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.

Visit the new site ColorismHealing.org

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.

NOTES:

*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

Visit ColorismHealing.org

 

 

For Single Moms: Tips Janice

Success Story

That S word—sacrifice. I believe I was a successful single parent because I realized that in order for my children to succeed, I would have to make sacrifices. I would not be able to have my cake and eat it to, and that was alright with me. My children didn’t ask to come into the world, didn’t ask to be in that situation, so I had to make sure their chances for success were as good as any. Why do I consider myself a successful single parent? It’s mainly because my children have grown up to be humble, kind, generous, hardworking, and God fearing children. Yes they have had to deal with negative situations in their lives, but they never used coming from a single parent home as an excuse. Instead, being in that situation made them try harder. They were determined to be positive examples of individuals raised by a single mom.

Alternative Views

Merely being present doesn’t make you a good parent. It’s not how many parents; it’s who the parents are. I believe that a single parent can raise children that are as successful as children from a two parent home. I also believe that a single mom can raise a boy to be a strong man. In order to do this, a single mother must be an example of hard work, kindness, love, honesty, humbleness, and obedience to God. We underestimate God’s power in being able to make him the man God wants him to be.

Timely Tips For Single Moms

  • Don’t try to be your children’s friend. Be their parent. If you are their parent when they need you to be, they will be your friend in the end.
  • You and children decide how you’re going to run your household, not society. Do what makes life simple for you and helps you to survive.
  • Talk to your children every day. Be honest about your situation. Children look at your reaction to situations and determine how they should react.
  • Mothers, don’t be consumed with finding a man. In my opinion, this is a major factor in the success of female headed households. That energy spent searching for a mate can be used to nurture your children. It also sends a message to children that they are not #1.
  • Participate in as many of your children’s activities as possible. Celebrate all victories, big and small.
  • Use your human resources (uncles, aunts, grandparents, and friends) as mentors, counselors, etc.
  • Have family meetings. Sit at the Table of Life. My children and I rarely sat at the kitchen or dining room table. We had a meeting of the minds, not the physical body. Have an agenda, take notes, etc..

Peace and Love, Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

For Single Moms: In Search of Alternative Narratives

S. L. Writes has embarked on a new series, this time on Single Parenting. I aim to break down the “broken” home stigma and build up the credibility and credence of single-parent households. I want to offer encouragement and empowerment for single moms in particular, but for single dads too.

Nothing inspires this first post more than my longstanding weariness with the stories (narratives) about single moms leading to the demise of society. I tired of the same old bedtime fairytales that drowned out the true story that I lived and the true stories I witnessed others living every day. I always asked, as recently as this month, Where are all the stories about successful single moms? Where’s all the research and study about how single moms can achieve success? These narratives are much harder to find than the slanderous propaganda of Moynihan-esque tale-tellers.

I suppose we’ll have to tell our own stories.

“And so I tell myself my life.” ~ Nietzsche

I actually wanted to call this post “Alternarrative,” a word synthesized from alternative and narrative that looks and sounds like alternative. I thought it was clever, but that might be the geek in me. I googled the word and realized I wasn’t so original either. There’s actually a blog named “alternarrative: we are what we tell,” on which I spotted the Nietzsche quote.

To present an alternative narrative (sometimes called a counter-narrative), I must establish the mainstream narrative that I oppose. How do I accomplish this without giving the mainstream narrative yet another space to contaminate?  We’ll see if it’s possible.

Mainstream Narrative that has Infected the Attitudes of Many People:

Single-parent families are toxic to society because they drain public resources through welfare, create teenage parents who suck up more resources, produce juvenile delinquents who endanger society and suck up more resources when they’re thrown in jail, and result in masculine women and effeminate men, which causes further breakdown of the traditional nuclear-family pattern and sustains the cycle of poverty and brokenness.

In “How to be the Best Single Parent You Can,” Shellee Moore explains one the emotional effects of the mainstream narrative and suggests a response to the narrative.

“Broken home.” This is a derogatory label that causes much pain and misunderstanding. Too often, children living in single parent households have to contend with negative stereotypes and hurtful remarks made by insensitive adults…. As adults – teachers, coaches, neighbors, family, and friends, we can change our attitude, be more sensitive and compassionate, and recognize that SINGLE PARENTS RAISE GOOD KIDS TOO!

Moore

Let me brag for a sec by saying I am one of those “good kids.” I’m not bragging on myself, but I’m bragging on my mother who raised three children as a single mom (two girls and one boy). Nothing in the mainstream narrative reflects our experience…nothing.

It’s time to offer families other alternatives to “doom and gloom.”

For anyone in search of alternative narratives, I offer my life and the lives of those I know. I don’t know how many blog posts it’s going to take to transcribe the epic that has been brewing in my spirit for the past two decades (I don’t like to go over 800 words a post) but I’m in it for the long hall. I hope you’ll visit often and recount your own stories, offer advice and tips, or just ruminate.

Love, Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

Can a Poet Raise a Boy to be a Man?

