When one sib­ling has darker skin than the other

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RACE RE­VIEW BY DOLEN PERKINS-VALDEZ Dolen Perkins-Valdez is the author of the nov­els “Wench” and “Balm.” She is a vis­it­ing as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor in the lit­er­a­ture de­part­ment at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

Their mother was Eritrean and their fa­ther African Amer­i­can, but the two sis­ters, Lana and Asha, had vastly dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up in Brook­lyn in the 1980s be­cause of their dif­fer­ent skin tones. When Asha was born, she was “the color of milk,” Lana said. “When I was born, I looked like a choco­late drop.” As a teenager, Lana wished she had lighter skin, while her fairer sis­ter had no idea of her long­ing.

In her book “Same Fam­ily, Dif­fer­ent Col­ors,” Lori L. Tharps ex­plores the im­pact on fam­i­lies when mem­bers have vary­ing shades of skin color and the re­ac­tion in so­ci­ety when an in­di­vid­ual has a darker, or un­ex­pected, skin tone. Tharps ar­gues that skin tone will be­come more im­por­tant than race as Amer­ica be­comes less white and more mul­tira­cial as a re­sult of mixed re­la­tion­ships and im­mi­gra­tion. “Amer­i­cans are on a col­li­sion course with a fu­ture in which the word ‘race’ gets re­de­fined or per­haps even re­tired from of­fi­cial govern­ment use,” she writes. “In the mean­time, skin color will con­tinue to serve as the most ob­vi­ous cri­te­rion in de­ter­min­ing how a per­son will be eval­u­ated and judged.”

Tharps presents sig­nif­i­cant ev­i­dence that there are real-life ram­i­fi­ca­tions to hav­ing darker skin. She cites a 2006 Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia study that found that em­ploy­ers of any race “pre­fer light-skinned Black men to dark­skinned Black men re­gard­less of their qual­i­fi­ca­tions.” Econ­o­mist Joni Her­sch of Van­der­bilt Univer­sity Law School has found that im­mi­grants with lighter skin earn be­tween 8 and 15 per­cent more than sim­i­larly qual­i­fied im­mi­grants with darker skin.

“Same Fam­ily, Dif­fer­ent Col­ors” ex­am­ines skin hue is­sues for African Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, Asian Amer­i­cans and mixed-race fam­i­lies, and probes the his­tor­i­cal ori­gins of a pref­er­ence for lighter tones. In China, Ja­pan and Korea, Tharps says, the de­sire for fairer skin was largely tied to no­tions of beauty and class. In the Philip­pines, light skin was as­so­ci­ated with the power struc­ture — that is, white colonizers and, later, the mixed-race mes­ti­zos. In In­dia, Tharps notes that Bri­tish col­o­niza­tion in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized the dis­crim­i­na­tion of peo­ple with darker skin.

Tharps delves into the fam­ily dy­nam­ics of dif­fer­ent skin shades in an ef­fort to un­der­stand how the is­sue plays out on the so­ci­etal level. Does the ex­pe­ri­ence within fam­i­lies point to the roots of pres­sures out­side the home? Fam­i­lies want to match, she ar­gues. “There’s some­thing about the con­cept of fam­ily that de­mands a sense of uni­for­mity, of same­ness — same race, re­li­gion, class, and, yes, skin color,” Tharps writes. It is a small step, she im­plies, from the fam­ily to so­ci­ety. “Skin color mat­ters be­cause we are a visual species and we re­spond to one an­other based on the way we phys­i­cally present,” she ob­serves. “Add to that the ‘like be­longs with like’ be­liefs most peo­ple har­bor, and the race-based prej­u­dices hu­man be­ings have at­tached to cer­tain skin col­ors, and we come to present-day so­ci­ety, where skin color be­comes a loaded sig­ni­fier of iden­tity and value.”

While darker skin sub­jects peo­ple to dis­crim­i­na­tion, a lighter hue also can pose prob­lems. Tharps re­counts the ex­pe­ri­ence of En­rique Martinez, a young med­i­cal stu­dent who was born in Mex­ico and spent his high school and col­lege years in San Diego. “The first time I met En­rique I was shocked to dis­cover he is Mex­i­can,” Tharps writes. “Why? Be­cause he has milky-white skin and thick, flam­ing red hair that hangs just be­low his shoul­ders.” Tharps re­veals that meet­ing him forced her to “ac­knowl­edge how deeply in­grained stereo­types are, be­cause even af­ter learn­ing of his her­itage, I grap­pled with rec­on­cil­ing En­rique’s phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance with his Mex­i­can iden­tity.”

En­rique de­scribed his mother as Mediter­ranean white and his fa­ther and brother as brown with dark hair. While his par­ents never fo­cused on the dif­fer­ence in skin color be­tween him and his brother, oth­ers couldn’t help notic­ing. Peo­ple didn’t be­lieve they were broth­ers. En­rique wasn’t even per­mit­ted to pick his brother up at school be­cause the teacher didn’t be­lieve that they were re­lated. En­rique also found that his lighter skin gave him ad­van­tages in the United States de­nied to his darker fa­ther and brother. When pass­ing through border con­trol on their trips from Mex­ico, the agents read­ily ac­cepted his dec­la­ra­tion of Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship but spent time ques­tion­ing his fa­ther and brother. “This was when I started to re­al­ize that my skin color in the United States was go­ing to be very im­por­tant in how peo­ple saw me,” En­rique said.

Author and jour­nal­ist San­dra Guzmán was one of five chil­dren in a mixed Puerto Ri­can fam­ily; her fa­ther was black, and her mother had a Span­ish her­itage and a light com­plex­ion. “Guzmán de­scribed her­self as hav­ing ‘African fea­tures, a flat nose, and curlier hair,’ ” Tharps writes. One of her sis­ters had blond hair, European fea­tures and their mother’s coloring, and that sis­ter was fa­vored by both of their par­ents. Guzmán ad­mit­ted to Tharps: “I al­ways felt like if I were just a lit­tle blon­der, if I just looked a lit­tle lighter skinned, maybe [my fa­ther] would love me more.” Her nose be­came her chief fo­cus, and fi­nally, just be­fore she fin­ished col­lege, she saved up her money and got a nose job. Even with her new nose and straight­ened hair, Guzmán car­ried the wounds of her skin and her up­bring­ing.

She un­der­stands that her par­ents are re­spond­ing to so­cial pres­sures that fa­vor lighter skin; those de­mands af­fected her fam­ily’s life and iron­i­cally pushed her rel­a­tives to dis­crim­i­nate in ways they would con­demn in oth­ers. “To grow up with a mother and an ex­tended fam­ily that is so racist — ” Guzmán told Tharps, then stopped her­self. “It’s not racist ex­actly; it’s just that they’ve been lit­er­ally brain­washed to be­lieve that they’re not beau­ti­ful.”

SAME FAM­ILY, DIF­FER­ENT COL­ORS Con­fronting Colorism in Amer­ica’s Di­verse Fam­i­lies By Lori L. Tharps Beacon Press. 203 pp. $25.95

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