What Should we Teach our Kids About Colorism?

“Look both ways before you cross the street.”

“Don’t touch the stove.”

“Choose your friends wisely.”

“Always wear your seatbelt.”

“Don’t talk to strangers.”

Sound familiar? That’s because parents and adults are known for teaching children how to survive in a potentially dangerous world. Parents know that if they don’t teach their children to look both ways before crossing the street, their children might very well die in the process of learning that lesson on their own. (An answer to the “I have to learn from my own mistakes” mentality.) Most parents know that if they don’t teach their child about sex, lots of other people will be all too happy to teach them.

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Aside from basic survival skills, good parents know they also have to teach their children social skills and moral behavior. “No, Tiffany, it’s not okay to scratch your brother because you wanted to play with his toys.” We teach kids to play nice, to share, to clean up after themselves, to tell the truth, and to help old ladies across the street. I would include giving up your seat to the elderly, but parents  obviously don’t teach that anymore.

Parents know that each child has a particular nature. Most parents know that it’s their responsibility to nurture.

My question: So why do parents neglect to teach their children how to value all skin colors (ethnicities, languages, etc.)?

Just as we have to nurture a spirit of giving and sharing in most kids, just as we have to nurture a spirit of hard work and responsibility in most kids, we also have to nurture a spirit of acceptance and appreciation, even love.

Below, I present my ideas on what might assist in nurturing such a spirit in our families, especially young children. I have no degree, no personal experience, and no professional experience in raising children or in psychology. I think, though, that this could be useful.

How can we foster in our children, a spirit of acceptance, appreciation, and even love for all shades of human skin?

1) Sort out your own attitude/feelings about colorism. 

This way you can lead and teach by example.

Ta-Nehisi Coates posted about “Dark Girls” on The Atlantic in June of this year. As a kid Coates expressed preference for “light-skin girls,” and in the post he recalls his emotions after being scolded by his mother when he was twelve:

“I remember being really pissed off at my mother at first (“It’s my choice!”) Then a few weeks later, as I turned it over in my head, a bit embarrassed (“I wish I hadn’t said that”) then deeply ashamed (“I wish I didn’t think that”) and finally incredibly curious (“Why do I think that anyway?”)”

Know what you think, feel, and believe about skin color. Dig deep, because we all have that “I’m not a racist” ego we must deal with. Consciously, you might tell yourself “I’m colorblind,” but notice when you’re compelled to comment on how pretty a child is (or their hair or eyes). How does the child usually look?* Notice what you see every time you close your eyes and imagine your ideal mate, or your ideal children.

Before we can heal the world, we must begin to heal as individuals. You don’t have to be perfect to help others, but at least try to be aware of your imperfections and blind spots. I’m not saying everyone’s a closet racist, but if you resist self-reflection, maybe there’s something you’re afraid to face.

If you find that you had/have skin color bias, you can use yourself as a starting point in discussing skin color with your kids or other young people.

2) Talk candidly about colorism with your children. 

They don’t need a lecture. It could be as simple as letting them hear you work through your own color biases. Like Coates, you may point out examples of when you expressed bias in the past and how you’ve changed/are changing. It could be as simple as looking at family photos with your kids and saying, “It’s wonderful that there are so many shades of skin in our family.”

Example: While watching a movie with his family, James notices some colorism at play.** Though the movie is supposedly “targeted” to African Americans, all the major female roles are played by actresses who have very fair skin. Some have light colored eyes and long wavy hair. A few dark skinned women make appearances in roles that are clearly less flattering (gum smacking, loud trash talking, psycho baby mama, gaudy clothes and makeup, hyper-sexual, etc.) James is slightly uncomfortable but lets it go thinking that his kids are too young to be aware of such nuanced casting issues. Then James notices that his kids burst out in uncontrollable laughter at the ridiculously comic performance of a dark-skinned character. He cringes, but thinks, it was funny, and the director intended for people to laugh. Surely they would have laughed no matter what color the character was. The movie ends with the leading lady riding off into her happily ever after, validated as the fairest of them all (and she’s quite smart and witty too, and skinny).

Everyone seems to have enjoyed the movie, but James wonders how it influenced his kids’ thinking. He finally decides to say, “That was a fun movie. I wonder what would’ve happened if [funny character’s name] had switched places with [main character’s name].’”

