Tween Romance & Race: How Should I Teach My Kids About Colorism?

Teens Dating Race

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Tween Romance & Race

He’s at that age: the in-between age referred to as the “Tween Years.”  The first big sign that we had arrived in those Tween years didn’t come from him, though; it came from his best friend.

“Mommy, D__ has a girlfriend!” he said.

“In 6th grade?” I replied incredulously as the wheels in my brain turned. Yeah, I guess that’s about right. The first “couple” in my school became a thing during the middle school years. Girls, especially, seem to develop quickly and get deep crushes during those years. Boys can be late bloomers (some 10th-11th  graders in my class are just starting to be what I call “hormones on legs!”)  All that flashes through my brain and I have to ask the inevitable question, “So….do you have  a girlfriend yet?”

A look of horror, like I’ve asked him to eat some sort of nasty rotten concoction, comes over his face, “NOOOOOO WAYYYYY!!!!”

That’s my baby. He may be blooming early in a lot of things (the need for deodorant, for example; when did my little boy get so funky?) but he is not feeling the pressure to fall in LUV yet, thank goodness. So far he’s all sports and video games. I ask him for details about D_____’s girlfriend, because I suppose that’s why he brought it up. I was interested in knowing how the class was dealing with this romance, and how the parents were dealing with a 6th grade romance. First, I wanted to find out if I know the girl. “So who is D__ going out with?”

“You remember, L___ from my toddler soccer team?” he says.

“Yeah! Wow! They’re a couple?!?” I am not sure that I approve of middle school romance due to the age of the kids, but this news really caught my attention: D and L are involved in a 6th grade interracial romance! I tried to gently prod for details about how parents feel, and all I got was facts like D got her presents for Valentine’s Day. They went to a fancy restaurant for dinner together with D’s family. Things are pretty serious! While at some of our kids events, I ran into both sets of parents and asked how they felt about the whole romance and they are all very supportive of their kids. They’ve met the “in-laws”, so to speak, and everyone gets a long just great. This 6th grade interracial romance seems to be one where race just isn’t a factor at all! It made me so excited to think about how much easier things may be for young interracial couples now and in the future.

After gathering all the details of this new romance, I thought about those early blooming tween girls and asked my son a different question. “So, do any girls like you?” As a mom, as soon as I ask that question I brace myself. This is my baby boy! I’m not sure I’m ready to hear the answer to anything involving him being grown up enough to be the object of a crush. Why did I ask this question? Then, before you know it, it’s too late. This story comes out of his mouth in response:

“Well, there is this one girl who D says likes me. She came up to me and got this look on her face.”

“What look?

And then he gets this dreamy, spacey look. He looks up at me and starts batting his eyelashes. His voice goes all falsetto and he says, “Oh….you so handsome! You got those pretty eyes, and you so light-skinned-ed…” He held that look for a few seconds and then started nervously laughing, assuring me that he doesn’t like her. He’d rather play basketball. He’s a player not a lover.

I was relieved to hear that he is not yet ready for romance. But my heart dropped when he quoted the girl as using that phrase: light-skinned-ed.  These thoughts all jumble in my head: of course he’s light-skinned–his mama is white! But why is light better? Dark-skinned boys are beautiful too! She is so young to be saying things like that. Who did she hear it from? If this girl is darker-skinned than my son, does she think she is less attractive than light-skinned girls? Doesn’t she know she is beautiful?

I’ve read posts here on Multicultural Familia about colorism. I’ve heard stories from my husband about his aunties ridiculing his momma for marrying a “dark one.” I’ve visited mixed race author Heidi Durrow’s blog “Light Skinned-ed Girl.” I know it’s out there; but this is the first time I’ve had to think about how to talk with my kids about it.

So now I’m looking for advice–how do you talk to your kids about colorism?




