Photo Credit: Elyse Lewin/The Image Bank
It starts in the hospital, almost before our babies, wrinkled and tawny and new, take their first breaths: Check the tops of the ears, the fingers and knuckles -- the darker the color in these spots, the darker the baby will be.
Silly, isn’t it, that a baby’s skin color would be treated with almost the same importance as an Apgar score, as if it’s as significant as whether the child has all her fingers and toes? But it is, for some. It certainly was for me, an African American mom of two daughters and a teenage stepson. Not because I wanted a baby with light skin. I was simply scared of the repercussions of raising a chocolate child in a world that, to this day, devalues and ignores dark skin.
My deep fear was rooted in colorism, the practice of punishing or extending favor based on skin tone. It is real. In India and Asia, women use chemicals to bleach their skin, a desperate and dangerous attempt to escape the lot of the dark ones in their societies. In Brazil, being light-skinned is the province of the elite. In Africa, countries still give preferential treatment to “coloureds” over dark-skinned indigenous people. And certainly right here in America a color hierarchy continues that was established during slavery to distinguish between field hands (who were darker) and light-skinned house servants. It’s as American as baseball, Chevys and apple pie.
And it scars, an invisible but nasty, puss-filled wound on the soul that oozes and weeps at the slightest reminder. Tar baby. Monkey. Midnight. Cute for a black girl. If you’re white, you’re all right; if you’re black, get back. Get back.
I know these things to be true because I lived them. I remember being told to stay out of the sun, not because the rays were harmful to my skin, but because the last thing I wanted to do was get “blacker.” I remember, too, the summer I stopped going to the pool -- one of my favorite pastimes as a kid -- thinking that staying out of the chlorine would help me stay a few shades lighter. It was nothing for a family member to call me “blackie,” nothing for the boys in my school to make clear that the lighter black girls and white girls were preferable to a girl with chocolate-colored skin. Preferable to a girl who looked like me.
It took years -- so many years -- for me to acknowledge and accept my own natural beauty. To accept and love the skin I’m in. It happened when I went to college and saw beautiful women, darker than me, carrying themselves across our campus like the most regal of queens. It came, too, when I learned through the great works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston that I did not carry the burden of colorism alone -- that it was, indeed, a dark plague that African American women had been discussing for decades before I suffered its effects. Having cute African American boys tell me they loved my dark skin didn’t hurt either.
But no matter how long and hard I’d worked to accept and appreciate my own skin color, having babies -- specifically, girls -- raised its own challenges. See, I was scared to death to unpack the issue and lay it out on the table and pick over it and hold it up to the light. I was afraid of what colorism’s effects would have on my daughters, especially if they came from my body looking like their mama.
Fear has a way, though, of making you step up to the challenge. Double that if it’s your child who is involved. From the moment I got a gander of those little fingers and ears -- really took a hard look at my babies and their skin -- I knew that I would sooner walk through a mountain than have them think their skin makes them any less beautiful, any less desirable, any less worthy of love and respect than their lighter and whiter counterparts.
So I tell them they are beautiful. Often. Not just because I believe it to the core, but because the world conspires to tell my babies otherwise -- to ingrain in their brains that something is wrong with their kinky hair, juicy lips, dark skin, piercing brown eyes, bubble butts, thick thighs and black girl goodness. Don’t believe me? Just last year, a Psychology Today blogger (since fired) used his own study to conclude that black women are the least attractive women on the planet. Earlier, a famous singer proclaimed in a magazine article that his male member is “racist” because it doesn’t like black girls. A popular disc jockey reduced a championship women’s college basketball team to a bunch of “nappy-headed hoes,” while a football player accused of groping an African American waitress defended himself by claiming he couldn’t have done it because, “I don’t even like black girls.”
This. This is what I am desperately working to guard my little girls against. The magazine editors who refuse to put brown-skinned girls on their covers and in their pages. The TV show producers who shovel shows on kids’ channels without a care in the world that my brown-skinned babies go, literally, for hours without seeing one character who looks like them. The music and movie industries, which, even when brown girls are involved, put greater stock in light skin. Even when it’s the skin of their wives or daughters, sons or husbands. Or heck, their own skin.
I think I’ve done my daughters justice. Some days, they’ll just be talking to me about nothing in particular and I’ll look up and catch a glimpse of Lila’s big ol’ almond eyes and Hershey’s Special Dark Chocolate-covered skin, or Mari’s perfect apple face and ancient Egyptian nose, looking like it was carved to match the Sphinx, and it literally takes my breath away.
They are, simply, beautiful girls. Thanks to my friends and thoughtful family members telling them so, thanks to my and their dad’s effort to show them examples of dark-skinned beauties, thanks to all the self-esteem building we consistently do, my daughters know this, too.
And so they are armed.
And loved. And beautiful in the skin they are in.
Denene Millner is a New York Times best-selling author of 19 books and the founder and editor of MyBrownBaby.com, a website that examines the intersection of parenting and race. Follow her on Twitter: @MyBrownBaby