DEAR HARRIETTE: My friend recently had twins. They are African-American, and one is much darker than the other. They are both beautiful little girls, but already I hear people saying things about the darker one, like, “She’s cute for a dark girl.” I hate this. I’m not naive. I know that racism runs so deep that people don’t always realize what they are saying, but I worry about these girls and how they will be received as they grow up. What can I do to support them and their family? -- Color Consciousness
DEAR COLOR CONSCIOUSNESS: Sadly, colorism -- which is a form of racism -- runs deep in American society. Worse still is that it’s often reflected as self-hatred. Many black people make those statements about themselves. Historically, there were unwritten rules about color that people followed, like the “paper bag test,” which was used by elite black social clubs to prohibit people whose skin was darker than a paper bag from becoming members. Another “rule” was called “marrying up.” A few generations ago, the goal for blacks who wanted to climb the social ladder was to marry someone who was lighter-skinned or who was wealthy. Deep pockets would allow darker-skinned people a pass.
All of this emerged because of the oppressive nature of racism and the many opportunities that were denied black people. I have touched only the surface of an important history lesson, but I bring it up because this history informs the unconscious comments about those precious twins you mentioned.
While you cannot reverse history or wipe out racially charged behaviors today, you can be supportive of the twins by treating them equally. Your interactions with them should be uplifting and aware. Further, if you hear someone make a pejorative comment, call the person on it. You can ask that person, “What do you mean when you say she’s cute for a dark girl?” Push them. “Do you hear what you are saying?” If the parents are up for the discussion, ask them how you can be supportive. Share your concerns about the things you have heard people say, and get their perspective on how they intend to navigate this path.
Several books have been written about this subject. One you may want to read is "The Color Complex (Revised): The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium" by Kathy Russell-Cole.