Colorism—the preference for or presumed superiority of people based on the color of their skin—is related to racism but can be more subtle and, for many of us, feels less familiar. Colorism, at once an interracial and intra-racial phenomenon, can be particularly devastating when perpetrated within racial groups, often within families.
Watch our conversation with journalist and author Lori Tharps who takes us on a deep-dive into the origins of colorism in different racial and ethnic communities and how this pernicious form of discrimination affects our parenting and family dynamics. We talk about what colorism looks like - at home and in our communities - and how to raise our children to love the skin they are in.
Also check out Lori's Action Guide: Five Things to Remember to Help Keep Colorism From Infecting Your Family:
Scroll down to read the lightly edited transcript of this conversation. Find more related resources below that.
EmbraceRace: We're so glad to have Lori L. Tharps with us tonight!
Lori L. Tharps
Lori is an Associate Professor of Journalism at Temple University, as well as an award-winning author, journalist, educator, podcast host, and a very popular speaker. She's the award-winning author of four critically acclaimed nonfiction books, including Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families. She lives in Philly with her husband and three children. She blogs and has a podcast at MyAmericanMeltingPot.com. Lori, welcome!
Lori L. Tharps: Thank you!
EmbraceRace: We always like to start with this question about the guest's personal investment in the issue.
Why did you chose to write Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America's Diverse Families? What is it, largely about colorism and families, that you could share with us that would give us some insight into your interest in this topic?
Lori L. Tharps: Sure, it's a great way to start. I'm a journalist first. I consider myself a storyteller, but my training is as a writer is in journalism. Every book that I have written has started with a personal question of my own. My first book was about Black hair, hint hint. My second book was a memoir. Then I wrote a novel. Even the novel was mildly inspired by my own personal experience becoming a mom. Same Family, Different Colors is probably my most, even though I wrote a memoir, I feel like it's my most important book that comes from my personal experiences. That is because I'm married to a Spanish man and I gave birth to three children who are three distinct skin tones, three distinct hair textures, and none of them look like me or my husband.
My experience as a parent was deeply influenced by this concept of colorism, that is not something I really had a lot of experience, or a lot of conscious experience with, although when I went back to think about my childhood, I realized that both of my Black parents had their own upbringing that was influenced deeply by colorism, and therefore it trickled down to me. Because I grew up in mostly White spaces, the only true colors I was really worried about were Black and White. I was Black and everybody else was White.
But as a parent, I have two sons, one who could not be mistaken for anything else but a Black child or a child of color, let's say. He has afro hair, brown skin. My other son is very pale, has very loosely curled hair, and is mistaken for anything but Black. Right around the time that Trayvon Martin was murdered, and everybody was talking about, "How do we raise our Black sons?" I was not only having that conversation and thinking about those things, but I was also trying to figure out, what is the conversation I need to have with my one son who looks visually Black, versus my other son, who could "pass." How do I make sure that not only do I give both sons the right message, but how do I make sure that whatever message I'm giving them is not making one feel jealous, one feel slighted? I thought I was prepared to be a good Black mom. I did not know that... You know, how do I parent kids who racially look different?
And that was what instigated the question of, how do differences in skin color in the same family affect parenting, affect family dynamics, affect the relationships between siblings? I wanted to know that answer, and then I figured a lot of other people want to know that answer. It's not just Black women married to White men, because I know, just being a Black woman from a Black family, that Black families come in all hues. Latino families come in all hues. Asian families come in all hues. So I set out to figure out how this skin color difference is manifested, how colorism influences these differences in these families, and then ultimately what to do about it, how to make sure that your parenting ...
I mean, it's not a parenting how-to, by any stretch of the imagination, but by sharing the stories of families that have been through this, of individuals who were the light person or the dark person in the family, not to mention talking to some experts, I figured it was a vehicle for helping people to start talking about the issue and perhaps getting some inspiration from some of the people who may have been the dark one or may have been the light one and still came out okay.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: It's so contextual. The stories really help. They helped me, but it's going to be really different depending on so many things and even the temperament of the child and the people around the child, so it's good to have guideposts. You know, there's not going to be an exact recipe for folks.
How do you define colorism? I noticed in your book that sometimes you use "the politics of skin color in the family." Colorism can be so confusing to people and feel a little bit like it's racism. It is very connected to racism but it can have the same shame factor that some people feel about admitting racist behaviors.
Lori L. Tharps: It's interesting, because when I naively went out and said, "I'm going to write this book about colorism or skin color politics," I thought it would be a much easier ask to get people to talk to me about these issues, thinking, "It's not racism!" I know people get nervous when you say racism, but people were just as reticent to talk about skin color, colorism. And a lot of people, particularly outside of the Black community, didn't even use the word colorism. I had to dial it back, because colorism was maybe associated with Black Americans, if at all.
