How Our Color Complex Affects Our Kids

March 7, 2014  |  

Black is beautiful in all of its shades…

Within the last two years the talk of colorism has come to the forefront of the African-American community. Before there were jokes about how [insert star’s name ____] is making light/dark skinned people “out of style” or “bringing them back” (Shout out to Boris Kodjoe and Morris Chestnut). It was a subtle jab at something we’ve all been aware of: how much we as a people look at (and judge) our own color.

These days, the color bashing is more in your face. There are dozens of memes poking fun at “light skinned people be like…” or something or the other. I laugh along because I have a pretty light-hearted sense of humor and I do believe that there is often a little truth behind a joke or witty line.

Lately, Lupita Nyong’o’s incredible performance in 12 Years A Slave (and winning an Oscar) has brought this conversation to the forefront. It’s no secret that Hollywood, and the entertainment industry at-large, has favored women whose skin has less melanin or come from bi-racial backgrounds with features reminiscent of their European heritage. Nyong’o has talked candidly about how she’d wish her skin were lighter when she was a young girl, and many black men and women have shared that they relate to this sentiment. Many are looking at Lupita as beautiful icon as she is killing it with style and grace to match. Many have rallied behind her because she’s a black actress that won an Oscar and some have championed her as “bringing dark-skinned” back. If you Google her name you’ll see a myriad of journalists and bloggers chronicling her becoming a leading lady (because the floodgates are about to open up) in Hollywood…in spite of the color of her skin.

One of the things that makes being black or of the African Diaspora unique is that unlike any other race, we come in so many different shades and hues. We’ve also been oppressed because of this and since slavery in the Western Hemisphere some have been revered and deemed acceptable because they looked more like whites or even other races. We turned these lemons into lemonade by turning the dozens which were meant to be insulting into jokes, and the pattern of that hyperbole into hip hop music, nicknames (everybody in the hood got a friend known as “Black”), etc. However, the unequal treatment from outwards has caused us to discriminate–whether seriously or not–inwards, so to speak, and made a color complex amongst ourselves.

I’m brown-skinned and the darkest in my family within the last five generations. I have a twin sister who is as light as light-skinned can be and I’ve seen her go through a lot because of it. Some people haven’t believed we’re twins; she used to get made fun of and called “white,” she even used to talk to a guy in high school one time that referred to her as his snow bunny (when she told me this, I’ll admit I burst into tears in laughter). When someone wanted to hit her below the belt they’d call her white, and sometimes I would see it get to her.

Why do I bring this up? My daughter is light-skinned as well with what would be known colloquially as “good hair.” She has hair like her mother who was half Spanish and just as parents of children with darker skin will have to dry tears, build confidence that their skin is fearfully and wonderfully made, I will have to do the same for her. She’ll never be able to have the “natural” hair styles that have been becoming more and more prevalent, but her skin tone and curly locs are just as black as the girl with the Bantu knots and her father who once had dreads down his back. I’ve known many girls with lighter skin who’ve had broader noses and other prominent features, like fuller lips, associated with blackness.

So why do we discriminate within our own race?

People are going to make fun of my daughter. Some aren’t going to want to date her because of her light skin as well. Girls are not going to want to hang with her because there can only be one light-skinned girl in the group (I’ve heard this a LOT), or whatever. That’s not because of what we see. Or maybe it is. However, just because you see something doesn’t mean you have to act like it. As parents that’s where we have to come in and do something about it. Sure, children are going to do what they want to do and act differently when they’re with their peers than when they’re with us, but we can still do something about it.

I date and I’m notorious for having a “type.” My friends get on me and make jokes about it all the time. It’s not on purpose or because I’m discriminating; unconsciously we all seek out people that are just like our family. I’ll make a joke about it and the response I get has been everything from: light-skinned people prefer other light-skinned people, to dark-skinned men saying they only date white girls because they want their kids to be just brown skinned. When it comes time for my daughter to look at boys in this sense (thank God that’s a long time from now), I will tell her to love whoever can treat her how I treat her. I’d tell her like Sonny told Cologero in A Bronx Tale: “You gotta do what your heart tells you to do.”

Chad Milner writes about being a single father on his website The Adventures of a Single Dad.

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