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

What’s in your hand?




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

What’s in your hand?

Roots & Routes: A House in Houston

Since high school I’ve contemplated the location where I’d eventually “settle down.” Back then I thought bigger cities were better, especially big cities not in the South. Now that I’ve traveled to and lived in those big cities with the bright lights, my mindset has changed.

Houston is a big city in the South. Because it’s so close to home and so common to me, I never considered it as big, but Houston is large. It covers 8,778 square miles (larger than some states) and has a population of about 2,257,926. These numbers put Houston as the fourth largest city based on population, but because of it’s land mass, it’s not very dense. Houston, therefore doesn’t feel like other big cities such as NYC or Chicago which have higher density.

This fourth of July I was back on Interstate 10, this time going west to Houston. My cousin recently bought a house there near Pearland (which meant we also took 610 and 288). After spending most of his life in Lafayette, Louisiana his job moved him to Texas. Eventually he and his family settled down in a new home in a suburban neighborhood in Houston.

We also visited friends who lived on the other side of Houston. They relocated from Louisiana and Mississippi when, again, favorable opportunities presented themselves.

The same is true for all the people I’ve met living all over the world. With current technology, it’s easier than ever to get mobile. We move, we migrate, we immigrate, we stay, we travel, we return, we say goodbye, we say hello world! Perhaps what I really longed for in high school was not an escape to one designated locale, but mobility and lateral freedom. Since high school I’ve experienced compulsions for movement geographically, spiritually, and intellectually.

In addition to the fun with family, friends, and fabulous food, in Houston I realized the need to be flexible and open to the myriad opportunities life presents. I no longer plan to settle down, much less predetermine where. My mother says I remind her of the song my dance class performed to, “The Wanderer.” Though I’m not as promiscuous as the voice in the song, I understand where he’s coming from (or going to).  I know I’m not the only one who understands.

Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

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Roots & Routes: Lafayette, Louisiana

What better place to launch an online discussion of roots & routes, than Lafayette, Louisiana???

I was in Lafayette for the past three nights and two days attending a conference sponsored by the LDOE at the Cajun Dome. Why is this significant? Well, I’ll get to the content of the conference in a later post, but for the first time my route to professional development literally took me on the familiar route to my mother’s hometown, part of my roots.

This curiosity about the relationship between where we come from and where we’re headed began when I moved to the Bay Area of California to get my masters at CCA. Able to observe Louisiana and the South from that distance, I had a different scope and saw more of the whole picture. Being so far from such a foundational piece of my identity, I fixated on place, space, connection, threshold, and path both physically and existentially. Courses on relevant topics like Sites and African Diaspora (and here) only fueled the fire, especially readings by Brent Hayes Edwards on the concept of articulation. But this is the brainy twin talking.

For the past couple of days, I just enjoyed sitting in the shade of the porch, having small talk with neighbors, and waving to the folks going by on foot, bike, or car. I liked fixing a plate of salt and spice, a good old rice and gravy dish. Humid nights with mosquito bites. The metallic music of Clifton Chenier, Beau JacqueBuckwheat, and Chris Ardoin. The brown suede of fallen magnolia petals. The aged humor of aunts and the soft cheeks of little cousins.

Still, there were what I call intellectual smiles whenever I’d see French street signs like route de Evangeline.  A route with French roots. In deed, South Louisiana is a place where the culture embodies roots and routes in every syllable. Shall I say, Louisiana articulates roots and routes and gives them a flavorful diction? I shall say that, but more like this: “Aw cher! May dat’s your people, yeah guh.”

What are your roots? What are your routes? What’s in your hand?

Sarah L. Webb