I found when I was speaking to people in the East Asian community, for example, they were like, "Oh." They literally didn't even know what I was talking about, and yet when I broke it down and literally said, "Certain darker-skinned Asian people... " For example, I was talking to a Korean girl once and she was saying, "We don't have those problems." I was saying, "But I notice this. If you have darker skin..." Then it was like, "Oh, blah blah blah blah blah." I often had to have that conversation more around beauty rituals, because again, the word colorism didn't even resonate with certain people.
I define colorism as a preference for people based on the color of their skin. A lot of people make the assumption that the end of that sentence should be, "With a preference for lighter over darker." Because we live in a society that has been built upon a foundation of White supremacy, that is often the case. But people do show preferential treatment to people who have darker skin in some situations. This term colorism is about discrimination based on skin tone. I just consider that colorism. Skin color politics I think is a wider umbrella term that can give people more opportunity to, let's say, add the voices of people who were discriminated against because of their lighter skin, for example, or who felt what I call in the book light-skin isolation, because they're not recognized as part of their ethnic group or something like that.
Quite frankly it's ironic, because colorism as a word doesn't even exist officially in a lot of dictionaries. If you say the word, it gets underlined on the computer as incorrect. The word "colorist," like a racist, a colorist, is somebody who works with makeup or hair colors. Even the terms are not widely necessarily recognized. That's my definition. Any time you start having this conversation, it's important to define it for the people who you're speaking with.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: I love that. You focused on the family and how this plays out in the family. We're getting in the chat, I'm seeing people talking about how this plays out in various communities. Someone talked about the West Indies or people from the West Indies. Andrew and I happen to have family from the West Indies. Andrew's from Jamaica. On my father's side, they're all from Dominica. One thing that we often hear what you said, that, "Skin color isn't a thing," but then you go and you notice all the people who are in reception [at a business, at the bank] are very light-skinned. It's not discussed. I wonder if we could look back just for a second and talk about the trends we can see in how people are treated differently if they're on the darker side or the lighter side.
Lori L. Tharps: It's funny, because both of us have talked about how this manifests differently in different cultures. Everybody has this different experience. In writing the book, there's four sections. I talk about the African American community, the Latino community, the Asian American community. I'm situating these people in the United States, because I had to somehow connect this in some way. And then the mixed-race community.
There's a lot of differences of how different cultures come to prioritizing certain skin tones, whether it's colonialism, whether it's a class thing, whether it's a history of slavery, obviously. The, "Don't play in the sun. Don't get too dark if you want to be married." Moms influencing daughters, dads influencing daughters, boys being taught what to prioritize in terms of a lighter-skinned bride. These stories that I get, you can close your eyes, and that's my story. But it's also the Bangladeshi young woman's story. It's also the Dominican woman's story. It's also the African American woman's story.
The manifestation of what happened when people are prioritizing one skin tone over another, it looks the same in terms of the family. The damage looks pretty much the same, the tears, the trying to bleach your skin or wipe the skin color off looks the same. Likewise, the child that has lighter skin and perhaps isn't seen as part of the family or isn't part of the community and tries to overcompensate by doing maybe dangerous behavior or excessive behavior or exaggerating an accent or majoring in African American studies, Latino studies, because they have to prove somehow externally that they are part of the tribe.
Those stories, you pick the cultural group and it doesn't matter. You can mix and match and you still get those very similar stories. That's what I came away with after spending two years plus looking at how colorism manifests in different cultures, which gives me hope, because we're not talking about something that's so unique to one group that they're going to die trying to figure out how to solve it. It means if we open up between groups and start discussing these things, perhaps we'll get to a solution a lot faster. Because we're all suffering with the exact same problem.
EmbraceRace: Lori, if discrimination by skin color and by skin tone is pervasive within groups, across race and within racial categories, as you said, we seem collectively even less willing to talk about what we have coined colorism than we are about racism. We know that we're famously reticent to talk about racism, at least until recently, and that's still a relative thing.
You pointed to a number of different origins for color politics within different groups. Part of what's fascinating to me about this is even groups that you might call cultural groups or racial groups, where colorism is clearly a thing, and where yes, as soon as you start talking about what you're talking about, people recognize it, they often aren't aware that it's also a thing in other groups. That's how closed the conversation is.
Why are people are even less willing to talk about colorism than racism? Can you give us some insight into why people who experience colorism might not be aware that other cultures experience it as well?
Lori L. Tharps: It's a really good question. I think it might be because if you admit that within your own cultural group you're infighting, that you're parsing through who's better because of their hair or because of their skin tone, then the White man is going to be like, "Look, you people can't even agree upon X, Y, or Z yourselves." We can't break ranks publicly and show that we're infighting over essentially what has been "done to us" by this idea of White supremacy. There's a certain taboo nature. Colorism, I talked about it in my book, is this taboo topic that you only talk about behind closed doors. I really think it's because we don't air our dirty laundry out in the open.