James’ kids look at him funny and reply in utter disbelief:

“No way, dad. [funny character’s name] is too stupid and ugly.”

“Yeah [main character’s name] is so smart and like really, really pretty. OMG she’s so awesome.”

Even though “it’s just a movie” James sees that his kids don’t have the critical thinking skills to see it as “just a movie.” He takes this opportunity to help them develop some critical thinking skills, hoping they won’t internalize the latent message that light skin is good and dark skin is bad.

He says, “You know when actors and actresses play in movies, they can play any part. Right now I could pretend to be a stern judge,” and he makes a stern face and pretends to bang a gavel. “Or I can pretend to be a silly clown,” and he does a wobbly dance with a crazy face.

The kids laugh and join in the fun. One of them says, “I can pretend to be Spiderman!” and shoots pretend cobwebs from his upturned wrists.

James is excited that they’re getting it. Now he must relate this to skin color. “So just because someone plays an ugly or stupid character in a movie doesn’t mean they are stupid or ugly. [Funny character’s name] could play the role of the most beautiful princess, or the most successful doctor, or the smartest politician.”

James’ kids still look skeptical, so he keeps it real with them. “When I was your age I thought only light-skinned girls with long hair could be pretty and smart in movies and in real life. But I learned that wasn’t true. Now I see that all skin colors are beautiful. No matter what I see in movies or on TV I know they’re just acting, and [funny character’s name] is just as beautiful and smart in real life as anyone else, including [main character’s name].”

James’ kids take this in. They process it. He lets it go for now, but the seeds of critical thought, acceptance, and appreciation have been planted. He can continue to nurture them as they grow.

3) Give them positive exposure to all skin tones. 

One inspiring mother wrote an article on New Latina titled, “I’m White, My Daughter is Latina, and I Buy Black Dolls” by Chantilly Patiño. She eloquently sates:

“Maybe it’s not a big deal to some, but for a woman who’s raising a daughter of color, it’s important to me!

I’m aware my daughter is Latina…yeah, she’s not black, but I don’t want her to grow up like I did. Not seeing positive images of people of color…including (but not limited to) people who look like her.  If I look back to my childhood, the only positive image I can recall is the Cosby show…and that’s a shame.  I still love that show, but even today…programing like that is hard to come by.

I buy black dolls for my daughter because I want her to understand the value of everyone, regardless of color. I buy black dolls because I know that the media is filled with negative images and it presents a challenge for our kids to grow up feeling good about dark skin.  I buy black dolls because I want to change the norm.”

WOW!!! Go Sister.

Because colorism and racism are so prevalent, we don’t have to try hard at all to find positive exposure to lighter skin tones. So, survey the experiences your child typically has and see if they include enough positive exposure to darker skin tones. If not, I have suggestions for how to create positive exposure to darker skin tones. This is the practical, get it done today, type of thing. You probably know what I’m about to say. I suggest that you share the following things with your kids, depending on their ages, to nurture their acceptance of all skin tones, especially darker skin, since that exposure is more likely to be lacking or negative:

  • picture books with positive images of characters with dark skin
  • chapter books with well developed, dark-skinned characters
  • magazines with images of and articles by people with darker skin
  • festivals that expose them to the heritages of dark-skinned people
  • museum visits that teach them about the history of dark-skinned people
  • outings to locations known to draw diverse groups of people
  • quality time with family and friends of many skin tones, including darker ones
  • dolls with darker shades of skin
  • television shows featuring dark-skinned people in lead roles, or positive and substantial supporting roles
  • movies featuring dark-skinned people in lead roles, or positive and substantial supporting roles

I’m  sure there’s more, but this is what I’ve come up with for now. Feel free to add suggestions in a comment.


*I think colorism is most acute in people’s reactions to babies and young children. Adults are more likely to comment on the relative prettiness or cuteness of children. When colorism is present, dark-skinned children usually aren’t lauded for their beauty, but as they get older, they may be recognized for having grown up to be beautiful women or handsome men.

**Two excellent examples of biased casting of the nature described in James’ story are the movies Coming to America and Guess Who. I remember watching these films, Coming to America as a young child and later Guess Who as a young adult, and feeling physically sick about the blatant colorism in their casting of female characters.

