Dear Race Manners:
Saw your response to racist comments posted online, but what about this?
I’m trying my best not to be petty here, while I’m aware this is going to sound petty no matter how I put it. I believe my friends’ and family’s internalized racism and colorism is affecting their responses to photos of my child.
Here are the facts. My little girl: two black parents. My sisters’ children: multiracial (one sister’s kids are black and white, and the others have black, Caribbean and Indian heritage). On Instagram and Facebook, they are constantly being told their babies are “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” “stunning,” “unbelievably attractive” and “should be a model,” while my daughter does not receive the same level of praise. It’s a clear pattern—even my husband recognized it when I pointed it out to him.
In our new online world of “likes,” it seems that brown-skinned—aka “regular black”—little girls must have long, elaborately styled hair or be dressed to the nines in the highest adult fashion (totally inappropriate, in my old-school opinion) if people are to get excited about them.
I’m well-read on colorism and anti-black bias, and it hurts to see this pattern re-created among my loved ones. Would it be wise or helpful to broach the subject in a status and use it to raise awareness among my family and followers? I’d like to educate people. I’m thinking of a simple statement, not calling out or tagging any one person. —Anonymous
I want to believe that something else is at play here and that what you think is happening (a pattern of “colorism and ant-black bias”) really isn’t. Is it possible that you simply have fewer friends and followers and, thus, fewer likes than your sisters? Could it be that you’re a terrible photographer and your pictures don’t turn out as well? That their captions are wittier? Maybe people are just liking and commenting effusively on the photos of your sisters’ kids to prove their own open-mindedness when it comes to the diverse country they’ll grow up to live in?
It’s true; those are all possibilities. But sadly, I also know there’s a good chance that you’re right about the source of the patterns you’re seeing.
A preference for nonblack or “a little bit black” or “black and something else” over what you call “regular black” is what fueled one mom’s question to me about all the awkward comments she was receiving about the superior beauty of her biracial children. A few years ago, the news of a black Disney princess was monumental because it challenged these ideas. The widespread admiration of Lupita Nyongo’o’s beauty was validating and newsworthy in part because Hollywood-level worship of women who look like her is rare.
A sense of fatigue about battling “the sociopolitical disadvantages that come with being dark-skinned in a society that continues to privilege White/Western standards of beauty” is what inspired Yaba Blay to create the transmedia project Pretty.Period. She calls the collection of photographs a “visual missive in reaction to the oh-so-popular, yet oh-so-offensive ‘compliment’—‘You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl.’”
Bookmark that. And while you’re at it, there’s no shortage of places on the Internet where everyone agrees that children who look like yours are perfect and adorable—even, yes, the most perfect and adorable. That’s to say nothing of the many adults who consider colorism-fueled ideas of beauty to be sad relics of the past.
I won’t tell you to quit Facebook and Instagram and spend all your time posting photos of your baby on Tumblr for people who can appreciate her. But maybe, if the benefits of the way you’re currently using social media are being eclipsed by painful reminders of loved ones’ (and much of the world’s) biases, it’s time to lay off a bit. After all, if you’re preoccupied with, annoyed by or angry about (with good reason) how others’ messed-up ideas about what’s “gorgeous” and “unbelievably attractive” inform their responses to your daughter, you might project this sense of dissatisfaction and hand it down to her before she’s even had a chance to develop the confidence and tools required to combat it.
You can certainly use Facebook to share information to raise awareness about the bias that you believe you’re seeing. There are endless articles on colorism (since it constantly rears its head in everything from public commentary to casting controversies). I guarantee that, by sharing them with your networks, you’ll open some eyes—a tiny step toward creating a better, fairer world for your daughter to grow up in.
Still, I’d lean toward not explicitly announcing the patterns you talk about in your question or outright accusing your friends and family of anti-black-cuteness bias. That’s simply because 1) people will inevitably get defensive and 2) if there is a resulting flood of likes, you won’t know if they’re authentic or guilt-driven.
Finally, try to shift your focus from the latest notification on Facebook to the latest information about your daughter’s self-esteem—which is ultimately what we care about here, right? Make sure you’re tallying up all the moments when she approves of herself at least as aggressively as you’re measuring the evidence that other people, whose issues you can’t control, “like” her.
Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. So if you need race-related advice, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Jenée on Twitter.
Previously in Race Manners: “How to Deal With Friends’ Racist Reactions to Ferguson”