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Throwing Shade Part 3: Earliest Memories

Colourism through a child's eyes, often leads to things we are embarrassed by as an adult. Even though it’s very real for us, it’s also a part of our story that we’d rather re-write. As sisters growing up in the same household, we experienced colourism differently, but we didn’t discuss it until we were secure adults, who were able to empathise and sympathise not just with ourselves but for our perpetrators. We thought we’d share a snippet of each of our earliest experiences of colourism to demonstrate the differences in our perspectives and sense of self. These true stories also make it clear that colourism has a spectrum, it's not one shade fits all!

“If I’m honest, I can’t pinpoint an exact time when I first experienced colourism, I just knew that in most circumstances I was treated differently to my cousin who was significantly lighter. I remember hearing a few people say to my mum or other adults around “wait, how she get so dark?” (You have to imagine the Bajan accent here), but I just thought they meant in comparison to my mum. You see my granddad was dark, my grandmother not so, quite a few of my male cousins were dark yet only *one* female cousin was dark like me. In fact, it wasn’t until I went to Barbados that I met other females who were dark like me. As I write this, I realise that, whilst as a child I seemed unaware of those differences, it shaped my ideas of beauty. Then going to school there were quite a few people who didn’t believe my mum was actually my mum, yet I stole her face...go figure. I guess as kids we don’t look at things like that, we look at what the world around us informs us is normal, and we react in a way that we believe we are supposed to act, towards what’s outside of those norms”.

“Colourism was not something I thought about until I was at least in my 20’s when I recognised my children were favoured for their light skin and people would often question if they were mixed race. It’s weird, because looking back I realise I had the traits of colourism thrown in my face on a regularly basis, it hurt my feelings, it made me cry but it also made me laugh out loud too! I was described as the ‘paki’ of the family. Such a derogatory word and one I would not choose to say or discuss if it hadn’t been for the truth of my colourism experience. My family members mostly cousins who were children but, not only them, would tell me they found me at the corner shop. My mum apparently felt bad for me and brought me home and this is why I was in the family. For years I would feel weird about going to the corner shop to get my penny sweets. We would all laugh and joke along the road and then we would get there, and my cousins would be made to line up one by one and open their hands to show the shop keeper on the way in and out, but not me I was special in those moments, I would walk around the shop unnoticed by the owners touching and picking what I wanted and greeted with a smile. Once, the man told me not to be around those people (my black family members) and in my naivety I said “OK” and left. My cousins would say ‘he’s only nice to you because he’s your dad’… are so cruel… but those kids were my actual family.”

It's not so ridiculous then to hear that most of our survey respondents said their earliest memory of colourism was at Primary school age. Early primary schoolers (4-8 years old) are beginning to understand how their behaviour affects others and start to recognise, label, and manage their own emotions. This coupled with the desire to be liked, can easily add weight to taunting and teasing or being taunted and teased.

It's not so much that colourism is the plan for children of this age but more that they are growing their understanding of key terms and the vocabulary to express them. For the mothers in the place that means the old saying ‘do as I say, not as I do ‘, will be taken both figuratively and literally.

Adults making children feel like:

“My brother was a bit lighter than I was, and although I was called a pretty "darkie" people would then say he had beautiful red skin”.

Or believing it is ok that:

“Lighter skin tones called those with darker skin, ‘black’ in a derogatory way”.

Do we recognise ourselves in this mess? We are the problem, not the children. Just to make the point clear, almost half of our respondents said that they first experienced colourism in their family home or in the home of other family members. So, you see, if we speak this crap or allow it to be said or don’t shut it down when we hear it, our children will believe we agree and therefore, they can say it too and that in turn makes the hurt they experience or perpetuate, acceptable!

My 4-year-old went to school with children she’d never met before, she makes friends easily and loved the idea of having lots of new ones. This perfect world was met with criticism when another little black girl told my child she ‘should not play with those girls, she was dark skinned like them so she should leave the light skinned girls alone’. My little girl was truly upset, although her friends to date were mostly Black, she never knew she was supposed to pick them by shade. She also never knew until then that she was dark skinned because we don’t talk shade, we talk Black. Man, this ting was a burden, suddenly she realised her siblings were all light skinned and they all looked like each other. She saw their hair and eyes as different, all of a sudden, my happy go lucky little girl was burden by her skin tone.

Ladies, I was so angry, I wanted to stomp up to that kid's mother and tell her about herself, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t be sure she understood the magnitude of the hate she was perpetuating in her own child. A hate that leaves invisible emotional and psychological scars that lead children to believe they are not worthy. Scars that as they grow, deepen, and become a part of who they are, all because the shade of their skin is deemed less favourable in their own community.

