DEAR HARRIETTE: I was working with my colleague the other day on a longtime project. We were chitchatting, and everything was fine until he attempted to say something complimentary, but it really was racist. I know he was trying to be nice to me. I also know that he cares a lot about me, but I feel like I should tell him that what he said was off. He told me that he thought that my skin color and that of another woman were so beautiful, just the right color of brown -- not too dark, not too light.
You may think I'm being too sensitive, but for a white man to comment on gradations of color and give me and this woman high marks for being lighter-skinned is all kinds of wrong. How can I address this without coming off as overly sensitive? I feel like he would appreciate me talking to him about it if I can figure out what to say. -- COLOR SENSITIVE
DEAR COLOR SENSITIVE: In order for us to tackle what are commonly called "microaggressions" around race, we have to find ways to speak openly about small incidents without becoming too heated. It sounds like your colleague truly was trying to say something nice to you. Unfortunately, he stepped into a hornet's nest when he attached a value to a shade of brown.
You can double back to him and say you want to discuss a sensitive matter. Remind him of what he said. Tell him it was fine to say he thought you and the other woman were attractive. What was off was to assign value to your skin tone, especially because you are lighter-skinned.
Historically, light-skinned black people in this country "emerged," so to speak, because of commingling between blacks and whites. In the earliest days of our country, that was often due to rape during slavery. Two distinct groups came to exist during those days. The darker-skinned people typically were given hard labor; the lighter-skinned people (often the children of slaveowners) were given in-house tasks. The division of favor for blacks was often made based on appearance and skin tone.
Obviously, that was generations ago, but there remains a certain unconscious privilege that is afforded to many lighter-skinned black people right now. Your colleague's pointing out your particular beauty based on your lighter tone opened up those wounds of historical discrimination. Educate him. I'm certain he did not mean to be insulting or tone deaf. Use this moment to give him context for your concerns.