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

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Sister-to-Sister: an Interview on Colorism

Two girls of different skin tones, growing up together as sisters born of the same mother AND father. This is a glimpse into the mind of the lighter skinned sister as she reflects on colorism.

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Describe your home/family and work life.

I have been married for five years and am expecting my first child in March of next year. I am the middle child of three children and grew up in Baton Rouge, LA with my mother. My parents were divorced when I was 11. I currently practice school social work at a high school in southern Louisiana. I am a social worker by profession and a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Work at LSU. I maintain a very busy and active lifestyle between work, LSU, and family. In addition, I assist with the youth group at my church planning activities and teaching bible classes.

Tell us about your earliest memories recognizing or dealing with skin color and colorism. 

I remember a time when my sister was being chased and taunted by a group of white girls at our daycare center, when I was about 8 years old. My older brother and I stopped them through physical restraint. When the day care workers took stock of the incident, they concluded that the version of the story that my brother, sister, and I told could not have been true since there were no “MARKS” on our skin like those on the skin of the white girls. Obviously, the darker our skin the less likely MARKS will show up.

At the same daycare, one of my sister’s Hispanic friends really frustrated me. I was 8 years old and had to teach a cultural competence lesson to this girl all the time because she didn’t understand that I could be the “real” sister of my darker skinned siblings. She kept asking “Why are you white and your sister and brother are black?” Granted the girl was in kindergarten, and I’ve been asked similar questions by adults both black and white, but mainly by other BLACK folks.

“Do you and your brother and sister have the same mom and dad?” “You must be mixed right?”  “Man your brother is black.” My response to this particularly ignorant comment was always “So are you and I.”  On and on, the annoying questions/comments went.

How do you view yourself in terms of skin color now?

My skin color is just a product of my birth. I don’t see myself as any better or worse because of the color that I am. I still grimace when people make comparisons about my sister and brother’s color, as if the shades of black are limited, or that it’s impossible for a great array to exist within one family. I am awesome because I’m me, which includes my skin color, but it’s not BECAUSE of my skin color.

How, if at all, has colorism played a role in your life up to this point?

I have seen elements of bias towards me as discussed above when compared to my sister and brother at daycare or among friends. I have come to be embarrassed at times because of my lighter skin color. What I mean by this is the snobby attitude of some lighter skinned women/girls makes people believe that snobby attitudes are common among lighter skinned women/girls. I am not that way. I am still very angered when someone attempts to tell me that I might be mixed or that I have to have different parents than my darker brother and sister. So I have had many points of frustration from colorism in my life!

As you prepare to be a new mother, do you have thoughts about raising a child with a healthy attitude about skin color?

I will be adamant about my child knowing the difference between ethnicity and skin color. There are very few people whose skin is actually the color BLACK. I will be sure that my child never says “Oh mom, look at him; he’s BLACK” to refer to a dark skinned person. My child will know that he/she is a Black person, and that different shades of BLACK should not define how we treat each other. Perhaps if we teach kids to value the black ethnicity and stop putting value on looks, our ethnic group/race would be in a different position in this country.

On a personal level, what may cause an individual to be biased against dark skin or light skin?

I think a level of insecurity is present when someone demeans another for any reason. This is also the case with skin color. When insecure about our own beauty, we try to cut down the beauty of others because of their skin color.

If someone has a negative image of others because of their skin color, what can they do to change that?

Biases usually stem from ignorance, so knowing others with a particular skin color BETTER can help to ease some of the negative images.

If someone has a negative image of themselves because of their skin color, what can they do to change that?

Examining your own self-worth is often a life long process because people often go through significant changes and stages. Acceptance and appreciation of your own qualities is a start. Rather than spending time on the negative images, one should spend energy using their individual qualities to make a difference in his immediate circumstances/ community.

Jandel Crutchfield

“Live Like You’re Dying”

“Leo ni Leo. Asemaye kesho ni mwongo” ~ E-sir

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

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Colorism: Don’t Fear Your Flame

WARNING! This post may ignite a fire that can’t be extinguished (unless your mind’s already a fireball, in which case this post is completely benign).

But don’t fear the fire! Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” and time has shown that fire is proof of purity (for metals at least, but think metal as metaphor).

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The quickest road to flame starts with two, three-letter words: Why and How. These words have been known to incinerate things founded on fear instead of love, deception instead of truth.