In some cultures the idea of being lighter is very public, but what you necessarily do to make yourself lighter or to keep yourself light is still quietly done in the backroom. I really think there's the privacy element of, "I don't really want anybody to know what I do to make myself look darker or lighter."
Again, it's not just the lighter. I've talked to a lot of lighter-skinned people who buy makeup two shades darker than they really should, because they want to appear... I'm not talking about these crazy stories we've been hearing about White women who have been posing as Black. I'm talking about legitimately light-skinned individuals who buy makeup darker so that they can appear darker. That's not something they're talking about, because there's an inherent personal shame to that, that I'm not naturally the color I should be. And likewise, the reverse, if I'm lightening my skin and doing some sort of beauty treatments or something like that.
You have the one thing where we can't give "the White man," I'm using big air quotes with that, but we can't give the White man another reason to say we're defective or that we can't even get these things... Let's not give them another way to show that we're divisive. Then there's the whole personal private shame about, "If I'm this color and I want to be a different color. I want to be a little darker. I want to be a little lighter." That's a personal, private stance, if you will, about how I present myself to the world and what I have to do. Again, maybe my mom's telling me. Maybe my dad's telling me. Maybe I'm just feeling it myself. I'm going to take care of it, again, behind closed doors. I think there's a lot of shame, because it feels very personal.
Racism is very public. It's very group-oriented, but colorism is individual. It's about you personally, what you look like. It's not your global race. It is your personal appearance that you are being judged by.
We can't break ranks publicly and show that we're infighting over essentially what has been "done to us" by this idea of White supremacy. There's a certain taboo nature [to colorism]... Racism is very public. It's very group-oriented, but colorism is individual. It's about you personally, what you look like. It's not your global race. It is your personal appearance that you are being judged by
Lori L. Tharps
Right. Maybe finding the language to make it more of an open conversation,
which you are trying to do with politics of skin color or talking about, as you
do and as people in this chat have, about it really being about White supremacy
and anti-Blackness. Within whatever group, there's a preference.
There's a colonialized preference for lighter, but then we're trying to compensate for that and counter that by saying, "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice." Which I have that experience. I've talked about this before of being with my kids who are different shades, and I'm obviously someone who can pass, depending, not up to me, and talking about darker brown skin being so beautiful, "I wish I had... " All of this, which was a secret wish, of course, to not be so confusing. My younger daughter turned to me and said, "Mama, do you not like your skin?" It's really hard when you're trying to counter a racial hierarchy and a colorism hierarchy. What I was trying to do was [counter racial hierarchy by flipping the script. But doing it that way] doesn't work. I just thought about what my daughter said, and said, "Huh, you're right. That's what I'm suggesting. I need to think about that."
I really recommend that people watch the OWN documentaries, Light Girls, and there's Dark Girls, and Dark Girls II, which is cross cultures about skin color. I remember watching the one where That's So Raven spoke about how she would would tan for her show, because she was so embarrassed by how light she was, and she was not considered Black enough, which just is heartbreaking to imagine someone in the limelight feeling like they had to do that.
Lori L. Tharps: It's funny, because people assume that being light is the prize, that that's what people want. Through my research, it's not to be light or to be dark. It's really the people who are like ... There are studies that if you could score contentment with identity around race and color, it's people who are medium. People who are light struggle with being too light, not being identifiable. People who are too dark struggle with, of course, discrimination that's just based on anti-Blackness, and that's anti dark skin. I consider myself, like I said, I never thought about myself as too dark or too light, so I didn't really think about colorism, because I didn't have to.
The absurdity of all of this, of course, is it's all relative, because I could walk somewhere and someone could tell me, "You're really light," or I could walk somewhere and someone could tell me, "You're really dark," because it's all based on perception anyway. If you're told your whole life that you're really light, then you believe it, until you go someplace where people are lighter than you, and suddenly you're swarthy. It's so absurd in that way. The point is that when we think about, "Oh, light girls have it so lucky," or darker men are considered so virile or powerful, really where people feel the most content is people who literally just fall somewhere in the middle. I think obviously any extreme can be difficult and challenging.
People who are light struggle with being too light, not being identifiable. People who are too dark struggle with, of course, discrimination that's just based on anti-Blackness, and that's anti dark skin... When we think about, "Oh, light girls have it so lucky," or darker men are considered so virile or powerful, really where people feel the most content is people who literally just fall somewhere in the middle.
Lori. L. Tharps
EmbraceRace: Lori, definitely, as you said, the book isn't a how-to parenting book, but certainly you have some ideas. Certainly you have some wisdom for us. Before we get to that, you talked before about how racism and discrimination are often seen as public phenomena, that colorism is seen as a private one. It's personal. It's private. It's seen as happening largely within the confines of the home or other private spheres.
