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Why We Need to Talk About Colorism

By Maya Fernandez

Maya Fernandez
Maya Fernandez as a toddler. Photo credit: Maya Fernandez

I have always believed I’m Black. Both of my parents are Black, the majority of my immediate family identifies as Black, so essentially, I am Black. While race was a continuous topic of discussion in my household, colorism—discrimination or prejudice based on skin color—was left unattended. Similar to racism, colorism establishes a hierarchy in which lighter skin is treated with higher regard than darker skin. My father, a cultural proficiency consultant, made sure my sisters and I understood how society would see us as black women, but somehow forgot to give us the tools to navigate a world also plagued by colorism. It wasn’t until I stepped outside the comfort of my front door that I was fully able to grasp the concept of colorism.

I am a Black woman of a lighter complexion who is now very aware of my status and privilege as someone with a lighter skin tone. Though my own parents refrained from talking about skin-color bias, relatives and other adults of different races were quick to tell me that I was beautiful because my skin was light. During simple activities such as going grocery shopping with my mother, a woman at the checkout counter would often tell me how beautiful I was with my light skin and light brown hair. What felt like a harmless compliment at the time soon became a reoccurring experience, and the repeated message was that light skin is synonymous with beauty.

As a child, I didn’t understand that this was colorism. Both of my parents are also of a light brown complexion, as well as my middle sister. But my oldest sister is much darker than all of us. We were considered to be a blended family, comprised of two daughters from a previous marriage and me as the product of this unconventional family. I assumed we didn’t discuss skin-color bias in my family, because my parents believed we would understand that people, specifically Black people, come in varying shades, as proven by our own immediate family.

I soon learned in my daily experiences how having a lighter complexion provided me with certain privileges and preferential treatment that would not be afforded to my darker peers. Prior to entering high school, I spent the majority of my life as the only black girl in the room, so I wasn’t able to compare my experiences with other black students. By the age of fourteen, I was instantly aware of how differently I was treated in comparison to my darker friends. White students would tell me I was “less threatening” than the other black girls in school because I wasn’t like a real black person. They were excited to tell me that they liked to be around me because they forgot I was black.  And other Black people told me I was beautiful because I was light. Meanwhile, my darker friends were told, “You’re pretty, but I don’t date dark skin girls.”

Along with these privileges I was forced to understand that my blackness would be a constant topic for debate. Regardless of the fact that I view myself as black, others may not. “What are you?” and similar inquiries about my ethnic and racial makeup are questions I am very familiar with. The question is often phrased in a positive tone, as if I should feel special to present with some form of racial ambiguity. Once again, language coded in the idea that being less black, or less of color, is better. But for me, the question is rooted in an invalidation of my identity as a Black woman. The feeling of others questioning and scrutinizing your identity is something I continue to find difficult to articulate.

Same Family Different ColorsJournalist Lori Tharps explores how colorism affects family dynamics and society in her book Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families. When I read her book, I found myself repeatedly thinking, “I’m reading my own story.” My experiences with colorism were scattered throughout the different stories of Tharps’ diverse interview subjects. I particularly identified with the section about the isolation of light-skin. Tharps interviews people with light skin who describe their experiences struggling to fully connect with other Black people and also feeling out of place within White settings. As a teen, this was often my reality, as White and Black classmates told me that I wasn’t black enough. I resented my privilege of having light skin and began to seek out validation for my Blackness. Tharps acknowledges this common internalization of colorism within the story of Lisa, a woman who grew up struggling to find validity in her light skin tone. I found myself nodding along as Lisa described her desire to be darker to prove her Blackness. As I continued reading, I understood the families who discussed the difficulty for people to believe their relation when they are of different skin colors, relating it back to my own experiences with my sister. I connected to the countless people who discussed how hard it is to feel confident in your self-identity when others force you to question it. I became engrossed in the stories of people who found themselves victimized by the color hierarchy and denied opportunities because of their dark skin.

Tharps’ book not only validated my experiences, but also provided me with tools to properly speak about skin-color bias. Same Family, Different Colors identifies how a lack of overt discussion regarding colorism is common in many households where racism is often considered to be a central issue. Similar to many of the people interviewed in Tharps’ book, I was puzzled as to why my parents never discussed colorism at home, and furthermore, why I never thought to bring it up. The book prompted me to start conversations about colorism with my parents. My mother told me that her father, a dark skinned Black man, specifically married her mother because he wanted to pass on her light skin to his children. My father told me that in college he insisted on dying his hair black so that people would see him as a “real Black man,” but instead was mistaken for being Latinx. My mother expressed her resistance to discuss color with my sisters and me, because she wanted us to understand that we were equal, regardless of complexion. She didn’t want color to become an issue by bringing it up. Instead, she, like many of the other people interviewed in Tharps’ book, thought that by abstaining from talking about color we would be able to focus on the universal issue we would all face: racism. The absence of discussion was affective until I exited the confines of my family.

Tharps addresses the fact that these discussions need to be had alongside conversations of race, and that is so important. Her book prompts readers to understand that conversations about colorism are crucial as skin color continues to be a deciding factor of how we are perceived and judged by others. Her exploration of colorism with in Black, Latinx, Asian, mixed-race, and White families confirms that regardless of racial category, light skin is still seen as superior, and this hierarchy is not going away anytime soon. Remaining silent about colorism does not help to end this hierarchy, but rather allows it to continue to exist without addressing the issue. By starting conversations about color at home we can begin to identify and deconstruct colorism from childhood onward.


About the Author 

Maya Fernandez, Assistant to the Director, recently joined Beacon Press after graduating from American University in 2016.