My son is six and is having trouble identifying himself. Not in terms of gender–he knows he's a boy. I don't mean deciding what he wants to wear to school in the mornings–his color coordination skills for a first grader are down pact. But I mean in terms of color. Race.
“What am I?"
I've told him he was Black since he started to come to his own conclusions that not everyone looks the same, but it's been fairly difficult for him to understand that because his thoughts of Black looks like me, his father, and younger brother. Black is mocha colored and dark chocolate complexions to him, but caramel skin tones aren't acceptable to him. Why not? Because his classmates, older kids and family members have made him feel like light is far from right when it comes to being Black.
From the day he was born, I have been faced with commentary from friends and family alike about his “high yella" color. My partner was questioned on the side about his paternity, and I was faced with “reassurance" that my firstborn would grow into his rightful color because of his ears–a brown similar to that of mine. He never did, and it's been years of questionable responses to him standing out as "the light-skinned one," and us having to break down his paternal grandmother's color. Since the age of four, he's been uncomfortable in his skin, simply trying to feel accepted without inquiries as to whether or not he has someone white in his family.
“How come I don't look like you?"
I am well-aware of the advantages that come with being a fairer skinned Black person–looked at as more favorable and desirable than a darker toned person in the workplace, in the media, and in reality, in general–but I have never thought about the opposition they may face with being labeled less than Black and having their “card" revoked, until it happened to one of mine.
Almost every day after school, I am faced with confirming the fact that my son is who he is when he tells me someone told him he couldn't color his face brown in a drawing. I have to hold conversations on how to address classmates who feel compelled to tell him he thinks he's better than the rest, not because of his smarts on a particular subject, but because of what he looks like. It confuses him, a child who isn't aware of the effects and “privilege" of colorism, but is conscious of how he is viewed in the eyes of others.
“Am I going to get darker like you guys?"
“I'm not sure, but I do know there's nothing we can do to change how you were born."
Like anything else with regards to small children, you have to repeatedly restore their confidence that they are something, even when their friends and the world tell them otherwise. I refuse to tell him that color doesn't matter and that we are ultimately all the same, that would be to deny his existence and to negate how he is going to be perceived in society. I am not blind to the truth. At 12, he is going to be a Black “man." At 17, he will be perceived as a threat to communities because of color. The light skin/dark skin debate isn't applicable then, so why now?
In a recent article in For Harriet, one writer plunged into the topic of colorism, addressing light-skin privilege and placing the responsibility to address the ugly divide on those with my son's complexion.
Although the issue of colorism is often discussed within the Black community, it is seldom addressed in a way that can or will reconcile the problem. Colorism—the remnant of slavery, colonialism, and white supremacy—is a tool that divides people of color and creates infighting where there should be solidarity and unity. In many Black families, it is the reason for contention and misunderstandings. And within the Black Diaspora, it is a reason to self-segregate.The big question that remains is: Who is responsible for reconciling the issues created by centuries of colorism that has perpetuated a set of social, financial, and economic hierarchies? In society at large, that responsibility falls upon the shoulders of Whites. However, when speaking amongst Black people—within our own families and our own communities, including those specifically between Black women—lighter-skinned Black people must shoulder that responsibility.
My son, like many other folks, will have to deal with the harsh truth that his ethnic, “Black sounding" name may possibly disqualify him from a job (his name begins with a K and ends in -von). He doesn't know about privilege, in fact, it's being introduced to him and he doesn't want it! He just wants to be accepted as Black amongst his peers, and it's unfortunate that we've separated our communities at a prevalent time like this because of skin color. When I talk about the plight of Black people in history and our expansive culture to my children, I don't break it down into what lighter skinned people have experienced versus what darker Black folks have underwent. Know why?
Because in the eyes of “them," we are all Black, regardless of shade. And while I'm not taking away from the existence of colorism because it is alive and thriving around the world, I wish that the never-ending debate on skin tone would cease as all we're doing is creating further division amongst ourselves. It isn't the job of one set group to address the divide. Mending the disconnect starts with us collectively.
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