Here’s poetic inspiration for single moms. Nikki Giovanni, famous writer and single mother, raised a son who grew up to be a man. Thomas Watson Giovanni graduated Magna Cum Laude from Morehouse College and Georgetown Law Center, and currently works as a lawyer in New York. Though his occupation doesn’t prove he’s a “man” in every sense of the term, his accomplishments exceed what many people expect from the child of a poet who happens to be a single mother. Admittedly, Nikki Giovanni’s relative fame afforded her opportunities that many less famous poets and single mothers don’t have; however, the most likely roots of Nikki’s parenting success are her connection with family and friends, her wisdom, and her stubbornness.

Nikki Giovanni candidly writes about her family life, and it’s apparent how close they are. In her essay “Don’t Have a Baby till You Read This,” Nikki talks about going into labor and giving birth while visiting her parents in Cincinnati. She originally thought she was having a girl and wanted to name the baby after her grandmother, which shows that she values a family legacy. Nikki describes one scene when the family discusses the baby’s name (Gary is her older sister):

“You know how group oriented Gary is. So she called everyone and said, ‘We have to name Nikki’s baby.”

Nikki’s family didn’t just offer to help name the child. They also offered to help take care of it. Everyone from her little nephew who told her, “If you have a boy I can give him all my clothes and teach him how to swim and give him my football helmet,” to her sister and parents who selfishly wanted her to rest so they could take care of the newborn baby.

Strong relationships with family and friends is not a privilege reserved for famous writers. Anyone can have it, and single parents need it. Not just for the practical things like babysitting, but simply for the emotional support. In Nikki’s words:

“Then I had to admit that they still loved me and that did make it a lot better. Or harder. But anyway, I needed a lot of love and that’s what I knew.”

I can dig all the love, but family couldn’t be the only reason Nikki Giovanni raised a successful son. I mean, it ain’t like they lived around the corner. Nikki lived hours away in New York. But being Nikki, she could always use her wisdom (which she probably got most from her family life). Nikki might not call it wisdom. She says in an interview with Jill Scott,

“The collection really shows my growth, my understanding, I don’t want to say wisdom because I am not trying to be some sort of Buddha, but I’ve learned so much and I want my work to show that.”

The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni

While her writing shows how much she’s learned over time, her perspective on raising her son attests to her practical application of what she’s learned. In an interview from The History Makers Nikki Giovanni explains important decisions she made as a parent:

“I said, ‘You don’t have a right to privacy. You have a right to your own apartment, in which case, when it’s your apartment, I’m not going to come in there, but as long as you’re living in my house…. Because like all parents I worried about drugs. So I said, ‘Don’t have anything in your drawers that you don’t want me to see….’ And I signed a permission when he went to junior high that the principal could open his locker without any forewarning.”

“People sometimes say, ‘You made Thomas go to law school.’ I said, ‘No, I made Thomas go to the Army because I knew he would hate it.’ And I knew in the hating of it—because you know, you know your child. I knew that in the hating he would begin to focus.”

“I think people make a mistake leaving the kids at home…. If you start to take them young enough, they learn to behave because it’s something that they get used to.”

“What we learned is that no matter how young you are, when we expose you to things you retain something. And so, I took [Thomas] around the world with me so that he could somehow have a memory of knowing that the world belongs to him, so that he lives with no boundaries.”

Most single parents, especially mothers, don’t have the funds or time to travel around the world with their child, but I think the lesson is to expose children to things beyond their world. It doesn’t have to be a major cultural event. My mother took us to weddings, to funerals, to her job, to visit her friends in the hospital or in their homes, to the store, to run business errands, and we learned so much about how to act and interact from being in those various settings. Of course the museums, plays, libraries, historical sites, and festivals all count too, but it doesn’t always have to be a big hurrah.

Tons of folks gasp at the idea of children not having privacy, but Nikki doesn’t care what people think. She’s stubborn. If stubborn sounds too negative for you, try insistent. I think this factor is just as important as family bond and wisdom because you must consistently insist that your children follow your guidance and be their best. Nikki expresses this kind of insistence in The History Makers interview:

“So then what am I supposed to do? Just watch him piss his life away? I don’t think so. I didn’t want that.”

Nikki Giovanni insisted that her son become a man. She had frank conversations with him and gave him ultimatums when he tried to waste his time on her dime. Thomas wanted to spend a few years “finding himself.” Nikki said something to the effect of, “I didn’t know you had lost yourself. You can’t find something that isn’t lost.” She wanted him to go to college because, as she put it, a Black man needed skills. His other options were to support himself or go to the Army. Hence his going to the Army, hating the Army, then going to college and law school.

The History Makers interview brought to light another aspect of Nikki’s stubbornness that more single mothers need. When prompted about the stigma attached to unwed mothers, Nikki Giovanni responds:

“I never looked at myself through anybody’s eyes…. So anybody that didn’t have anything positive to say about my expecting the baby, I knew they weren’t a friend.”

Fearless! NO Shame! Life on HER terms! DELETING the Haters!

I know I won’t change most of society’s perception of single parents, particularly single mothers, but if I could just get single mothers themselves and their children to stop buying into the stigmas of female headed households, I’ll be at peace. It won’t be all, but some? Can I get some?

I truly believe that more than the absence of a father, the mother’s attitude about her situation determines the outcome for her children.

Whether you agree or disagree with Nikki Giovanni’s approach, it seems to have worked for her and her son.


Peace and Love, Sarah L. Webb

What’s in your hand?

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