Despite these benefits, many people avoid the fire because they can’t stand the heat or they’re afraid to get burned. You see, the fire doesn’t just consume fear and deception around us, it also consumes fear and deception within us.

As a teacher, I often ask Why and How, trying to get my students to think deeply and critically about what’s presented to them and about their prior assumptions. One assumption that several students have vocalized is that dark skin is a problem or an unfortunate condition that one should avoid when possible. Here’s some of what male and female African-American students of varying shades have actually said to me:

“I wish I was light-skinned like my mama.”

“This picture is ugly. I look black on here.”

“I’m not proud of myself. I got dark over the summer.”

“I’m black. I used to be lighter than this. I used to be as light as… well not you, but…”

“Dee is lighter than Maggie… That means Dee can smash her.”

The fact that they make such comments as though everyone else thinks the way they do, lets me know how ubiquitous colorism is among blacks. Colorism seems as common as blinking and equally unconscious. Which is the problem. Too many are content living unconsciously, living unexamined lives.

So I’ve been thinking. Maybe one remedy to colorism is for individuals to start asking Why and How. I urge all to ask these questions for any situation. (Why am I in an abusive relationship? How do I get out? Why am I unhappy at work? How can I change the trajectory of my life?) Gloria Steinem, the famous feminist, suggests:

“The only practical, permanent solution to poor body image seems to be turning inward to ask: Where did it come from? What subtle or blatant events gave birth to it? What peer pressure nurtured it? What popular images make our real selves seem different or wrong?”

Regarding skin color, we should examine our attitudes regardless of what color we are, regardless of which direction our bias is projected, and regardless of whether or not we feel complicit.

I’ve suggested some questions below. As you read these, remember that IDK (I don’t know) is not an answer for someone genuinely seeking truth. Shrugging your shoulders and reverting back to tasks that are easy for you does not promote life. Instead, keep thinking, searching, or investigating until you find at least a possible answer. I encourage the same persistence in my students.

  1. Why do I have a positive/negative attitude about dark skin?
  2. Why do I have a positive/negative attitude about light skin?
  3. How did my attitude about skin tone develop throughout my life, particularly my childhood?
  4. How has my attitude about skin tone manifested in my words and actions (or the absence of my words and actions)?
  5. Why does my reflection on this issue matter?/ How will understanding my attitude about skin color change things personally or communally?

Of course you’ll have to do the work of making your inquiry personal and specific to your experiences. I hope these questions are in fact only the beginning for you. I hope you take this investigation to a level that matters for your personal growth. I hope you share these questions and your responses with others whom you care about. I care about you, so this is my way of sharing.

Don’t fear your flame. Use it to light another.

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

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Colorism: A Mother-Daughter Interview

For this edition of Colorism, I interviewed my mother. This was eye opening for me because in our face-to-face conversation I learned about details of my childhood that I have no memory of. I hope you enjoy a new voice in this conversation.

Do you consider your self dark-skinned, light-skinned, or neither?

Honestly, I still don’t consider myself a light-skinned African American. I may be a light brown but certainly not light-skinned. I attribute that to where I grew up. There you had a large population of really light-skinned African Americans that sometimes looked more white than black. We called them mulattoes.

What moments in your youth made you most aware of colorism?

I heard on a daily basis comments like, “Girl I don’t like that old black boy” or “That’s why yo momma so black.” It was everywhere. You were aware but just didn’t make a big deal about it. You kept it in, but you thought about it. Lighter skinned girls and guys were always considered cuter and many times smarter. The key is I knew many of them weren’t smarter than I was, so I asked myself how come they get to be selected for this or that.

What do you think were some of the reasons you didn’t make a big deal about it or kept it in even when you were thinking about it?

Because those instances were in my youth, and it was such a part of living that I didn’t think about trying to do something about it back then. Who would you speak out to?

Was there ever a moment in your life that you participated in or agreed with or supported this type of bias? Why or why not?

No, because I knew it wasn’t right. I had dark-skinned people in my family, and I didn’t feel it was a reason to criticize somebody. I never heard my mother speak in those terms with anyone or about anyone. None of my family really spoke that way. I never wished I had lighter skin or that I was white. Part of my youth I did rebel against people thinking that black is ugly because of the generation I grew up in, being a teenager in the 70’s with “black is beautiful” and afros. Perhaps I grew more comfortable as I matured into my teens. Perhaps I wasn’t as empowered as a younger person.