  1. Star792012 says

    Well I will be honest with my children. Just as I will teach them the racial issues on the white side I will also teach them the racial issues on the black side. Or shall I say talk to them about it. I will let them know that their will be people who will see them as different and treat them differently. I will teach them that just as their is white people who are intolerant of all things black I will tell them that their is black people that are intolerant of all things white including them and any culture of mine they represent or self identify as. I will teach them that some of their culture (accent, clothing, foods, music, interests) that they have more in common with me and my family or white people in general will be made fun of by some people. But a true friend doesn't do that. Just as you wouldn't allow a white person to insult you for your blackness you don't allow a black person to insult you for your whiteness.
    But then their is the other side we must talk about. Where some white people may accept you b/c they see as you a different or better and that is not cool. And some black people will also see you as better b/c of you are closer to white. That is not cool either. They have issues that need to be worked out and you really don't want to get caught up with those kind of people. Black, White, Asian, Multiracial it doesn't matter. All are equal. Were all just human at the end of the day with different backgrounds and are culture.
    I personally reject the word light skinned when referring to biracial people. Although my children will ultimately have to figure out how they feel about the word I will certainly let them know that I find it offensive. I will let my children know that they are not light skin black. They are multiracial. Both black and white. That while the person using the word may not realize it can be seen as offensive or even know that they are multiracial that in the end they are prepatrating an ugly racist one drop rule that needs to be done away. So ultimately I'm hoping they choose to not allow others refer to them as light skin.

    • jenmardunc says

       @Star792012 I think your approach of being honest is a really good one. I try to be honest with my kids about everything to do with their race. But despite always telling them they are biracial, my son identifies himself as black. Hoping he doesn't ever buy into that whole "light-skinned is better" one-drop rule mindset that is still a part of our society since. I support him in identifying however he wants to, but don't ever want him to think he's better than anyone else, or that darker skin is not as beautiful. Like you said: all are equal; we are all human!

  2. says

    Not to derail but I cringed a little at this "of course he’s light-skinned–his mama is white!"–I have a few friends who are biracial who are darker than me. I'm brown. And ironically one of my friends who's mother is white, everyone mistook us for twins, or brother and sister LOL so much so that we call each other bro and sis now. At the same token, there are folks with 2 Black parents whom are light skinned as well, but anyway back to the topic.  I don't have any children but I come from a home where a pride in who we were was instilled and that was my backbone. That foundation really made the difference in my self-esteem, my identification and my strength. It was my parents reinforcing that we were beautiful and smart just the way we were and extending the same to others, no matter their complexion or otherwise. It was also my parents making sure that our home was a reflection of us. We had a spectrum of colors in dolls, but we also had dolls that looked like us, we had paintings of brown people. My family is from Latin America where colorism is RAMPANT but I had zero color complex then or now. I pointed out the first comment because kids do pick up on these little comments and internalize it, correlation doesn't mean causation, in that in mixed families, it's really arbitrary on how the kids can turn out. 'Caucasia' is a good book I read where one sister came out looking 'Italian' and the other with dark brown skin and wild curly hair. Phrases can be twisted into something unpleasant if a child repeats it without knowing the full scope or examines it. Again, I have no children but I've seen what has worked in my family and in so many others and have seen the disturbing results and social interactions of families who weren't as thoughtful and insightful as you to identify that this was an important topic to be aware of. 