What does colorism in the private spheres look like? And especially among people who probably don't recognize that they're doing it, certainly don't mean to be harming their children or setting up these hierarchies, but nevertheless may be doing it?
Lori L. Tharps: That's a very good question, because again, because we don't talk about it openly enough, it's not in parenting classes. Like I said, it's not even a word, according to some. It just became a word I think two years ago. One dictionary finally recognized it. One of the things that, the clearest example of course is preferential treatment for a child that is darker or lighter. There are parents who, because of their own biases, are treating their lighter child like she or he is more smarter, attractive. You pick the positive attribute, and that parent is doing that or giving that kind of treatment to that child because of their lighter skin.
Also the opposite can happen, where I think Melissa was saying, I'm not sure if this is what you were implying, but if you have a light child and a dark child, it might be that you are overcompensating and teaching that dark child that they're so beautiful, maybe pay more attention to them, trying to make sure when they go out into the world, they're prepared for the discrimination that's going to come. Then in turn, the lighter-skinned child feels that they're not good enough, they don't like their skin, they should be darker. They spend a lot of time tanning in the sun.
I know personally, again, this is something I heard from a lot of people who grew up with mom or dad saying, "Put more sunscreen on. You're going to get too dark." They don't straight up say, "Because you'll be dark and ugly," or, "You'll never get a man." Some people still say that, but people think, "I would never say that," but they're still implying, "You don't want to get a tan. You don't want to get dark." "Well, why not?" "You won't be pretty or people will think you're a peasant." That happens to a lot of people in East Asian communities, where there's an association with darker skin with a lower class society. So just, "Don't get dark. Put some more sunscreen on. Put some more cream on so your skin is pale."
Then of course what you might also see or hear is parents praising public figures like, "Isn't she beautiful? Oh my god, she's so beautiful. Look at her hair. Don't you want to have hair like that?" or something, which again, they're not examining why they're praising this person, but they don't say things about a different person who maybe has darker skin or lighter skin, whatever the case may be, if there's this pattern. Or like Melissa said, "I need to get darker." That kind of thing, where you are inadvertently showing your child that there's something wrong with you based on your skin.
It can happen the same way with darker parents who will say things like, "Oh my god, I don't want to get any darker. I don't want to get in the sun. I got to put a lot of sunscreen on," or, "I don't even go outside, because I can't get any darker," or, "I can't wear this color. People my skin tone can't wear bright colors," already giving these kind of messages to their children that somehow, something about them is inappropriate or not right and they have to fix it.
We do know also colorism extends beyond just the shade of your skin, the texture of your hair, some features. This often starts in the home, because it's under the guise of taking care of your skin or picking out the right clothes you can wear and the shades of makeup you should be wearing or how you're styling your hair. That's why we accidentally pass these ideas on to our children, because we don't recognize that we're simply parroting what we were taught or we're trying to prepare our children for these messages that we think they're going to get out in the real world.
It does take a whole lot of self-reflection to realize, "Gosh, am I really ... " I guess I have had these ideas that like, "Oh yeah, that doll is prettier, because it has this kind of, I don't know, maybe cinnamon color, and I think that one's pretty. Why am I ignoring this darker doll?" or vice versa, wherever your biases linger. That's often what it looks like in the home. The good news is that we can all be aware of that and dial it back. That's the thing. Unless your kids are gone out the house, but there's nothing really that you can't undo with some very intentional remessaging and bringing in other kind of content and just honest, transparent talks with your kids.
EmbraceRace: Lori, you mentioned having two sons who are different skin tones, and we have a lot of questions and comments in the registration and now in the Q&A from families who have the same situation. Clearly there is widespread recognition that this is a thing among all those people and anxiety I think among a lot of the people who are listening now about, "Oh my gosh, am I doing something unwittingly to perpetuate this? What am I listening for?"
Can you talk more about what colorism looks like in children? What might we hear from them? How do we know if, in fact, colorism is taking hold in a child's imagination and self-perception?
Lori L. Tharps: As a mother of boys, I thought I was clear from the beauty talk and the hair talk that I would expect with daughters, but my sons, they were at a school that was relatively diverse, and yet they still at one point when they were seven and ten years old, were talking about wanting hair that moves. I think it was Justin Bieber was popular at the time, and he was doing his little thing with that hair thing. I was shocked, because I was like, "What have I done wrong?" For me, the response was, "If you want hair that moves, you can grow dreadlocks, because those move." I didn't freak out. I think it was very normal at that point for the kids to see this popular figure. You couldn't not see Justin Bieber in the early 2000's. My response was, "You want hair that moves? Great. We can have hair that moves. Black hair is amazing. It can do all those things."
