Complexion Chronicles: Getting to the Root of Colorism in Diverse Families

When Lori Tharps, an African American writer, became the mother of Mixed-race children, she was challenged in ways that not only surprised her, but led her to write the book, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families. (Available on Amazon and published by Beacon Press.)

This book, called “ground-breaking and urgent,” shines a light on and ultimately seeks solutions to colorism and identity politics in Multiracial families. Lori, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University, is the coauthor of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, and Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain, lives in Philadelphia with her family.

Q: What made you write Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families?

A: My Mixed-Race son was born light. From the moment he entered this world with light skin and straight black hair, my relationship with him was questioned. Most often people thought I was his nanny instead of his mother. By the time my son was two however, his skin had darkened and his hair got kinky, so many of the questions and stares stopped. But then I had another child, another boy. He too was born light, but he never “ripened up” like his brother. Thus, I now was the mother of two boys, one dark, one light and the world would never let me forget it.

As a writer, I am always inspired by the world around me. The process of being a mother to children of different hues (I now have three kids) is challenging in ways I never expected and I soon realized that this particular challenge was being experienced by many others besides me. So, Same Family, Different Colors Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families came from a yearning to connect and understand how families in the United States – families like mine – navigate color differences and skin color politics in a race obsessed world.

Q: What did you want to accomplish by writing about this topic?

A: I wanted to start a conversation about colorism and skin color politics across cultures. I wanted to give people a vehicle to open up about this taboo topic. I wanted people to know that colorism is not a “Black thing.” And I wanted to offer some hope and context to these issues. I think if people know that others struggle with colorism, they won’t feel so alone. I also think that if people understand that privileging whiteness is a form of oppression, not just beauty talk, then we might be able to have some real conversations about just how serious this issue is.

Q: What role has colorism played in your life?

A; I can honestly say as a medium-brown Black person who grew up in very White environments, I never even knew colorism existed until I was in my twenties. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of an obvious bias towards light skin, but to my knowledge, colorism hasn’t been a major part in my life. As a mother to two boys with different hues of skin, however, I am aware that they will be assessed differently by society simply because of the way they look.

Q: What has made you so passionate about this topic?

A: Because it’s personal. These issues affect me. Plus, in my opinion, colorism, is just so stupid. It’s based on zero scientific evidence and color perception is so subjective. When you break it down, discriminating against somebody because they have one percent less melanin the next guy? It’s just so foolish. And I can’t stand foolishness!

Q: Who did you write this book for?

A: The audience for this book is anybody who sees color. So, that pretty much means everybody. Seriously. Before I started writing, I thought White Americans might not have any context for understanding skin color politics, but I was so wrong. White people come in just as many shades as people of color. They understand discrimination based on skin tone. Just ask some olive-toned White folks.

Q: Why did you focus on how this topic impacts families?
A: I specifically chose to write about colorism in the context of the nuclear family so that the stories would be accessible to everyone, even if they themselves haven’t personally experienced colorism. People understand family dynamics, so using the family as a microcosm of society, I believe, makes this concept pertinent to a wide range of people.

Q: What makes this topic so important for Multiracial families?

A: Because we are the most colorful families out there! Plus, the range of genes in our genetic make-up means we never know what our kids are going to look like. It’s literally a crap shoot when two people from different ethnic backgrounds have kids. We need to be ready to normalize difference from the start so our children recognize that their colorful families are normal.

Q: What is it that most Multiracial families don’t understand about colorism?

A: I think most people forget about science when they’re planning a family. I know I did. Even though my husband is a pale Spaniard, I just assumed our children would all be brown-ish with curly hair. That’s not what I got. At all. Humans are hard-wired to assume our offspring are going to be mini versions of ourselves, both physically and mentally. So, when that doesn’t happen, which is so often the case in interracial families, moms and dads really have to figure out how to parent a kid who “racially” might not look like them. And that is really hard. If you are a proud Black woman and your daughter looks White, what identity lessons do you teach? If you are an Asian man and your son looks Black, what lessons do you teach him about who he is? We don’t prepare for this, but we really should.

