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The Subtle “Cousin to Racism”: Colorism Exposed in America’s Diverse Families

A Q&A with Lori L. Tharps

Same Family Different Colors
Colorism is the preference for and presumed superiority of people based on the color of their skin. While the phenomenon is pervasive, rarely is it openly discussed. In fact, the word ‘colorism’ doesn’t even exist in the dictionary. How do we begin to talk about how this prejudicial and preferential treatment affects our families? Journalist and author Lori L. Tharps has written a groundbreaking book on the subject to start the conversation.

Released on October 4, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families weaves together personal stories from African American, Latino, Asian American, and mixed-race families with historical overview and analysis to explore our country’s legacy of skin-color politics. Tharps also includes her own story of raising three biracial children whose skin tones differ from hers. We caught up with her to ask how colorism manifests itself in different ethnic communities and what we can do to dismantle it.

Beacon Press: How do we begin to tear down colorism without erasing the rich heritage and history of an individual?

Lori L. Tharps: The answer to eradicating colorism is not colorblindness. What we need to do as a society is learn to appreciate the great diversity of human skin colors. It’s that easy and that hard. We love different colored flowers and different colored candies—why can’t we love different colored skin in the same way? Different just means different, not better or worse.

BP: How does the Asian-American community’s response to discussing colorism or “skin-color politics” differ from other communities?

LLT: From my research, Asian Americans don’t have a lot of experience or comfort discussing “race.” Race talk is an American habit. Because colorism sounds a lot like racism, many Asian Americans I spoke with bristled at the notion that they were implicated in this particular conversation. That being said, when the conversation was focused on beauty and beauty rituals, then a conversation could be had about the desirability of pale skin.

BP: How do you see the concept of mejoranado la raza (improving the race) manifesting in Latin American culture today? 

LLT: From my personal and admittedly limited research experience, this concept of improving the race by marrying or procreating with someone who has a lighter skin tone is still very much a part of Latino culture today. There is still very strong anti-Black sentiment in many Latino communities. That being said, there is also a growing activist push-back to that age-old belief that light skin and “pelo bueno” are the ultimate prize. So while mejorando la raza is still firmly entrenched in the community there are lights of resistance shining through.

Same Family Different ColorsBP: Why do you think that some Black people born into interracial families feel that being very light-skinned is like getting “the losing end of the stick?”

LLT: If a person is raised in a Black community or Black family but they don’t present as Black because of their skin tone, it can feel extremely isolating. To feel one way on the inside but to be perceived as the opposite by society, is very damaging to one’s identity formation. Most people just want to belong to a tribe, without questions or explanations.

BP: From your research, which comments did you find to be more damaging to individuals, the colorist comments expressed by society or the ones that come from the home? Why?

LLT: I think the comments from the family do the most damage, even if they aren’t meant to hurt, because the home is supposed to be the safe space and the home is where most people receive their first identity cues. If parents and family elders do a good job building up a child’s identity, whether that’s racial, gender, or sexual identity, then they will be well equipped to deflect any negative jabs society throws their way.

BP: In the book, one of your interviewees, Susie, remarks that there are a great many companies making money on “creating a hierarchy of skin color.” Do you think that colorism will ever go away as long as companies and other institutions have something to gain from it?

LLT: I think so. Look at the natural hair movement. When Black women started wearing their hair naturally, they stopped using chemical relaxers. The relaxer industry didn’t have to go away first. But that industry is now rapidly shrinking. We have the power to shut that industry down if we can get the message out that dark is lovely.  

BP: How does colorism differently affect the genders?

LLT: For many women colorism is a beauty issue, whereas for men colorism is way more nuanced. Still, for both men and women it is absolutely an identity issue. But it’s so much more than that. Statistics show that light skin individuals from every ethnic group make more money, have better mental health, access to better resources and live in better neighborhoods than darker hued individuals. We have to be clear that defeating colorism is a civil rights issue not a beauty issue, for anybody.


About the Author 

Lori TharpsLori L. Tharps is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University and the coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America and Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain. Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Glamour and Essence magazines. She lives in Philadelphia with her family. Follow her on Twitter at @LoriTharps and visit her website.