Sense & Sensitivity by Harriette Cole

Well-Intentioned Remark Was Actually Racist

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.

DEAR HARRIETTE: My daughter wants me to buy her ice cream or other sweets every day in the summer. I remember when the ice cream truck used to come to my neighborhood when I was a kid. I get that this can be a treat, but I worry about allowing my daughter to consume so much sugar. She is already a bit overweight. I don't want to promote poor eating habits. How can I handle this without making her feel left out of what the other kids are doing? -- FEWER SWEETS

DEAR FEWER SWEETS: Stock your freezer with low-sugar, low-fat sweets that are healthier. Let her know the selection that she can choose from. Steer her away from the ice cream truck or shaved ice stand. Create boundaries around what is acceptable and help her to adhere to them.

(Harriette Cole is a lifestylist and founder of DREAMLEAPERS, an initiative to help people access and activate their dreams. You can send questions to askharriette@harriettecole.com or c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)