My husband is half Colombian and half Irish, and since he was born, he has shocked nearly everyone he met with his red hair and white skin. From the moment he was put in his bassinet in the hospital, nurses tried to take him away from his Colombian mother, convinced that he had been switched with another child. As he grew older, his mother was often mistaken for hired help and he would see first hand how disrespectfully people treated her versus him, based only on the color of their skin.
When you think of a Latinx person, what comes to mind? One of the biggest misconceptions about Latinos is that we all have brown skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. But the reality is that Latinx people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. But unfortunately in our community (like some other ethnic groups), we have a big problem with colorism.
What is Colorism?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Colorism is the practice or prejudice often within racial or ethnic groups that treats those with lighter skin more favorably than those with darker skin.
From the first day I met my husband, he was vocal about how hard it was for people to believe he was Latino. They immediately saw his light features and allowed him to racially pass as white even though he was multiracial. While this was a bit of a party trick for him, it also deeply hurt him and made him feel different from the rest of his family.
The idea that whiteness held such power, even between loved ones, made me so uncomfortable. So when he shared that it was common for a grandmother, aunt, or cousin to look not only at their own skin but also their family members’ in less favorable ways if they were darker, I was a little shocked. I wondered why they couldn’t see how beautiful they were. But this prejudice was so ingrained that some people would try to lighten their complexion with creams and go out of their way to stay out of the sun.
My Experience with Colorism
I was adopted from Colombia by a white European family that, for the most part, didn’t address race or color (unless we were comparing tans in the summertime). My parents taught me that we shouldn’t “see” color. But by the time I was a teenager, I started to notice how differently I was treated by store clerks and other strangers, especially in the summer months when my skin was darker. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain how it affected me.
By the time my husband and I had our two children, I had grown used to little comments here and there. But it wasn’t until I heard several relatives say how wonderful it was that our oldest child was light-skinned like his father with hazel eyes and then fixated on how our youngest was darker like me that I realized how important it was for us to stand up to colorism in our own family.
While my husband and I didn’t care if our sons were light or dark, we knew the way they were treated by family members would have an impact—we just didn’t realize it would happen from such a young age. Little comments and nicknames may have seemed cute in the moment, but when the comments were comparing two children, suggesting one is more desirable, I knew it could be very detrimental.
I couldn’t help but think back to how my husband’s grandmother was elated when she found out how light he was. And I wondered how it would affect my children, as they were continuously judged by how they looked. I was stuck in a limbo of wanting our family to recognize their culture but only wanting to celebrate and embrace the healthy parts, not the intergenerational and discriminatory experiences that could negatively affect their self-image.
How to Cope with Colorism in Your Family
If you’re experiencing something similar in your family, here are a few ways to handle it.
If you notice a family member making comments that don’t sit right with you, don’t be afraid to speak up and tell them that that is not an appropriate conversation. You can tell them that they have the right to their opinion, but you also have the right to not bring your family around while they share views that can harm them. If a “joke” is being used to disguise hatred, be sure to let them know that it is not funny and that every skin color is beautiful.
Bring Joy When Possible
One of the best ways that we can combat colorism in our families is by bringing joy and celebration to the little ones in our lives. Tell your sons, daughters, and cousins how beautiful their melanin is. Rejoice in every hair texture. And provide toys, books, and movies that help them see their strength and beauty because representation matters.
Everyone has internalized bias to some degree, but to help break this cycle, we need to be aware and work to be better. Make sure you are educating your children about the prejudice they may or may not experience. Reinforce how they can keep their minds and bodies safe and that it is OK to separate themselves from an interaction with a loved one whose words or actions are hurting them. You can also share age-appropriate stories of experiences you had, how you felt, and what you wished would have happened differently.