The privilege of being lighter skinned
I am a lighter skinned Black woman. I am light enough to benefit from shadism but dark enough to still be accepted as Black. A uniquely privileged position. Throughout my upbringing I have received messages in my environment that this made me more desirable, more worthy, and/or more significant than my darker skinned counterparts. These messages were both covert and overt and articulated in the home and outside the home, at school, in the media etc… Pretty much everywhere. There is no doubt that I was, at times, spoken to in kinder voices or treated with more patience than my darker skinned peers or sisters by both people of colour and by White people, all things being equal. In time, I have learnt that my femininity and womanhood would be more easily accepted.
That my humanity would be slightly less frequently questioned. Giving birth to a darker skinned girl forced me to revisit some of these unearned privileges. It brought home to me that because I was and would be treated with more consideration; my daughter would invariably be treated in more problematic ways, more often. I had to grieve over the fact that whatever little respite and refuge my lighter skin had afforded me, it would not be enjoyed by her, that I had not transmitted these privileges to her. This was painful. It was scary too. The thought of her going through even more hardship because of the darker shade of her skin was difficult to come to terms with. It led me to wonder about the role of parents in the process of internalisation of racism. It also made me confront my own internalised racism.
Parenting and internalised racism
Some see internalised racism as one of the most common yet least studied feature of racism. The subject is fraught with taboo, shame and avoidance leading to many misconceptions and unmet psychological needs. Most people of colour would have grown up in houses within which the narratives of ‘working harder’, ‘being smarter’, were repeatedly enacted. ‘You have to be twice as good as your White equivalent to simply be deemed good enough to stand underneath him/her’ or words to that effect will likely resonate with many non-Whites. Similarly, it is not unusual for Black parents to mirror (consciously or otherwise) the harsh treatment society befalls onto Blacks males. To respond with punishing harshness to any lapse in conduct or behaviour, particularly those associated with racial prejudices. Out of fear that negative societal expectations and the dreaded stereotypes may materialise.
I have on occasions caught myself looking at my sons’ behaviour through the contemptuous gaze of society. Perhaps too I have in these moments responded more harshly than necessary in an effort to help ensure my boys would not fall victim of others’ prejudices. I have seen young children whose skin had been lightened. In some families, children may be socialised to avoid partnering with darker skinned individuals or taught to distance themselves from their minoritised or cultural identities or to put the needs and experiences of White people above their own. Though in good faith, the violence contained within such parenting practices is worth reflecting upon. In essence in our efforts to compensate for racism, we socialise children into injustice, compliance and complicity and instil a sense of inferiority in them. In doing so we may limit children’s scope to be themselves. We may reduce our capacity to respond to them with compassion and kindness. We may attend to stereotypes of what our children could be or could be seen as, rather than attending to them as unique beings. In a nutshell, we may contribute to racism’s self-fulfilling prophecies, perpetuate racial inequalities and more worryingly, may increase their risk of psychological distress.
The perpetuation of oppression is everyone’s business
Nevertheless, it would be ridiculous to blame or demonise parents for their wanting to increase the survival chances, privileges and life opportunities of their children or to prepare them for the racism they will encounter so as to minimise its effects. Internalising racism is adaptive. It is no pathology. It is no personality, genetic or biological flaw. Nor is it the consequence or evidence of inferiority in the oppressed. So where does it originate from and what function might it serve? Foucault proposed that the construction of reality through the production of ideologies or knowledge is controlled by the dominant group and circulated throughout society. This construction is posited to inform social norms, common sense and all aspects of organisational and structural life.
The fundamental consequence of such knowledge transmission is that the interests of the oppressors are presented as actually reflecting everyone’s best interests so that those who are oppressed come to internalise the dominant group’s interests as their own. The ‘double bind’ experience has been used to make sense of internalised racism. It refers to the illusionary and implicit promise by the dominant group that oppressed groups can escape the consequences of their otherness by disowning their ‘difference’. It lures racial minorities into agreeing to the very rules which Other them. In essence, the double bind exclaim: ‘become more like us and you too will have access to structures of power, you will become one of us’. A tempting proposition for anyone, particularly for racialised parents eager to shelter children from the impact of racism. The trouble however is, that achieving the promise of the double bind is impossible. This is because the construction of a superior class is dependent upon the existence of an inferior one.
Making internalised racism and its manifestations the problem of racialised groups is a further act of violence. This equates not only to victim-blaming but also to erasing the very fact that the dominant group remains both the primary beneficiary and source of such internalisation. It is akin to saying ‘you need to be like us to be human or not to be Other’ whilst similarly positing ‘trying to be like us is evidence that you are not human or that you are Other’. A ‘lose lose’ tautologically absurd proposition. Being a parent is the toughest job on the planet. Parenting in the mist of oppression and marginalisation is even harder. Perhaps it is time that we collectively stopped shying away from internalised racism and gave it the clinical and empirical attention it deserves. For mental health professionals this would naturally entail sharing a little bit of power and giving away some privileges. The privileges of not knowing, of not understanding or perhaps of not wanting to understand.
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