Have you ever dealt with colorism in the process of raising your children? If so, what kinds of situations arose and how did you handle them?

Yes. You see, I have two dark-skinned children and one lighter skinned child. Fortunately for me, they loved each other so much that I never had to deal with this issue in the relationship between them, but definitely from outside. I was asked several times if these were my kids. I would pridefully say, “Yes, indeed these are my babies,” and I would pull them close to me. I knew what people were thinking.

Each of my dark-skinned children had incidents at school where they were called black or charcoaled. My daughter was being called black and charcoaled every day by an African American male child. I thought it was important to let his parents know what he was doing and perhaps make them aware of the need to correct his thinking about his own race. I took my little girl to his house and spoke to the parents. Surprisingly, the mother was very receptive and handled it well. I think that day was an experience all of us will never forget. I know my daughter won’t.

I would constantly let my children know how beautiful they were, and that I wasn’t just saying that to make them feel better. It was true no matter what anyone says, and it was. Especially in the case of my daughter, I recognized and acknowledged her pain. We talked about it; we called it out when we saw it; we didn’t act like it wasn’t happening.

In what ways did your children respond to those situations? How did you observe them grappling with the issue? Did their responses change over time?

It didn’t come up with my male child as much. I don’t think he was as conscious or as affected. I don’t think it crippled them socially or hindered their will to succeed. They definitely didn’t live miserable lives because of it. Sometimes facial expressions when people would make comments let me know that they knew. I also just knew that it exists. They also weren’t afraid to talk about it. My daughter verbalized it.

My daughter was five and had already figured out that people said her sister would be able to attract boys easily because she was lighter skinned. At age five she identified her sister’s lighter skin as the reason they were saying that. I didn’t say to her, “Oh, get over it.” I carried that comment in my mind and did what I could so that she could conquer the world.

Why do you think your daughter was aware of this at such a young age?

Some children have a keener sense. Part of it is that I was a culturally aware mom. I didn’t hide that there are prejudices in the world, so that might have brought it to the forefront. Some people are more conscious and think a lot anyway. She was the kind of girl that always had to know why, and she felt free to ask why and that she had the right to let it be known. I can imagine kids whose parents ignore the problem, and the kids who don’t feel that freedom to express themselves.

To the best of your memory, was that incident when your daughter was five the first time you witnessed colorism in her life, or was it just the first time you witnessed her awareness of it?

It goes back for me when they had to stand up in kindergarten for head counts, and two African American girls stood up to be counted as white. I felt sad about that, that no one told those girls that they were black. Even the teacher, who was white, was embarrassed and not sure how to tell them to sit down. That showed a colorism to me, and it stuck with me. Also when they were younger, again, people often asked if they were mine.

Do you recall times when your light-skinned daughter also showed an awareness of skin color or colorism? If so, how early did you observe her awareness?

She wanted to tan at a young age, maybe since middle school. She was aware because, as with me, people always questioned and made a big deal about her siblings being dark. I will say that I don’t think she ever used her skin color to gain privileges or extra attention.

Did you ever deal with colorism in terms of raising your light-skinned daughter, interventions, conversations, etc.?

No. She was always there in our conversations as a family, so she knew how I felt about culture and equality. We talked about how crazy and bothersome it is to always have to explain that these are her siblings.

family of four

Where do you think colorism comes from, particularly for African Americans?

For African Americans colorism definitely came from a combination of things. The separation of dark-skinned and light-skinned slaves, the overall portrayal of dark-skinned people as negative in the early movies. We learned way back that the closer to white you were the better chance you had to succeed. [Perhaps we should add that chances for success were better because of racism, not because of inherent or biological superiority.] We learned that the closer to white you were the prettier you were considered to be. It was everywhere.

What sort of remedies can you suggest for this issue of colorism either collectively of individually?

Talk about it. Don’t act like it doesn’t exist and has existed for a long, long time. Support magazines and television shows that make an effort to show that there is beauty in all skin tones and are not afraid to showcase dark-skinned women and showcase them in a positive way. Be sensitive to how it impacts our girls at early ages. Every chance I get I purpose to tell a dark-skinned little girl how beautiful she is. I do it because it is true.

With love, from Sarah L. Webb

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