Lori Tharps is a Philadelphia mom to two sons and a daughter—a fact that usually provides her with a welcome balance to her life as as a journalist and author. But her newest book, Same Family, Different Colors, brought together both of these worlds. “As the mother of three Mixed-Race children with three distinct skin tones, I wanted to find out how other people in similar situations confronted colorism within the home,” she says.
What Tharps discovered is that colorism is as widespread within families as it is out in the rest of society—and that homes, like hers, which have not assigned a hierarchy to the range of complexions are not the norm. In the hopes of wiping out this scourge that has been passed down over many generations, she wrote the book. And here, she discusses some of the other surprising things she learned.
Many Black people would say that we have had different colors in the same family for many generations—so what makes this book so pressing now?
One of the things that was very important for me to do with this book was to show that skin color bias or colorism is not a “Black thing.” Yes, colorism is very prevalent in the Black American community, but Latinos, Asian Americans and even Native Americans also struggle with this disease. Colorism is a global issue, but it is never going to be eradicated if we don’t start talking about it beyond the boundaries of our communities. The conversations have to start now.
What makes colorism and the politics of color so different within families than out in the rest of the world?
Sadly, there isn’t always a difference. In many families, children with darker skin are treated worse than their lighter hued brothers and sisters. In some families, where one parent is darker than the other, the lighter parent makes disparaging remarks about the other. But of course that’s not always the case. What I discovered over the course of writing this book is that parents have the power to inoculate their children against the disease of colorism by teaching them to love and appreciate the various different shades of skin color. Their own and their siblings. But when a child experiences colorism from within the family, meaning from a parent or grandparent, the effects can be far more damaging than from an outside source because children expect unconditional love from a parent. The home is supposed to be a safe space.
What about white people—do they have a part to play in solving colorlism?
One of the things I learned as I was traveling around the country interviewing people about their experiences with color bias is that White Americans understand colorism. Most people believe that colorism is an intra-racial issue, something Black people inflict upon other Blacks. But the truth is, White people tend to give preferential treatment to lighter hued Blacks, Latinos and Asians as well. That is to say, White people are colorstruck, too.
What’s more, many White people told me they had been the “victims” of colorism because their skin was a little too dark or in the summer their skin got too brown and as a result they were discriminated against. In the book I share the story of a White family in Florida who overnight “became Black” because some of the children had “dusky skin” and wide noses and the sheriff decided they must be Black. Just like that! While I’m not “happy” to hear about anybody’s suffering, it does give me hope that White people can be a part of a national conversation about colorism. Not only because they feel it is important, but because they understand the issue from personal experience.
Are we as a culture getting better or worse when it comes to colorism?
I don’t think we are even at a place to compare because we haven’t yet had a national conversation about colorism. The sad fact is, the word doesn’t even officially exist. It’s not in the dictionary. So, I’ll be better able to answer that question in about a year. Maybe by the time the paperback version of the book comes out!