You may hear something like that. Like, "I want to have some sort of physical characteristic that somebody who's darker or lighter has." You may have a child say something like, "I don't like him because he's so dark." That's stories that we've heard. I've heard children say, "I don't like him because he's so dark." Now again, instead of saying, "Don't say that! That's terrible!" because then you shut down the opportunity to interrogate why the child thinks that. "Why is the darkness of their skin bad?" Maybe the child will say, "It looks like dirt," or, "They're so dark," or maybe they don't have an answer, but this is the opportunity not to shut it down, but to have the conversation.
This is why one of my recommendations is to really normalize skin color difference. Not to make them a hierarchy, but just to say, "Look at the colors of the human rainbow," as many ways as you can do that, as many times a day, to the point where then when you have that conversation, it's like, "Don't you remember humans come in 17,000 shades?" There's a Pantone image that shows all the different tones of human skin. I think every family should have that to start showing their children, "Look at all the shades that humans come in." So something like that. "Mommy, I don't like her because she's too dark," or, "I don't like her because she's so light and she thinks she's better than everybody else." "Now if you think there's a girl who's better, okay, but is it because she's light that you think that? If so, let's interrogate that."
It's COVID, so you can keep your kids in the house all the time, but in general they're going to go out, they're going to have these conversations with other people, they're going to hear these things, and they come bring them back into the house. The thing is not to shut it down, but to critique their thinking and have the conversation with them.
Ideally, if you have in your home, in your household, in your family, people who are different shades, you can have the conversation and have examples that you can point to and say maybe this character on this TV show or in this movie or in this book, "They have skin that color. Does that person think she's better than everybody?" or, "Remember that story we read where people thought that so-and-so was better and it made her feel really bad?" All these types of things. That's I think how we might see it. As kids get older, there could be some animosity between siblings, which through no fault of the parents, there still could be the brother who's lighter who gets more girls, gets more attention at school, the brother who is darker gets more negative attention, has been stopped by the police, and so in between the two brothers, there's tension. That could happen as well. That definitely requires parental intervention to really again... That's somebody else's problem, not theirs. It doesn't change who your children are fundamentally.
I'm not saying it's easy. It's definitely something where if you see it and you have conversations about it, you can hopefully, at minimal, keep the bonds in the family from being destroyed by outside influences around colorism.
EmbraceRace: That's a great point. It's certainly true that although you learn a lot about a lot of this or many people develop their colorist views at home. There's plenty to be brought in at school, in terms of finding those stories and those television shows, like you said. We need people creating that content to be aware of colorism as well. You did write a bit in your book, you talked to some researchers about studies. There's been Vesla Weaver and Jennifer Hochschild did those great studies about people across races, if they were asked to look at, "Here's a politician who's a light-skinned Black man and here's one who's a dark-skinned Black man," and they were asked who was more trustworthy and things like that, and they'd think the lighter-skinned one was more trustworthy. Part of what's problematic about colorism is it's happening in our families and within racial communities, but we're also harming people outside of our immediate racial ethnic communities by being colorists.
Lori L. Tharps: I was just going to say, it's really important for people to recognize that White people are very colorist as well. That's why again this conversation cannot stay in the silos of different ethnic communities, because we all have biases and we all, again, when people talk about a light-skinned Black man is more likely to get a job than a dark-skinned Black man, or darker-skinned girls in school tend to be disciplined worse than lighter-skinned girls and all these different things, who is making these decisions? Who's having these disciplinary hearings? Who are these teachers? They're White people in a lot of cases, because everybody is operating under a White supremacist system where we default to this idea that the lighter-skinned person is smarter, more beautiful, has all the qualities that we're looking for, is better behaved. It's not just within the Black community Black people think this or within the Latino community, Latino people think this. We're all working with that same kind of problem.
Everybody is operating under a White supremacist system where we default to this idea that the lighter-skinned person is smarter, more beautiful, has all the qualities that we're looking for, is better behaved. It's not just within the Black community Black people think this or within the Latino community, Latino people think this. We're all working with that same kind of problem.
Lori L. Tharps
EmbraceRace: We have so many amazing questions, some of which we've already started to certainly incorporate into this conversation. Here's one. We're going to speak to this certainly, but I'll offer it up.
"How to handle colorism in a biracial family. My husband is White. I'm Korean. Our kids look mixed. One identifies more with Asian-ness, the other with Whiteness. Very confusing and divisive, spurred by events during this administration."
Lori L. Tharps: That is such a good question. It's one that so many people struggle with. It doesn't even have to be a mixed family. A family that's just colorful. You can still have somebody that comes out very light and one very dark. One can be White passing and another one just can't. In this particular situation, where you have a child that embraces their ethnic side and one that's embracing the White side, it is divisive. It's very hard.
