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The Shades of Sisterhood: How Two Sisters Overcame Colorism

In honor of Minority Mental Health Month, we continue our conversation about colorism with a real-life story written by one of our contributing writers, Amber Flanigan, and her sister Lauren Flanigan. If you would like to learn more about colorism, the history of colorism, or how we can heal from Colorism, check out another post in this series entitled What Colorism Means for Psychological Healing

The Chocolate Experience

Lauren

As children, we, at some point, become aware. Aware of ourselves, aware of others, aware of memories, aware of a world beyond us. In this awakening, our awareness lends itself to self-discovery, and we begin to know ourselves. As we do this, we come to know ourselves through relativity. We begin to think, “I can run faster than that person, so I must be a fast runner.” or “I have this body part and lack others, so I must be a girl.” Interestingly, some of this relativity is of our own making, some of it is imparted on us from others, and some are a socially constructed combination of the two. 

For me, relativity constructed a lot of my early self-identity and understanding of my “place” in society. I can remember becoming aware of my Blackness upon leaving my predominantly Black elementary school for a predominantly white school across town. I remember sitting in class, wearing a pair of shorts and looking down at my shapely chocolate thighs, and then to the right, at my classmates’ thin, freckled, alabaster thighs and wondering, “wow, why does mine look different”?. In the absence of persistent or significant difference, it was not something I’d previously considered. 

Interestingly, while I hadn’t yet discovered, or perhaps just not considered, Blackness relative to Whiteness and all the constructed meaning therein, what I did already know was that I was “dark skin.” That I was “darker” or a “brown-skin girl.” I knew this because what was very present was my caramel-complected, light-skinned sister. Just two years my senior, and most days my best friend, we were together more often than not. By being of the same gender and close in age, it sometimes seemed that we were more an entity than individuals. “The Girls.” Not Amber. Not Lauren. 

Because we were lumped into an entity, comparisons were rampant. We were communally raised in relativity. An aunt referred to me as “the stockier one,” my sister as “the tall one.” Cousins referred to me as “the smart one” and my sister as “the Dumb Blonde” (note that she is not and was not blonde). Despite these comparative identifiers, the ones that felt most frequent and most present were about our shades. I was always referred to as the darker one or the brown one. It’s interesting to note that I don’t recall my sister being referred to as “the lighter one.” Perhaps this is because these statements came primarily from family members of our patriarchal lineage. This family side is generally light-skinned, and many of them prided themselves on this identity and its corresponding privilege. It felt that it must be noted that I was darker and often noted in a pitying tone, as though it was a shame that I’d come out this way. For wouldn’t I have been that much prettier if I, too, had been blessed to be born lighter? 

It wasn’t uncommon for me to hear things like “Dating will be harder for you than your sister Amber because you’re darker” or “Life will be harder for you than it was for me because I am light and you are dark” or “Your sister is light so she will always outshine you.” I was being primed to believe that my complexion was a disadvantage, a disability, a misfortune – something that I had to outwork or for which I had to compensate. 

Sadly, I internalized the message. I began to believe that I was, in fact, a little lesser. I began to believe that lighter was better. I can recall (as surely many chocolate girls can) not wanting to stay in the sun for fear of getting a tan because I “was dark enough already.” I remember (now with great shame) playing The Game of Life during family game night and being assigned the life station of adopting twins. In response, I hastily blurted out, “well, fine, but they will have light skin and curly hair” (cringe!!). 

My response to internalizing that I was lesser was twofold. It was one, to remove space for comparison, and two, to be so great that I couldn’t be considered “lesser.” I began to actively seek opposite activities from my sister – golf instead of cheerleading; vowed not to go to the same college as her – actively choosing to go to a school out of state and far away for college. I actively worked to form an identity so separate from hers that I could have space to be appreciated simply for being me. I worked feverishly at being the best at everything I did. I started practicing my makeup skills, kept the best outfits, and maintained the perfect outward appearance possible. I also poured myself into achievement. I graduated valedictorian, set a record for the highest SAT scores in my high school’s history, was as decorated as could be at my high school graduation, and then left to an ivy-league college where I continued to push myself to get the best grades possible, to attain leadership positions in my organizations, to secure the most coveted internships in my concentrations, and before I knew it, the accolades, accomplishments, and resumes added up. 

Outside of the arguably sometimes unhealthy achiever identity, the college also awakened a new identity. Being on my own and of my own, it was one of the first times in my young adult life that I really began to believe I was, in fact, beautiful. Not just cute, or cute for a “brown girl,” but truly beautiful. In the absence of a direct, negative comparison, I started to see myself and appreciate my own beauty. I began to admire the deep brown of my eyes set into my chocolate skin against the frame of my deep brown, curly, coily hair. I began to believe it when people told me I was beautiful, and I saw it for myself. I began to internalize a new sense of self-worth. 

Thankfully, this shift continued with me into adulthood, along with an appreciation for my body as a whole. An appreciation for the thick, shapely thighs I once reckoned with relative to the thin, alabaster thighs of an elementary school classmate. An appreciation for the fullness of my lips. An appreciation for the coils and curls of my hair. An appreciation for the roundness of my bum, and most of all, a deep, loving appreciation for my sun-absorbing, melanated, Hershey kiss-colored Chocolate skin. 

While I’ve come far on my journey and grown to love myself deeply, I acknowledge that it is still a journey for our broader community. Colorism and its deeply negative impact on those of us with darker complexions persist, as does its cousin, texturism. 

We have to overcome it. 

