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Colorism: Let's Start Talking

Chandra White-Cummings

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This is the second article in our Colorism series as part of the #BlackMentalHealthConversations Project. The Introduction is here.

Colorism is hard to talk about. It’s shameful to admit that people who have been systematically, historically, systemically, strategically, and forcefully oppressed based on having black skin would discriminate and hold prejudice against their own with blacker skin. But colorism is alive and not treating us so well.

Research on colorism within the African-American community exists but is undervalued and seldom discussed. A 2015 study found health disparities between blacks of varying skin shades were in many cases equal to or greater than those between blacks and whites. This same study also reported that: 1) the participants with a medium-brown skin color perceived less discrimination and bias, and had better indicators of mental health than participants at either the light brown or dark brown end of the color spectrum; and 2) how the interviewer described a person’s skin tone had less of an impact on that person’s  level of perceived discrimination than did one’s self description of skin color. Research is important to acknowledge and include in discussions of colorism because it helps to legitimize and quantify feelings and experiences of black people of all skin shades. Moreover, some research results challenge common defenses offered as to why colorism is not terribly important within the hierarchy of problems faced by blacks.

For example, various studies done between 1987 and 2007 reported tangible consequences of messages attached to, and privilege associated with, lighter versus darker skin color. African Americans with lighter skin color were shown to earn more, be more educated, live in better neighborhoods, and for women, to have married spouses with a higher socioeconomic status than their darker skinned counterparts. It’s important to note that in some instances of course, education or employment for example, those results might most often reflect the mindsets of non-Blacks with decision-making authority. But in the social arena involving dating, marriage, and family life, Blacks are making those decisions themselves. So in the areas in which blacks are in control and are able to exercise a level of power and authority that impacts another black person’s life, it must be recognized that harm is being done to the psyches and emotions of other African Americans, and the commitment to eradicate and heal this harm must be as strong as the commitment to fight interracial racism. Indeed, is it possible that intracultural resistance against and healing of colorism could hold a key to strengthening our people to fight against the ravages of racism?

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To that end, dialogue that aids understanding of others’ experiences with colorism is vital.

In conversations with young black women, black men, and reading social media posts and articles on this topic, there is no doubt that people have been and are continuing to be hurt.

S.C., a young, educated, and vibrant woman with deep brown skin described to me how colorism has effected relationships and her self-image:

 “A guy was really into me. We spent time together, everything was great but we never spent time with his friends. He would invite me to brunch with them and they would flake or only stay to say hello. His mother would text him mean things about being with a black woman. The pressure was too much for him. He had so much to lose on his end if we didn’t work out. He sent me a long text one morning stating I was too dark and if only I was lighter it may have worked. That changed the game for me. …I’m cool enough to chill just not cool enough for commitment and relationship.”
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S.C. also stated that because of that experience, she now ‘accepts’ it more readily because it has become somewhat normalized behavior. I was curious whether she felt there is a safe space for blacks to discuss colorism and how we treat each other. “No. Because you’re going against the code. You can communicate to other dark women but it’s like preaching to the choir. You confront others and they can’t have you questioning their character and perspective. They become defensive.”

For many African Americans, being treated differently by fellow blacks because of their skin shade starts much earlier than a dating experience. Too often children are exposed to verbal taunts, physical assaults, and social exclusion from family and friends at very young ages. To begin to understand and then restore and heal, we need education and involvement from black psychologists, psychiatrists, child and family therapists, social workers, pastors, and other mental health specialists. We consulted an expert to weigh in. Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, psychologist and author of The Practical Guide to Raising Emotionally Healthy Children, and 2017 president of the Florida Psychological Association, offers this insight regarding actions parents and caregivers can take to address the negative effects of colorism on our younger generations:

"Parents and caregivers need to have conversations about race and colorism with their children from an early age and continue these conversations as their child grows. First, parents should explain the reality that colorism exists in our country and people are treated differently due to the color of their skin. However, the child should be empowered to know that they are beautiful inside and out. Secondly, parents need to remember that children and teens need positive support and role models. Thirdly, parents need to socialize their children to understand the world around them, not to fear it, but to embrace their world and recognize that their differences are not negative things. … Our family has taught  [my five-year old son] that his brown skin is beautiful and that he should love his friends and they should love him no matter what. … Although parents may not be able to “fix” society and get rid of colorism, what parents can do is instill positive self-esteem in their child, provide support, have many heart-to-heart conversations,  and be open…the most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open."

Let’s get to work.

For further reading, education, and reflection:

Twitter #colorism

What is Colorism-Skin Tone Discrimination in America


Chandra C.