I think for the parents though, there's a couple of things to consider. She said that both kids looked mixed. If both kids look mixed, so they're essentially making a choice, then I feel like it is the parents' responsibility to help each child in their own unique identity. We can't force a child to believe or to act a certain way. If they feel more connected to their Asian side or they feel more connected to their White side, whatever that means, then that's what they have to do.
What is important for the parent to do is to interrogate, for example, if that White child is rejecting their Asian side. It's okay for a child to embrace different parts of themselves at different times. Everybody does this, whether you're mixed or not. If there's an attitude of rejection, I think that's when you really need to make sure that the child doesn't hate themselves, doesn't hate that part of themselves, isn't rejecting it.
And if they are, why. Again, this is very delicate. Depending on their age, it might be really hard to get them to talk about what they're really feeling, but it is incumbent upon the parents to, because if they're rejecting it, there's a reason why. Maybe they've been bullied. Maybe they've read things that make them feel very negatively about that part of themselves. If it's the current administration, maybe it's just that they're scared. They don't want to identify with the people that are being beat up. Who wants that? Nobody wants that, especially a child.
I think then again, it's the parents' responsibility to try to get at what that child might be saying with that, "I'm embracing my White side." Is that more a, "I am rejecting this other part because I'm scared of something or I've been told something negative about that." Then you have to go a little bit overtime, trying to show the good parts and why that it's okay to embrace your whole self. Again, I think it's important to make sure that you're not trying to make them think that if they embrace their Asian side, they can't embrace the other half of themselves too. Don't make it an either/or situation.
EmbraceRace: We do have a lot of questions from parents who are interested in doing their own internal work, which is awesome, who have been struggling with colorism themselves.
One person asks, "How can I work through colorism and not pass it on to my child? I've been struggling with this since my son was born, because he's much lighter complected than me, and it brought up a lot of internalized feelings about light versus dark-skinned African Americans that I didn't know I had. I have so much shame about my feelings, that surprise or insecurity in him not looking like his mom. While I know that it'll take time to work through this, in the meantime I don't want to affect my son."
Lori L. Tharps: Absolutely. First of all, I feel you. I hear you. I have two very light children. The many times that people asked if I was their nanny. Somebody actually almost tried to force me to take my son to the hospital to make sure he was actually mine, that I needed to get a DNA test. That puts a real number on you, feeling like you are being questioned even if that kid is yours. Then the feelings you have of maybe you're feeling like you want your kid to be darker for multiple reasons. My thing is, one, that's very normal thoughts. Do not feel shame about them. That's 100% natural that we want our children to look like us, to have similar experiences, that we want them to be recognizable as, again, part of our tribe. That's the first thing. Your feelings are normal. Do not try to suppress them or negate them.
Second, the best thing you can do is try to talk to other people. There are lots of people who are in the exact same boat. There's a Facebook group called Black Women Raising Light-Skinned Children or something like that. There's truly a lot of people in that same situation. Rather than stewing and trying to suppress those feelings, talk about them. This is the point, is when we suppress them, they don't go anywhere, and then maybe you are going to, not even intentionally, pass them on to your kids. Get them out. Talk about them. Talk about them every day. Just talking about it, you may get ideas from other mothers in similar situations, other parents. Also in talking about it, you release some of that, those feelings, and they're not so strong, and it allows you then to look at your child and again see what's good about their skin tone, reinforcing it in telling them and you're teaching yourself at the same time that you're teaching your child to love the skin that they're in.
We're trying to teach our children that skin tone doesn't mean good or bad. The more we teach them, we're teaching ourselves too. Because we come from a different generation, where it really didn't feel that was true. Now we get a chance to undo those negative messaging for our kids. If we really believe that the Creator, God, the Universe, whatever you believe, whoever created skin tones didn't make a mistake. They're all there for different reasons. Then if again we're teaching our children this, then we're teaching ourselves at the same time, and hopefully the message soaks in. Don't suppress those feelings. They're totally normal, totally natural. Find healthy adults that you can talk about them with.
EmbraceRace: I really do think Lori's book is amazing for that as well, Same Family, Different Colors, because there are just so many stories. You interviewed so many people, Lori, that all of you are going to find someone, most of you are going to find someone like you in these pages. Often a lot of stories, or even if people are in different ethnic groups, their stories are very similar, so I think that's helpful. I agree, talking about it is quite literally healing.
We've focused a lot on this conversation on the circulation of these messages within families, and especially what we might call nuclear, perhaps even extended families. Of course it's clear that that is not a closed system. There are these messages being circulated all over the place. Sometimes the family isn't the refuge. We have several questions and comments from educators who are seeing the circulation of those colorist messages in families, between parents and children. They're observing this, and they're concerned. You mentioned "delicate" 10 minutes ago. That's a delicate situation.
