Productively teaching black children about colorism

When I found out my cousin favored light-skinned women

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Oct 30 · 7 min read

“I only like light-skinned girls with long hair and light eyes,” my cousin told me while he munched on McDonald’s.

Photo credit: Marlon Schmeiski/Pexels

Up until that moment, I’d only been plotting three goals for our weekend hangout: talk him into eating my vegetarian meals instead of all junk food and takeout; make sure he completed all of his homework; and tutor him in areas that he was struggling in — minus math because that is not my area of expertise.

But tackling colorism was not on the menu. His comment caught me off-guard, primarily because his mother is a caramel complexion and his grandmother is my complexion. I’d never really given much thought into who he was dating. I was so relieved that he’d grown out of being that bad-ass kid who broke everything and was always in trouble. His love life was not something I even knew existed. But he was a teenager, so of course I should’ve known that was a high priority on his list.

When your relatives don’t always look like you do

When I go to a family reunion on my mother’s side, you see a few chocolate drops here and there. But her side is heavily Creole and most grew up in a small town in Louisiana. While my light-skinned mother and I didn’t get the thinner, curly texture that majority of the women on her side of the family have, we both have the kind of thick and dark hair that looks like you could wack it right off of a pony’s tail. (I’ve never worn weave for that reason alone. It’s enough of a job to control my own mane; I don’t want anyone else’s.) Other than that though, I don’t look like anyone on my mother’s side. I do, however, resemble folks on my father’s side — his older sister and my father specifically.

Photo credit: Thaís Sarmento/Pexels

Technically his skin color preference makes sense. People often want to date someone who looks like someone in their family. And he had plenty of examples. But the idea that my cousin preferred a particular type of black woman (or woman at all) just didn’t sit right with me. While he has every right to like whatever woman he likes, it’s the exclusion part that rattled my brain.

At what age should the colorism conversation start?

Photo credit: Orione Conceição/Pexels

My cousin is light-skinned with a head of curly hair that he always keeps low and neat. Otherwise he’ll need ponytail holders almost immediately (similar to the man on the left). He’s a mischievous, witty guy — the kind of young man you assume girls will pay attention to. But he’s a bit too edgy to be considered a “pretty boy.” Or, at least, if he’s considered a “pretty boy,” he’d more likely be compared to Trey Songz than Drake. (No disrespect to OVO. I Drake-and-Drive on the regular.)

I’d never met any of his girlfriends. But when I started picturing a list of women that his sister dated, they were also of a lighter hue. Is there anything wrong with dating a woman who looks more like Nicole Murphy than Gabrielle Dennis? No. But you’ll never convince me that one is more attractive than the other.

When he made the “light-skinned girls” comment, I paused for a second before I asked him, “Do you know what colorism means?” And the perplexed expression on his face gave me my answer. African-American children grow up entirely too fast as is. Between being punished for nothing more than being black and breathing, constant fear of the criminal justice system, repeatedly being mislabeled as aggressive and a too-often biased educational system, colorism isn’t the first topic that black parents (or even older cousins who just want to avoid McDonald’s) may even think about discussing.

How I learned to love my brown skin

Photo credit: Magda Ehlers/Pexels

Is colorism (and interracial dating) a conversation that should be had more often? It depends. I am not a parent and don’t want to give parental advice, but there are just so many other issues that take top priority. And even if you’re a loyal “Black-Ish” or “Mixed-Ish” viewer, colorism isn’t a fun conversation to have with your relatives. It’s especially complicated when you don’t want to insult anyone in your family who’s more of a Trefoil cookie than a Hershey’s Kiss. And I’ll be damned if I ever insult the appearance of my mother or any woman (or man) on either side of my family. Insult my mother, and we’ll have permanent problems. I’m not joking.

I love the way my mother taught me to love my complexion. She was tearing toy stores apart when I was a kid, making sure I had brown-skinned Barbie dolls, Ken dolls, Cabbage Patch Dolls and Jingle Baby. While I wasn’t lucky enough to have a Doc McStuffins in my childhood, I had Jessica from “The Babysitter’s Club” and plenty of women to admire on “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World.” (Phylicia Rashad can play as many unlikable characters as she wants to on “Empire,” “This Is Us,” “David Makes Man,” etc. She’ll always be huggable, lovable Claire Huxtable in my mind.)

Meanwhile by the time my cousin reached his teen years, all he was seeing was ratchet reality shows and video girls. But he still had the women in his family to look up to, and that mattered more.

The colorism conversation

So I sat there in McDonald’s, patiently explaining colorism to him (every ugly detail from house slaves to field slaves, and “good hair” to passing) and watched his face go from skeptical to surprised to thoughtful. We spent the rest of the weekend doing things that were much lighter — going to the beach, watching him play basketball, arguing about vegetables, cruising on Lake Shore Drive and fussing over the remote.

I didn’t think much of the slumber party conversation. Quite frankly, I was more interested in him graduating on time. Almost a year later, when he called me up to invite me to his high school graduation, I was thrilled. I’d unfortunately missed out on his prom because he originally wasn’t going to go, so this was my second shot at seeing such a monumental occasion. I clapped as loud as his mom when he walked across the stage, and grabbed him immediately to take photos.

Photo credit: Livingstone Ochieng/Pexels

He took photos with everybody, but he was clearly distracted and wanted to ditch all of us. I got ready to call him out for being so moody, but then this girl walked his way. And that brotha melted like Pepe Le Pew. He scurried over to her, kissing all over her face, putting his arms around her and hugging her tight. She had that same glow while she stared in his face. And I stood there trying to fight the biggest grin on my face. He mumbled something to his mother about going to a party with her after we all parted ways. I had to get to work, so I wasn’t going out with the rest of them.

But I had to grab his arm and pull him away one last time before I went back to my car. With raised eyebrows, I whispered into his ear, “I see you like chocolate too” and he laughed and shook his head. His response, “I knew you would call me on that. I just knew it!” We both smiled, I hugged him and he jogged off to find his girlfriend.

For all I know, he may end up marrying someone who doesn’t look anything like that girl I saw on his graduation day. And I’d be proud to see him happily in love with the stunning Zendayas of the world. But at least I know his eyes are on my fellow brown girls, too.

I Do See Color

These are writings on race, gender and social justice. Ditch tokenism, embrace diversity.

Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

14-year journalist; freelance writer/editor (Upwork); Wag! dog walker; Rover dog sitter; Unity Toastmasters member and 4x officer; Visit Shamontiel.com

I Do See Color

These are writings on race, gender and social justice. Ditch tokenism, embrace diversity.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade