically. In an email to me, she writes, “Unfortunately, media portrayals of young black people often affirm the identity of the “vixen” for girls and the “thug” for boys so black children are specifically targeted. White children have more of a variety of images available to them. Asian children are generally stereotyped as being nerds, not vixens and thugs.  Teaching our kids to love themselves is life saving.”

Karikari-Yawson speaks from a place of experience. Like Palmer, she said she too can relate to feeling inferior as a youth because of the color of her skin and texture of her hair. It was in puberty, she writes, when her own skin tone began to darken inexplicably. At the same time an ill-advised texturizer, placed onto already relaxed hair, caused her hair to fall out. “All of a sudden, I was not considered a “pretty girl. My own family member told me that I had “lost my beauty. I can probably say that I was deeply depressed and cried consistently over my “ugly” appearance between the ages of nine and thirteen.”

It was those feelings of inferiority, which Karikari-Yawson had hoped would never embed themselves into the psyche of her 3-year old son JoJo. However on a recent trip to barber shop, where JoJo had his hair shorn “practically bald” by an overreaching barber, which led her to realize how engrained this internalized hatred for the African aesthetic has permeated in the community. According to Karikari-Yawson, the barber felt justified in ignoring her explicit request for just a trim because her son was “a real n*gger” – you know, a native from the tribe – and that “this ain’t pretty hair.”

While the barber might have thought he was doing her a favor, Karikari-Yawson said that the entire incident left her sick for days. But she also admits that it left her inspired. Soon after the barber shop incident, she decided to amass that pain into art, by way of Sunne’s Gift, a children’s fable about a mythical and magical creature with afro-textured hair, which has the power to make the sun rise and set. While the children book, which is currently available unillustrated for free electronically, is geared to children of the darker hue, KariKari-Yawson said that the story’s self-love and anti-bullying message will also resonate with all children from diverse backgrounds.

The book says that God made no mistakes in creating us with our varied skin shades and hair textures.  I pray that a little Keke reading this or having this read to her will then think, yes, ‘God made me beautiful just the way that I am and I have to let my light shine.’  ‘I have to care for my gorgeous dark skin show its radiance.’  ‘I am going to explore all of the lovely hair styles that my kinky hair can do so the world will see my true beauty.’ This book is not just for black children, it is for all people, because we all need the courage to live our own truths.

Recent studies centered around childhood development has found that African American children specifically, who are reared with a proud, informed, and sober perspective of race, are not only more emotionally secure than their “colorblind -and conscious – counterparts, but also are more likely to experience increased academic success. But how do we go about instilling self-love when so many of us are not emotionally equipped ourselves? Karikari-Yawson suggest we start with the basics: reading.

We read them books like Sunne’s Gift and books by black authors with photos of black children, in addition to mainstream books. We compliment them on their beauty, work-ethic, morals, kindness and any other attribute that we hope to encourage.  We compliment other children who look like them, in front of of our children.  But most of all, we live our own truths so that we can sent an example.  We admire our own beauty, brilliance, kindness, perseverance, etc. so that our children have an example of self-love and loving others”.

It’s clear that the children are watching and learning. They are learning from society and they are learning from watching how we carry ourselves. Therefore, self love isn’t just a matter of our own mental well-being but it is about making sure that we don’t force the children to carry on the burdens and ugly thinking of our past.

Currently Karikari-Yawson is fundraising via kickstarter with the aim of having Sunne’s Gift illustrated and printed for a wider audience. For more information on the Kickstarter campaign, you can click here.  Those who are unable to financially contribute $1.00  for a copy of Sunne’s Gift unillustrated can email to receive an unillustrated pdf of the book free of charge.

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