What can educators do to support children who they think might be subject to these kind of colorist messages?
Lori L. Tharps: It takes a village and that's 100% true. Sometimes parents, they're just not able to do what they need to do along these lines. Educators, again, they're the second line of defense. They can, again, in their classrooms, reinforce the message. Thank you, Melissa, for saying that. I do think that if people read the book, they'll get some ideas. The number one message from this is to normalize difference.
If adults taught children that humans come in multiple skin tones and that there is no attachment, there is no skin tone hierarchy, from a scientific perspective, and this is what educators can do, "How did we get different skin tones? When people migrated away from the sun, some people were lighter, some people were darker, so that they could absorb more melanin, so they didn't die of Vitamin D deficiency. This is a biological adaptation to the distance to the sun. Skin tone, hair textures, nose width, it's biology, it's evolution." Maybe you shouldn't call it evolution, depending what state you live in. The point is, this is simply a biological adaptation to the nearness to the sun.
Let's start with science. Then let's talk about if we see different skin tones, just like we see different flowers, they're different colors, humans are different colors. What difference does it make if a rose is red or a rose is white or a rose is yellow? Are they all roses? Yes. Do they all smell delicious? Yes. Are they all beautiful in a bouquet? Yes. Why is that any different with human beings?
Teachers can do a very methodical kind of talk, and they should incorporate this into their social studies lesson, into kindergarten all the way up to 12th grade, about what skin color really means. There's a really good book, and Nina Jablonski is the author. I think it's just called Skin. She literally does the evolution of skin. In addition, every elementary school teacher should have a really great collection of books in their classroom that talks about skin colors and why skin colors are different, and also the types of books that offer and show different characters with different colors.
Again, if we're saying, "Hey, skin tones, everybody comes in different colors, and you can have smart people and athletes and scientists who are all different colors," then you are literally demonstrating, "Hey, this very dark person is a brilliant scientist. This very light person was the best Dominican, I don't know, singer, dancer," whatever it could be, but just showcasing the wide spectrum of talented or interesting people. That's what teachers can do.
EmbraceRace: We have a really interesting question that I think gets to how personal colorism can be, where someone asks, "What is the difference between colorism and personal preference?"
Lori L. Tharps: Oh, good.
EmbraceRace: The context, "Some people find certain tones more attractive. I've seen folks describe this preference as feeding into colorism," which of course it does.
Lori L. Tharps: I just have to say, somebody in the chat, I'm not really reading the chat, but things are popping up, and someone just said that Crayola crayons now come in multiple skin tones. Every teacher should have all those crayons, because you will start a crisis if the child can't find their skin tone in the crayon box. That's a little tiny thing, but it's that kind of thinking for teachers how you reinforce that all skin colors matter. They're all just as valuable as the next.
The difference between personal preference and colorism, that's a tricky thing, because people can argue you two ways backwards. I don't know, I make up my phrases. People can argue until they're blue in the face that, "It's just a personal preference. It's not like I'm saying darker-skinned people or lighter-skinned people are ugly," whatever. The thing is we all have biases, preferences, and influences. We live in a society that was built on a foundation of White supremacy, and European colonialism also spread across a large swath of the rest of the world. It cannot be understated that almost all people have some sort of belief or have been influenced by standards of beauty or attractiveness that come from either accepting White supremacy or deeply rejecting White supremacy.
I've seen people of color say, "I only like light-skinned women or men," and it's literally because they have felt so badly as a dark person that they aspire to at least get somebody lighter than them, to either make sure their kids aren't as dark as them or simply because again they have felt so negatively about themselves that if they can find a partner who is light, somehow they've achieved something. We see that all the time. Likewise, there are people who are very light, who their preference is darker people, because they have been accused their entire life of being too light. That attraction to the darker skin tone is a manifestation of their own feeling rejected as who they are.
Can you take that away, can you separate that from preference? If your preference is not to have yourself always be judged because you're too light or you're too dark, that would be my preference too is to stop being judged. I think all of us though can interrogate our own preferences, if you will. I don't think anybody can do it for you. I don't think it's anybody's business to try to figure out, "She's just with him," or, "He's just with her." I would encourage people, young people, I don't want everybody who's in a marriage of someone who's a different skin tone to be like, "I married you for the wrong reasons! I'm out of here!" I'm not suggesting that, but if you are young and you're still thinking about who you want to couple with or whatever, to definitely ask yourself those questions, because we are simply products of our environment. There are so many messages sent to us on a regular basis about who is worthy, who is attractive, who is strong, who is weak.
