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Building Up Our Brown Skin Girls: Why We Should Talk To Our Black Girls About Colorism

This article is part of the “Raising Resilient Kids” series – a partnership with the RESilience Initiative of the American Psychological Association. Each article features science-informed tips and resources for African American parents on how to build resilience in our kids.

How do you feel when you read these quotes, especially if you are a Black woman? All of these quotes above, I have heard or seen at one point or another – from family, friends, and on social media.

“A study conducted with African American college students found that perceptions of their skin tones were tied to perceptions of their families’ ideal skin tone.”

What is Colorism?

There’s a debate within the Black community of light skin versus dark skin, good hair versus bad hair. These debates stem from a long history of colorism within our community. Colorism is the discrimination against darker-skinned individuals or treating lighter-skinned individuals preferentially over their darker-skinned counterparts. Colorism, while not unique to Black people in the United States, can be traced back to slavery, in which light-skinned slaves worked in the house, and were given preferential treatment, and dark-skinned slaves worked in the fields. Researchers hypothesized that when Black people receive differential treatment based on skin tone, they may begin to internalize society’s views and treatment, leading to the divide we see today within the Black community.

It’s Generational

These internalized views can be generational, in which older generations, having seen the positive treatment of lighter-skinned individuals in society, place a higher value on these attributes, and then pass these views on to their childrenii. A study conducted with African American college students found that perceptions of their skin tones were tied to perceptions of their families’ ideal skin toneii. Most Black children develop views on skin tone from verbal and nonverbal cues from their family membersiii.  This is why parents and caregivers need to be aware of their own internalized views about skin tone and hair texture because their views can inadvertently affect their children’s development of a positive racial identity and self-concept.

Colorism and Black Girls

Colorism particularly affects Black girls. This is not to say that Black boys are not impacted by colorism, because they are; however, Black girls exist within a unique intersection of gender and race. According to Okazawa-Rey, a Black woman’s self-concept is linked to her internalization of society’s views of attributes that are considered attractive and unattractive for a Black womaniii. This intersection has had and continues to have a profound impact on Black girls’ identity development and self-esteem due to ideas of beauty being tied to skin tone and Eurocentric featuresi. For example, throughout history, Black women have straightened their hair using hot combs, flat irons, and relaxers, to make their hair more “manageable” or “presentable,” which can be damaging to our hair. Instead, we should be teaching our girls that it is okay to straighten their hair sometimes, but it is also okay to embrace their natural texture because that is “presentable” too.

These internalized views can become salient during adolescence, in which Black girls’ self-esteem and self-concept are tied to how they view themselves in comparison to their peers and what they see on social media (e.g., Instagram models). This can be detrimental to identity development if all that is depicted on social media is one type of beauty ideal, where a Black girl is not seeing positive representations of women that she can relate to. Adolescence is also a time in which relationships, especially romantic ones, become more important and can affect how Black girls view themselvesiv. In the same study mentioned above, researchers also found that most of the Black women in the study believed that Black men prefer lighter-skinned Black womenii, and although results of this study proved their beliefs to be untrue, we still see the same beliefs spread in conversations on social media.

A conversation between a mother and daughter:

Below is a video clip of celebrity, Erika Campbell and her 15-year-old daughter, Krista, from their reality TV show, We’re The Campbells. In this video, colorism and other relatable issues come up in their conversation, which leaves Erika grappling with how to answer her daughter’s questions. This video can be a good one to watch with your daughter to spark conversations about skin shades and beauty.

Key quotes from the conversation to focus on:

Krista Campbell:

“Am I ugly?”

“A lot of the boys only like light skin girls.”

“You don’t know how it feels because you’re light skin.”

Erika Campbell:

“Why would she ask me that?”

“All these things you want to have answers to… What to do? What to tell her?… And I don’t.”

What can you do?

As a parent or caregiver, how would you respond to a young Black girl in your care if she told you she was feeling this way? Do you know?… Erika Campbell didn’t. Erika Campbell’s response and thoughts most likely represent what a lot of mothers would be thinking in this situation. To be better prepared and to have open and honest conversations with their daughters, parents must engage in a process called racial and ethnic socialization (RES).

This can include:

  • Talking to your girls about race and ethnicity, about the value of their skin tone and hair texture, and about finding their own features beautiful;
  • Discussing and highlighting positive and influential women of color who look like them in the media;
  • Watching movies and shows with women of color who young Black girls can relate to;
  • Listening and singing along to music that praises their skin tone and features – Beyoncé’s recent hit, Brown Skin Girl is an excellent choice!
  • Reading them books that praise and discuss natural hair and the range of Black skin tones. The depth and breadth of books that have been made available to Black girls, in recent years, about loving their hair and skin tone has been incredible. Books such as: “I’m a Pretty Little Black Girl!” by Betty K. Bynum, “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History” by Vashti Harrison, and “I Love My Hair!” by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley. To see more options, visit. www.apa.org/res.
  • Acknowledging the beauty of your daughter and other Black women of different shades.

It is important to have these conversations with young Black girls before they reach adolescence so that they do not begin to hold themselves to these Eurocentric beauty standards. Instead, we need to empower our girls and build their resilience against racism and colorism, so that they can develop positive self-concepts, racial identity and appreciate their own true beauty.

Shaakira Parker, MPH

Shaakira Parker is currently a consultant in the American Psychological Association’s Children, Youth, and Families Office. She recently graduated with a master’s degree in public health from The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and has a bachelor’s degree in child development from Vanderbilt University. For her culminating experience, she conducted a systematic review examining best practices of community re-entry programs in the United States and whether they are meeting the physical, mental, and behavioral health needs of recently incarcerated youth. Her areas of interests include mental/behavioral health disparities for underserved and vulnerable populations, the social determinants of health, and systems impacting children, youth, and families. In the future, Shaakira plans to pursue a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

References:

Norwood, K. J. (2015) “If You Is White, You’s Alright. . .” Stories About Colorism in America. Wash. U. Global Stud. L. Rev. 585.

Coard, S. I., Breland, A. M., & Raskin, P. (2001). Perceptions of and preferences for skin color, Black racial identity, and self-esteem among African Americans. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31(11), 2256-2274. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2001.tb00174.x. http://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_globalstudies/vol14/iss4/8.

Breland, A. M., Coleman, H. L. K., Coard, S. I., & Steward, R. J. (2002). Differences among African American Junior High School Students: The Effects of Skin Tone on Ethnic Identity, Self-Esteem and Cross-Cultural Behavior, Dimensions of Counseling, 30(1), 15-21. doi:10.22237/mijoc/1012521780.

Thomas, S. I. (2006). African American adolescent females: An Investigation of Racial Identity, Skin Color, and Self- Concept During Adolescent Development. Kent State University.

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Successful Black Parenting is proud to announce that we are bringing our readers more researched-based content written by the members of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) RESilience Initiative, which provides resources to parents and caregivers for promoting the strength, health, and well-being of children and youth of color. We will also feature their members who have contributed articles to Successful Black Parenting on our BackTalk podcast. Learn more about the RESilience Initiative at www.apa.org/res.

THE AMERICAN PSYCHOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION'S (APA) RESilience Initiative