My first experience with colorism as a child wasn’t exactly a personal experience. In our house, there were four kids, two light and two brown. My brother and I were the brown ones. It’s not as though we cared, either, or even noticed. We did things kids do on a daily basis: went to school, played, did homework, fought each other and then made up. We were never treated differently because of our skin color; nor were we teased about it.
But that’s not to say it was something I didn’t notice happening to other children.
In the 1980s, there was an influx of Haitian and Nigerian immigrants in our New Jersey town. We were exposed to different languages and different cultures in elementary school, but we were also exposed to kids being teased because of their dark skin.
In one instance that I remember, a light-skinned boy referred to a Haitian girl as a “dark monkey.” Every day, this boy in particular would torment and tease her about her skin color. Eventually other students would join him. During recess, she stood alone by a tree crying because of the constant teasing. Not only did I feel sorry for her, but it also made me realize that the issues people have with skin color start at an early age.
Fast-forward 30-something years later, and it seems as though the more things change, the more they stay the same. My sister, who is light-skinned, is the mother of a preteen boy. My nephew’s skin looks as though it were dipped in the finest dark chocolate. To say he is handsome would be an understatement. The fact that he wouldn’t harm a fly is one of the greatest things about my nephew. But none of that mattered to a classmate who teased him about his skin color.
The classmate, who is also black, referred to him as a “burnt french fry.” Thankfully, my sister was the one to overhear the comment and not my nephew, but it wouldn’t be the first time someone has talked negatively about his complexion. Although he doesn’t mention it much, he’s already been called “dark” several times by classmates. My sister tells him not to pay attention, but it hurts to know that kids not only are callous but also are attempting to tear down someone else’s self-esteem.
Black and brown people, listen up.
It’s bad enough that we’re sometimes discriminated against and ridiculed by other races, but it’s exceptionally sad when we do it to one another. Children pick up these nasty habits from somewhere, whether it’s in their own households or from other children, but it has to stop.
It doesn’t matter if children are being picked on because they’re too dark or too light. The fact is, our black children have enough difficulties to face in the world. Why rip them of their self-esteem so early? The child who is being teased because of his skin color can grow up to be an adult who’s full of shame and embarrassment.
Maybe the young girl who teased my nephew was also ridiculed at one point in her life because of her color, and now she’s dishing out what she was given. If there was one thing I wish I could do, it would be to give this girl a hug and let her know that there is beauty in all shades of blackness.
Avalaura Gaither Beharry, a licensed graduate social worker in Maryland, has a few words of advice for parents. “Parents can teach their children to love the skin they’re in by first understanding that colorism does still exist," she says. “Parents have to make a conscious effort to be a positive role model for their children. Children pay attention to what you do more than what you say. As their parent, if you have a healthy self-esteem [and] healthy body image and appreciate your race and skin color, so will your child.”
Beharry also has this advice for parents: “Build your child up so no one else can tear them down.”
Finally, as parents we have to teach our children not only to love the skin they’re in but also to appreciate the diverse shades we all come in.
Yesha Callahan is a full-time writer and single mother living in Columbia, Md. She has written for BlogHer, Jezebel and The Grio and has been seen on HuffPost Live and TV One’s NewsOne Now With Roland Martin. She is currently the managing editor of Clutch magazine and is a former comedy and politics writer for BET’s Don’t Sleep! Hosted by T.J. Holmes.