    • jenmardunc says

       @DashVenusGenus Thanks for the reminder about genetics. In the past couple of months I read stories about brown parents who had white babies, so I know it happens! I just wrote the piece totally stream of consciousness, and didn't stop to think about that fact. It's a whole other topic, but I think a lot about seeing/not seeing myself in my children. Especially in this society where the "one-drop" rule is still so strong, and people question whether or not I am really their mother since I am white and they are golden brown. That was what was streaming through the back of my mind when I wrote that "of course!" sentence–always feeling like I have to prove that my kids are mine, find some way to show the world that there is genetically some of me in them. Do you know what I mean? They don't have my eye color, my hair texture, my nose shape, my lips–nothing much really resembles me. But their skin color is really a perfect mixture of my husband and I. That is always on my mind…that part of me is visibly in them, as if my husband and I were paint colors that could get mixed up in a blender. They look like the perfect blended shade of us. We work every day on teaching our kids that they are beautiful–but not necessarily more beautiful than anybody else; that they should be proud of their natural color, hair, body shape–but their pride shouldn't mean that they are better than anyone else.
      I think the hard part with colorism is that we always teach them to look out for negative reaction to their color–not to look for people who might be treating them as more beautiful or special because of their skin color. As kids, they think the positive attention is automatically good (or at least much, much better than the negative stuff.) I just don't know how to explain that it can be just as hurtful to have people think you are better because you're skin is lighter as it can be for them to think you are worse because your skin is darker. Hope that makes sense. 

  3. mother of 4 says

    I dont see being multicultural/multiracial as good or bad… it just IS!!
    my children are all very fair.  I have used light skinned before, but not as a good vs bad context.
    many of my older childrens friends could not believe that their mother is black.  I am black/american indian.
    i was adopted and raised by a black family (AA, for some of you)  yea my childrens dad is white, but so what!!! he is their daddy, father, dad, etc.   WE both love them all the same.  i have found that the most people who have issues with it are those of us in the circustance, or with our children and dont know how to react, act, or just accept that God has made all of our children and HE has given them to US.   We need to raise them to be good citizens, loving of all differences, and most of all, be themselves.   Nothing irks me more than seeing kids trying to be something stereotypical( someone else) and not true to themselves.
    When race issues come up, we sit down and have a discussion with the kids.  THe verbage does not bother me as much as the slang.   When others see that one parent is black, they will tend to call our children light skinned, because they really dont know what or how else to say it.  
    To end, I love this site and some others that help those of us with mixed,multiracial, or multicultural families love our families and love others for who we are and not what we are, as classified by others.
    Mother of 4 lovely children who happen to be multiracial!

    • says

      I am so glad that you found this site and that you love it! Thank you for talking about your life and sharing your story! Sounds like you have a very honest and open way of discussing things with your kids. I love that you support your kids in being who they are, not trying to be someone else. Thanks for your comment!

  4. says

    My name is Kiara Lee and I am an activist for colorism and self-esteem. I have written a children's book on colorism called "Light-Skinned, Dark-Skinned or In-Between?". Please check it out at ! I hope it helps!

    Also, I spoke before President Clinton on colorism last summer at the 2011 Campus Progress National Conference in DC (also played on C-SPAN). Here's the link to my speech:…

    Hope my work can help,

    – Kiara Lee

  5. says

    Jen, I totally understand where you are coming from in your reaction to the classmate's comment, because there is an underlying message of "If you were darker, you wouldn't be so handsome" – essentially insulting and distancing him from a group he is part of! I too am at a loss for how to handle this, how to explain to a child that there is something insulting within a compliment that he perhaps feels really good about. The only thought I have is whether eventually he'll have darker friends who do get passed over as dating potential because of being dark, and that could be a springboard into some discussion about colorism. (Although it will be awesome if that DOESN'T happen!) One other thought is to have a discussion about colorism historically/generally and then talk about what it might look like today – without tying it directly to his classmate's comment at this point. I think these things are always on-going conversations!

    Such an interesting post. My husband and I were just talking a couple of nights ago about how our sons being black may not be an issue in their 95% white school now (we're just starting kindergarten), but racism so often comes up when dating begins. It makes my heart hurt just to think about it. I also suspect that since my oldest is very light and looks a lot like me, while our youngest is darker and looks a lot like my husband, their experiences in our community may be different and we may have some very early discussions about colorism in our house. I hope not, but time will tell.

    • says

      Ellie, you are so right–that was the difficulty in the situation: my son perceived it as a full compliment that made him kind of goofy/giddy/embarrassed. I knew that there was also a little sting in there. Thanks much for your comment. Look forward to reading about how your sons deal with the complexities of complexion as they grow older!