Same Family, Different Colors

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Debbie says:

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I recently finished Same Family Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America by Lori L. Tharps. Tharps describes herself as a Black (medium-dark) woman with a Spanish husband. Of her three children, two are lighter-skinned than herself and one is darker. This led her to get interested in and explore colorism from various perspectives: after the introduction which largely distinguishes colorism from racism while always aware of the connections between the two, the book is broken up into sections on Black, Latino/a experience, Asian experience, and mixed-race families. Each section begins with basic historical research and continues with four or five interviews with people from multicolored families from the groups in question.

While Tharps is unwavering about the role of white supremacist society, commerce/industry, and media in colorism, nonetheless she chose to focus on life in families, specifically families with significant internal color variation. The research, which I found very useful, is really there to provide context for the interviews. Nonetheless, I found the research very useful. She largely debunks the presumption that the color division in Black communities is related to house slaves vs. field slaves, and she uses the historical sections to reinforce the ties between attitudes within a community of color and the larger white-supremacy culture. She documents an East Asian preference for lighter skin dating back to centuries before any Europeans set foot on those shores.

The interviews, the heart of the book, are a bit shorter and a shallower than I would like, but they are well done and with an excellent range of perspectives–people with lighter skin than their families, people with darker skin, people who were supported within their families regardless of skin color, people whose families placed great weight on skin color to their benefit, people whose families placed great weight on skin color to their detriment. She frequently addresses “light skin isolation,” the experience of someone who may have wider social acceptance because of light skin, but also may feel estranged from, or insufficiently part of, a darker-skinned family.

One of Tharps’ stated goals is to distinguish colorism from racism, again without any level of denial of racism. Another is to examine how family support can help children of different colors, and how family lack of support can be harmful, while also talking with people who ignored, or transcended, or reversed their families’ expectations and prejudices.

I read the book mostly because I am close to two young siblings with different colored skins. After I borrowed, but before I read, the book, I specifically used the word “chocolate” to refer to a baby’s skin color (on social media) and got kindly schooled by a friend of color who pointed out that some dark-skinned people are offended by the common use of commodity terms (and specifically commodities historically harvested by slaves) to describe dark skin color, so the topic is much on my mind.

Tharps uses words like “chocolate” and “coffee,” as well as color words (brown, tan, beige) and other terms as they seem to fit. Towards the end of the book she acknowledges that some people may be unhappy with some of her choices; she spends some time exploring possible color words.

While she is a huge advocate of change beginning within the family, she ends the book with a rallying cry to fight back against the multibillion dollar skin lightening industry, which is most thoroughly established in India but has footholds everywhere. Laurie and I have written about this before: boycotting Dove, whose parent company Unilever sells “Fair & Lovely,” a leading skin lightening cream, is a good start. After all, Dove claims to be committed to “real beauty.”

Thanks to Darlene for lending me the book.