Again, if you hear me using these adjectives, perhaps in your mind you're like, "That's darker. That's lighter. That's darker. That's lighter." They're really attached to these qualities. We have attached them to skin tones. Again, both dark and light. This is why I refuse to say that colorism is just a preference for light, because I can show you many a lighter-skinned man who cannot be taken seriously as strong and powerful, because he's not dark enough. Personal preference versus colorism, it is a fine line, but I do believe that that the truth can only be determined by the individual themselves.
It cannot be understated that almost all people have some sort of belief or have been influenced by standards of beauty or attractiveness that come from either accepting White supremacy or deeply rejecting White supremacy
Lori L. Tharps
EmbraceRace: Lori, we've talked about colorism, what it is, the relationship to some degree to racism, how it shows up, what we might be able to do about it in the home, and now I'm wondering where this is going. In particular, we live in a time when, in a moment clearly, where lots of people, and I won't even get into the basis for this hope, but lots of people are hopeful that we're in some sort of before, after, at least a moment of shift around racism and race and people's awareness and more people willing to stand up and get off the sidelines, all those sorts of things around racism.
Given that colorism and racism aren't the same thing, but they're related phenomenon, I wonder what are you seeing in this time? Are you more hopeful, less hopeful than you've been at other times at the trajectory of colorism or trajectories, because we know it's several things, several different manifestations, maybe different kind of dynamics in different communities. How do we assess where this thing is going?
Lori L. Tharps: Andrew, do we have another two hours? I wish I could give a straight answer. I'm going to say I am hopeful that this, what I call Black Lives Matter 2.0 movement that we're seeing right now, will get people to interrogate colorism and not just racism. I am seeing that. I am seeing people really, really start to talk about anti-Blackness, which is at the base of a lot of colorist thinking across cultures. That is fundamental if we're going to get beyond colorism is anti-Blackness. We see that, again, in so many different cultures. In that sense, I have seen people in Jamaica, in India, in Bangladesh, in these communities here as well, really start to grapple with the anti-Blackness in their own communities and their own cultures, and of course here in the United States. That gives me hope.
On the same token, you just turn on the television or go on social media and there's still infighting, light-skinned, dark-skinned, there's still glorifying of a certain visual type of female and male. When people say, "Look at Lupita," okay, I'm looking at Lupita, but who else am I looking at? If somebody says, "Lupita," one more time. One person doesn't say, "Oh, we've figured this all out." I see progress in the natural hair movement in the Latino community for example, but I also still see so many ideals of lighter-skinned preference, let's say.
After I write a book, I'm like, "Okay, problem solved, let's move on." Then you're like, "Wait a minute. Why are people still talking about the same ridiculous things? Why are still people glorifying Whiteness? Didn't they get the memo that this was all part of a conspiracy of White supremacy and colonialism? Come on! I just told you the truth! Now you know, so stop!" I wish that that was-
EmbraceRace: Circulate that memo more widely, Lori. Everyone needs the memo.
Lori L. Tharps: I know. I got to get it translated in 17,000 languages. When I recognize the deep-seated intentionality of White supremacy and colonialism and how Whiteness was weaponized, literally Whiteness was weaponized, and how we all fell for it, everybody across the globe fell for it, and it's the dumbest thing ever, because what do White people want to do more than anything, get tan! It's so insane. It's so insane. There's no benefit to literally White skin. You burn more. There's just nothing. Physically there's no benefit to having pale skin. Yet literally people are killing themselves with Whitening cream and lightening creams and chemicals in the hair. For what? There's nothing at the basis of this desire. All that to say, I do see people, today more than ever, interrogating, and social media can be very helpful, because we see a lot of young people using their social media accounts challenging beauty images and things like that. That gives me hope. I wish there was more substantial change about ...
Sorry, I just saw a fight on Facebook between very intelligent women still saying, "Light-skinned women are this and that, and dark-skinned women ... " It was like, really? We are still have team dark skin versus team light skin, the oppression Olympics between who suffers more? I'm like, we are never going to get past this if we are still trying to compare whose tragedy is worse. I'm hopeful, but I still see we have a long way to go.
EmbraceRace: We really could've spoken for a lot longer. Thank you, everyone. Thank you, Lori, for this great conversation. I hope you all get the memo, which is Lori's book. Really, it's really fascinating. We could have a longer conversation about it, what we're all doing in our families to counter this and how we particularly teach kids to be critical of media. Once you do the, "We're a bouquet of flowers," you got to talk about power in media so that kids can see a different way. Thank you everyone for coming. Lori, thank you for just sharing so much and for your insights and for writing this book, which meant a lot to me to read. Thank you. Hate to be greedy, Lori, but hope you keep bringing your gifts. Thank you.
Lori L. Tharps: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me. It was wonderful.
EmbraceRace: Thanks, everyone. Good night. Bye.
Lori L. Tharps: Bye.
For Adults & Young Adults
For Young Kids
Clips from films about colorism on the Oprah Whitney Network (OWN). You can buy the full videos.
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