Q: In conducting the research and interviews, what did you learn that surprised you most?

A: First and foremost, I just learned so much! I have a much deeper understanding of the insidious and global nature of colorism. I understand its history and why and how it continues to penetrate our perceptions of power. I also learned that people, from every ethnic background struggle with the same issues of dismantling a skin-color hierarchy, not just Black people.

Q: What did you learn that impacted the way you interact with your family?

A: Previously, I thought it best not to highlight the fact that my kids were three different colors. I didn’t know that it was my job to normalize difference. Now we talk about those differences a lot more often. And the world didn’t end.

Q: Is there a difference in the way that White people and People of Color understand and process colorism?

A: I really don’t think there is a difference in how White vs POC process colorism. I think the difference is between those who have been the victims of colorism and those who have not.

Q: What do you want readers to take away from the book?
A: I hope people read Same Family, Different Colors and realize that colorism is the dumbest thing in the world. I hope they read this book and realize how damaging it is that we prioritize light skin over dark. Like truly damaging. I hope they realize that light skin is not a prize. I hope they realize that we all have an implicit bias towards lighter or darker skin tones and we need to recognize and admit it. Most of all, I hope they read this book and then share it with someone else and start all kinds of conversations about skin color politics. We need to keep talking about it until we solve the problem.

Q: What is the one thing you want the world to know and remember about colorism?

A: Like racism, colorism is an invented concept used to oppress those of a darker hue. Even darker-hued Whites suffer from colorist thinking. It’s such an arbitrary way to divide and judge people with absolutely no basis in fact. We should just be smarter.

Q: What are the most important actions one can take to get rid of colorism?

A: I have to mention that some industries often prop up these hateful “-isms” and the bleaching cream industry/cosmetics industry is a major supporter of colorism. They have a huge stake in making sure women and men the world over believe light skin is the key to success in all aspects of life – from the financial realm to romance. Believe it or not, Asian men are driving the robust growth of the global bleaching cream/skin lightening industry.

Stop buying bleaching and lightening creams; they are just fancy skin lighteners. Stop buying products manufactured by companies who also make skin lighteners and advertise them heavily in countries with majority Black or Brown populations. Do your research.

Speak out when you see blatant cases of skin lightening/photo shop or public figures promoting skin lightening in any way.

If you have a platform of any kind, use it to promote beauty and excellence in all shades. And most importantly, tell every young person you meet that skin color is just packaging.

You can learn more about Lori Tharps by visiting her website. Follow Lori Tharps on Twitter: @LoriTharps

The Complexion Chronicles is a bi-weekly column that explores the raw truths, nuances and complexities of Multiracial life.

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Published on: March 8, 2017

Filed Under: Complexion Chronicles, News & Pop Culture

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4 Responses to Complexion Chronicles: Getting to the Root of Colorism in Diverse Families

  1. What an excellent interview and Ms. Tharps is right. Colorism exists in all ethnics groups. And parents sometimes forget that children can inherit various hues and facial features from several or more generations ago.

  2. Avatar TaRessa says:

    Yes, Vivienne–Lori Tharpe has written a timely and necessary book to provide essential context and insights on a tough and often painful topic. Thank you for weighing in!

  3. Avatar J.E. says:

    This hits home.
    My multiethnic mom has a beige skin tone with wavy hair. She could literally pass for any ethnicity. Dad is a medium dark brown with curly hair. My younger brother was born with white skin with straight hair but darkened to med. brown with curly hair. I was born medium brown with hair like Albert Einstein but turned light medium brown. As a kid, other kids asked me if I was adopted.

    • Avatar TaRessa Stovall says:

      Thanks for sharing, J.E. I know you’ll love Lori’s book–she does a wonderful job of capturing many diverse experiences all under this umbrella we call colorism–which has such a profound impact on so many of us throughout our lives. We can and must do what we can to stop the cycle now so that this needless hurt and suffering can stop.

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