Colorism Within the Family and Myself

Photo: Tyra Banks
By Brittney M. Walker

We facetime so he can meet my aunt. Most of my family is still in California so meeting everyone has been a digital experience for the most part.

“What up auntie?”

I introduce him and she says as if she couldn’t stop what was coming out of her mouth, “Does your hair lay down?”

She is referring to his tightly coiled, uncombed, but artsy looking hair. He’s not much into combs or brushes. But it works. It’s his natural, like mine. Like some stranger man said one day in the local Chinese food spot, we match.

We both react with snuffs, disguised as laughs, and I retort, “Mine doesn’t.”

She says, “Oh, well I guess not.”

Typically my hair stands up, hardly combed and barely styled. My aunt, like many people on that side (or any side of my family for that matter) has loose curls. She could slick her hair back into a ponytail with some water almost like a white girl. She’s more obviously of mixed heritage, with golden butterscotch skin, like her sisters and her nieces.

Shortly after introducing him to my auntie, we get on a phone call with my grandma on my father’s side. When he asks how she’s doing, she says, “Just tired, ugly and Black.”

He and I wonder if she means for Black to be a negative thing in this context. It doesn’t feel like a Bernie Mack “Black.” It feels like an Uncle Ruckus “black.” My grandma is so light and yellow that she could pass. She married a darker man and made my father.


See, from what I understand, I’m one of the few girl children born on either side of the family with a grade of kink that brings my classification closer to Black, rather than mixed.

When I was growing up, identifying as Black, I started to learn about the ‘color associations’ within my family and within myself. My mom stopped doing my hair at some point and wanted to move into hair styles that worked with my active life as a competitive swimmer. She started to put my hair in braids. My grandmother, my mom’s mom, with good intentions, often mentioned that she didn’t like them. I’d have to ask why one day, but my assumption was because it was fake hair.

During off seasons from sports, I had my natural hair out, straightened or curled on occasion. My grandma, a very proper woman, often commented about how lady-like I appeared. It was a nice complement, but it also caused me pause. I didn’t much care for straight hair. I just didn’t know what else to do with it.

When I would wear my hair in an Afro-puff or in a style that didn’t require a hot comb or rollers, she’d often say something along the lines of, “I like your hair when you take your time with it,” or “Afros aren’t feminine.”

I didn’t know what to make of comments like those at the time, but I was certain I wasn’t comfortable with them.

My grandma didn’t and doesn’t dislike Blackness. She married a dark skinned man and made my uncle. But I think some of whatever experiences or teachings in her childhood or from just being a woman of color in L.A. carried over into our interactions.

When I was a kid, oddly enough, I wanted to be darker. I wanted to look obviously Black. At least to me, I didn’t look Black enough. I would watch Black movies and wish my lips were fuller and rounder and I wished my skin looked like chocolate and I wished my nose was a bit broader. I wanted hair so tightly curled that I couldn’t train my hair to be straight. I was slightly embarrassed when people would ask me, "What are you?”

By no means, did I feel marginalized because of my color, except for moments when my Blackness was an issue. But I wanted to fit in better with the Black kids, eliminate ambiguity, give no reason for that ‘you might be mixed’ exoticism, erase any residue of whiteness. I didn’t want to wonder whether or not me being slightly ambiguous provided any semblance of privilege.

To this day, I unabashedly sit in the sun naked in an attempt to get my whole body the same color as my areolas. It doesn’t work.

My sister, she was the opposite when we both lived at home. She’s probably three shades darker than me. She’s got full lips, big eyes and a broad nose. That girl is unmistakably Black. She liked her color, but didn’t want to get darker. So in summers, she’d only go swimming at night or at dusk, when the sun was disappearing over the horizon. She’d run in from the afternoon if she was forced to walk home from school or something and close the shades because she didn’t want to be made into a chocolate drop.
Color associations in my family, remnants of it even in my own growth, is a curious thing. It is this lingering ailment that rudley makes an appearance every so often in conversations about nothing, when relatives randomly compare each other’s skin tones to see who is darker than the other, or when kinky hair is less favorable than other hair types.

Dealing with it is another issue, however. It’s like trying to explain to a white liberal that she is racist. They don’t get it.

I hear comments like, I don’t have anything against dark skinned people. Or I just think it’s more lady-like when your hair is done. Or I prefer natural hair, but Afros make a woman look hard and masculine. Or I love my skin, but I also wish my skin tone was dark like hers - my own comments even shock me. I swear I have a healthy admiration of myself. But damn, the words still spill out of my mouth like word vomit.

This whole color association thing (I'm naming it this because I’m not sure this kind of thing has a name. Colorism doesn’t quite work), I’m afraid I’ve not exactly dealt with it, despite my self love sessions and my internal “I’m owning my beauty” movement. I recognize some generational patterns and I recognize my rebellion on the opposite side of the spectrum.

But on a broader perspective, generationally, how does one remedy such a common, undefined aspect of hatred?

Have you had to deal with colorism in your family?
Brittney M. Walker is a journalist based out of New York. She writes on social justice issues within the Black community, travel, business, and a few other topics. These days she’s focusing on holistic living through experiences and storytelling via her blog, Unapologetically Brittney M. Walker.

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