But, before you all feel too bad, my beautiful baby girl is 5 now and thriving. Her auntie bought her a book that exposed the vile of colourism and saw love, self-esteem, and a positive sense of self triumph over evil. As a family, we took pictures together and identified our similarities whilst celebrating our differences. We had many open discussions about colourism, feelings and what makes beauty! In addition, her siblings weighing in on those mental constructs she was given that day and breaking them down to dust, empowered her to believe the truth, her life is filled with limitless possibilities because she is her and the only one of her in the world. Her flawless skin and sparkling eyes are the envy of her sisters lol but most importantly she’s loved to the ‘nth’ term, and she is now so sharp, we don’t know how she doesn’t cut people with her emotional and psychological intelligence.

My 3-year-old son and I were on a bus on the way to nursery when he struck up a conversation with a little black boy. As kids do, they talked about all sorts of things that they liked to do, watch etc until they got to a conversation about who my son’s mum was. When my boy explained that I was his mum, the little boy confidently and explicitly told my son why I could NOT be his mum. The conversation went something like this:

Boy: That’s not your mum

Son: Yes, it is.

Boy: That isn’t your mum because she’s black.

Son: That’s my mum, I’m black.

Boy: No, she’s really black and you’re not really black. That’s not your mum.

My son turns to look at me like, ‘Mum what is this boy on?’. I choose this time to interject to state that I am his mum

Boy: What his real mum? I nod and use this opportunity to seek out the little boy’s mum, unfortunately she was looking at her phone.

Me: I am his mum; his real mum and he is my son.

At this point, the little boy looks like his whole entire mind has been blown open, picture cute little black boy, eyes wider than the solar system, with an incredulous look on his face because he had just encountered something so unreal.

My son is significantly lighter than me and is mixed-race so I guess in some ways the boy was correct, my son isn’t “really” black, but I can assure you that this brought back some painful memories for me (as outlined above), and this conversation also caused my boy some very significant issues. He became scared that people could take him away from me if they didn’t believe I was his mother, he also wanted to know whether our family would look at him differently if they knew he wasn’t really black. Crazy right, where on earth would he get this idea from? Well as a predominantly black family (unless at a bigger family event) we talk about a lot of Black related things. So as far as my son was concerned, he just thought he was black. Suddenly at the age of 3, he felt that he could possibly be on the outside of his amazing immediate family, who showered him with love, if they found out that he wasn’t “really black”. It had such a profound impact on him that when his little brother became 3, he felt the need to explain to him exactly who he was and how he would be seen by the world. Upon explaining to his little brother that he was mixed-raced both black and white; his little brother replied, “I’m not black and white, I’m not a zebra”. Funny as it sounds my youngest couldn’t really understand it, he hadn’t had the same experience and due to his darker skin and more ‘black features’ his dad has had more problems with him in public. It has been an eye-opener for me that’s for sure, and it’s built an awareness in me, especially now my eldest is in school. I have to introduce myself to all his new teachers because when he points me out, they take a long time to recognise who he’s referring to since they don’t believe it could be me. Additionally, my son and I are so used to this that until I began to write in this article, I hadn’t really thought about it. How quickly we can normalise what is affectively a prejudice.

Mothers', sisters', aunties, friends, loved ones let us not forget the microaggressions our children are facing, like the times little girls run around with tights or towels on their heads to imitate their Caucasian counterparts and live up to the image of beauty they have been fed. Or when we decipher the favoured, by their light eyes or pretty hair. Are you the child that was told all the men would want you? Or did you watch the darker skinned child get a harsher beating or more venomous verbal attack when you all did wrong. Were you told not to look at white people in their face or that ‘you won't amount to nuttin’! These were not the rants and actions of crazy people these were our family members and friends who often spoke as they were spoken to or accepted what they thought was right. But we know better, we don’t need to chastise our children in this way instead we can help them to accept, appreciate and respect their differences so they embrace uniqueness and unity whilst they seek wholesome experiences within their Black community.

The Media plays a massive role in shaping the minds of children and so what our children are watching, listening to, and reading needs to be a better representation of all Black people. We must be the key, not most, not only, but key influencer in our children's lives. If you are engaging in the negative media, assumptions and conditioning of Black people how can we expect them not to. So, to make this a reality ladies, we must be sitting down with our children and watching what they watch, read with them, and listen to the voices making statements in their ears so we can undo and remove the normalising of the wrongs Black people are labelled with.

Be honest, keep it real, acknowledge the privileges you have whether that is your complexion, your education, your finances, your body type. Let's adopt an early awareness for our children so that they know colourism exists as do biases and preferences, these may affect their journey at times but none of them will remove their destiny.

As mothers:

  • We protect, so don’t allow others to label your children in this way.

  • We support, so help your children to see other Black children as just like them. The differences are in our beliefs, values, likes, and dislikes and these are reasons to choose not to have a relationship with other Black children, not their complexion

  • We guide them when making choices about how they want to be perceived by others and how that will positively impact others.

  • We correct, the wrongs of others by speaking up, speaking out and removing the isms and schisms we personally carry so they have no place to gather or inherit the traits of colourism.

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