April 6, 2021
Dark Skin vs Light Skin: How Schools are Perpetuating Colorism
“Mommy, I have dark skin, and you have light skin,” said my 3-year-old daughter recently. I asked her where she learned that? She replied shyly, “my teacher.”
As a parent who wants to instill confidence and bravery in children, I was both shocked and fearful as I didn’t know the context of the conversation, how it was conveyed, or how my daughter received and interpreted that message. And that’s the part that scared me the most.
Added to that, I was already concerned about the diversity and inclusion efforts at the school because there was no mention of Black History Month celebrations. But Valentines Day, St Patrick’s Day, and Dr. Seuss Week were met with great fanfare and celebration.
I thought about mentioning the lack of Black History Month activities to the school administrator but I thought maybe the kids were too young to tackle the issue of race, which would inevitably come up with a Black History celebration.
So I was very surprised by what my daughter shared from her teacher regarding the color of her skin.
As a Jamaican immigrant, it’s sometimes difficult to process the cultural and societal nuances in a new country. As immigrants, we either fully assimilate into the new cultural norms or hold on to our own cultural experiences and refer back to those experiences to inform the new situations we encounter.
So for me, I couldn’t understand why the topic of skin tone would be up for discussion in a classroom filled with 3-year-olds.
I thought back to my childhood, and I couldn’t remember the conversation around light skin and dark skin ever coming up in an early childhood environment.
But as a newcomer to the U.S., I am fully aware of the issues of racism and colorism that exist.
The right time to discuss race and skin tone
Kids are acutely aware of differences in skin tone. Babies as young as three months old look at people differently based on how closely they resemble their primary caregiver.
So children are never too young to learn about diversity and inclusion, but educators need to be mindful of how they frame diversity and inclusion conversations.
Dark skin vs light skin
Discussing what makes us different and unique is important, but it shouldn’t be about pointing out dark skin versus light skin.
Inadvertently, the teacher touched on issues that affect the Black community such as colorism without even knowing it. And without the proper knowledge and awareness of these issues, she may be sending the wrong message to young kids.
If curious kids ask questions or make statements about the differences in skin color, educators can use it as an opportunity to create meaningful dialogue. The conversation can be reframed to open up an early introduction to biology.
They can talk about the fact that the color of our skin is determined by our biological makeup and the amount of melanin present. They can reinforce that there are many different shades and skin tones and not just light or dark and that all skin is beautiful.
When the focus is just on dark and light skin it ignores the fact that there are countless shades and complexions and it sends a message to kids that they should define themselves by the color of their skin.
Involve parents in these conversations
Educators should also involve parents in these types of conversations. Let parents know that this topic might be discussed, how they plan to approach it, and allow parents to share any feedback or concerns they might have.
This can also provide an opportunity for parents to start their own conversations with their young kids around these issues. And in this way, both parents and educators are working together to tackle these tough conversations.
Frame the conversation
From the conversation I had with my daughter, she was told she has dark skin by her teacher, and other kids have light skin.
Already she and the other kids in her class are being taught to differentiate themselves based on the color of their skin when there is so much more to them than the color of their skin.
We all have different racial and cultural backgrounds that we should embrace. But we shouldn’t be teaching our children to identify themselves by the complexion of their skin tone.
Ultimately, what I had to reinforce to my daughter was that we all have beautiful skin.
While it’s important to highlight the things that make us different, care needs to be taken in how we highlight those differences.
Martin Luther King Jr. said it best in his “I Have A Dream’ speech.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
And that’s the dream I have for my daughter.
Tiffany Trotter is the author of Brave Little Firsts, the remarkable firsts of women from around the world, and the founder of BraveSelfStarter, a community dedicated to helping newcomers to the U.S. navigate careers and personal finance.