The Caramel Experience 

Amber

Shoutout to my sister for starting us off on a high note! Lauren did a great job describing the family dynamics that perpetuated colorism in our sisterhood and family as a whole. In following Lauren’s lead, I would like to start my story with a discussion of awareness. 

I, like my sister, was always aware of the differences in our complexion thanks to family and societal dynamics. As Lauren shared, comparisons rooted in colorism were commonly expressed by our family members and peers. As toxic as these comparisons are and were, they were often in my favor. Unfortunately, I internalized this, and in doing so, I was also internalized white supremacy. 

It saddens me to say that for a while, I did feel superior because I had caramel skin. As a result, I did not speak out against my family or peers when they made colorist statements. I enjoyed being celebrated for my skin tone, and I felt privileged to have light skin. I was aware that I was spared from derogatory comments about my skin complexion. There were times that I even enjoyed people outside of my family assuming that perhaps I was biracial due to my skin tone. I thought that it made me seem more interesting. I did not realize that what I was actually enjoying was toxic proximity to whiteness, not a compliment. 

Although I was spared from derogatory comments about my light skin, I did experience stereotyping based on my caramel complexion. As Lauren stated, I was often seen as the ditsy sister and often not taken seriously. I felt that some people only saw me for my appearance, and I bought into that at times. Therefore, I aspired to be a model, enjoyed fashion and stilettos, and felt insecure about some of the academic struggles I experienced. Some of my peers often assumed that I was arrogant or superficial due to my complexion and reserved nature. This often made me feel alienated and misunderstood. I also experienced resentment for the privileges that I was afforded but did not earn due to my complexion. 

A more enlightened awareness happened to me in my early teenage years. I remember a specific shopping experience where I was allowed to purchase a pair of shoes, but my sister was not. It became clear to me that the only reason this happened was our difference in skin tones. After that experience, my sister and I began to have honest conversations about our experiences with colorism.

Since that shopping trip, I’ve completed projects and readings on colorism and have addressed my internalized colorism and white supremacy. I apologized to my sister for all the times I perpetuated colorism or did not defend her. My life trajectory from a teenager to a happy and healing adult has allowed me to develop a healthy sense of self that celebrates my natural beauty and talents. I acknowledge my past shortcomings about colorism as a product of internalized white supremacy – not character flaws. I no longer relish in delight or feel inferior when people question my blackness due to my skin tone. I now use these moments to talk about how it is common for black people to have different skin tones and that it is not always due to having white parents are ancestors. 

Merging our Journeys to Strengthen our Sisterhood 
Now that we’ve shared our unique, individual experiences of healing from colorism, we would like to share our collective experiences of healing from colorism and offer tips that may help you heal relationships that have been impacted by colorism. 

Honest Conversations 
It is important to share our feelings no matter how uncomfortable it gets. Tell your sister or loved one how you have experienced colorism in your life as a whole and within the context of your relationship. Gently bring harmful behaviors rooted in colorism to your loved one’s attention. A gentle approach may increase the person’s likelihood of receiving this information instead of feeling attacked and going into a defense mode. This is not always easy when you feel hurt by the behavior, but you are modeling the behavior you would like for the person to exhibit in their response. 

Honor the experiences that your sister or loved one share with you during these conversations. Acknowledge them as valid and offer a genuine apology for any of your actions, intentional or not, that was received in a hurtful fashion. 

Accountability 
We encourage you not to wait until someone else brings colorism to your attention to reflect on how colorism has impacted your perception of yourself or others. Do the work to learn about colorism and be responsible for your actions. Do you love your skin because it is a beautiful part of your being or because of the privilege or status it affords you? Do you judge others’ beauty or value based on their complexion? Do you make jokes or assumptions based on skin tone? 

Forgiveness 
It is important to apologize for actions and words that intentionally or unintentionally hurt your sister or loved one. Once a genuine apology has been made, work on forgiving that person. Remember that oftentimes, those actions or words were not a reflection of that person but a result of internalized white supremacy. This internalization happens to all of us in a world full of racism, and we have to be committed to healing this. 

Forgiveness will help you move forward into a healthy relationship with your sister, friend or loved one. Forgiveness will also help promote your own healing as it helps us release any resentment we may carry as a result of being hurt. 

It is also important to forgive yourself. If you have hurt yourself or others with words or actions rooted in colorism, forgive yourself. Externalize this behavior as a by-product of internalized white supremacy. Blame racism, not yourself! Forgiving yourself is a form of radical acceptance and self-love. It contributes to a healthy self-concept and can reduce the risk of and/or soothe symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Intentional Support 
For Lauren and I, showing up for each other and genuinely celebrating wins and successes was extremely important. We have actively worked not to allow how we were pitted against each other growing up to manifest as competition in our sisterhood. We have not always gotten this perfect – we are human, after all, and sibling rivalry is common in all types of sibling relationships. However, we get it right more times than not, and we are also intentional about the dialogues we have with ourselves. This may include asking, am I experiencing jealousy right now? Do I desire this thing or want this accolade for me or feel superior to my sister (or anyone else)? 

Affirmations 
It took affirmations for me (Lauren) to get to this journey. Affirmations that I gave myself, and affirmations that came from others. So tell someone they are beautiful today! Tell them without any qualifiers, without comparisons, and absent relativity. Take the time to build someone up and avoid looking for ways to tear others down. Celebrate your own unique beauty and be generous with recognizing the beauty in others. 

Moving Forward 
We encourage you to celebrate the shades of sisterhood by loving yourself, celebrating others, and being honest and authentic. We hope that sharing our journey will help us all to continue to overcome colorism.