Colorism In The Latino Community & Its Generational Impact

Estimated read time 7 min read

As proud as we are about our culture and how much we celebrate it, there are difficult topics we tend to avoid that must be addressed. The issue of colorism in the Latino community is one of those taboo topics because it is uncomfortable to recognize our biases and prejudices. Colorism is something that has been present throughout my life and that I became very aware of at an early age.

“Did you hear that Ramón has a Black girlfriend? anda con una prieta,” said my aunt. “Yes, but not any prieta, she has good hair, long straight brown hair. Es una negra de pelo, replied my grandmother. As I have mentioned before, my grandmother was Black as well as the rest of her family. These types of conversations were not uncommon between people around me; both from those with darker and lighter skin than mine.

As a kid, it didn’t affect me negatively as people would praise my straight hair and my light-brown skin, but it did have an impact, and it also shaped the way I saw the world and how people were valued depending on their skin tone. Terms like prieta, morena, mulata, and cocola (which by the way, was my father’s grandmother’s nickname) were used in context in which what followed was usually not positive.

Even praise, if we can even call it that, would come out as a mixed-message: “es prieto pero buena gente” meaning that although he was Black he was a good person as if these things were mutually exclusive. People have asked me in the past if colorism isn’t the same as racism, and although they are related, they are different in terms of who is inflicting the discrimination on who.

To clarify, colorism happens when people are discriminated against based on their skin tone, not simply their race. This typically happens among people of the same ethnic or racial group. Because skin pigmentation varies a lot and is not determined by the color of the parent’s skin, we see families in which children have different skin tones. You can also see people of different races who have the same skin tone and people of the same race who have different skin tones.

Colorism In The Latino Community & American-Born Kids

For a long time in my life I saw colorism as an issue of the Dominican Republic, but then living in the United States made me realize that colorism in the Latino community is very real and is something that has been centuries in the making. Whether it happened during the slave trade where light-skinned slaves were given preferential treatment as many people think, or if it has roots that go way further in history than that, the reality is that it continues to be a way of discrimination.

Colorism in the Latino community is not new and definitely not exclusive to the United States. However, the impact this issue has in the new generations of American Latinos presents a unique set of challenges. When we give more value to lighter skin and European features, we are making it harder for American-born kids to find their place in this already multicultural and multiethnic society.

Many of the Afro-Latinas and Afro-Latinos I know here in the United States have struggled with this throughout their lives. The constant questioning of their identity, the rejection and discrimination that many times leads to confusion in children who are already living in a country where they face rejection and discrimination for being Latino, and to have fellow Latinos questioning who they are, their beauty and their worth based on skin tone causes even more trauma and harm to these children.

Colorism in the Latino community of the United States is a continuation of the race relations we see play out in Latin America. Its implications here, however, have an added negative impact on the new generation because they experience rejection from all fronts and go through the heartbreak of feeling like an outsider where they should find a safe space, respect and support.

At the community level, colorism in the Latino community causes people to feel disenfranchised and singled out, which impacts their lives negatively in school, college, and at work. It changes the way they view being Latino and weakens the community as a whole. Before we demand respect and equality from government and other racial and ethnic groups in the United States, we must put our house in order and show respect and appreciation for our own differences, we must end colorism, starting within our own families.

Ending Colorism In The Latino Community ~ 3 Tips For Parents

As a mom of color, I know how important is for us to acknowledge race and skin color with our kids, and to have those conversations at an early age. So, how do you help your child be confident and love the skin their in while avoiding putting value on his/her skin tone versus another, even within your own family? Here are some tips that can help us change the narrative, educate the new generation and end colorism in the Latino community:

  1. Toys As Tools. We all know how important play is for developing children. Having dolls and characters that look like your kids helps provide them with validation of their looks and identity. Make sure you provide your kids with dolls that are diverse, not only racially speaking, but in terms of skin tone. For example, as a Caribbean and Afro-Latina I make sure my girl not only has brown skinned and straight hair dolls, I buy her the darkest dolls and all kinds of different curly hair. I not only want her to see the beauty in her skin, but in all of them.

  2. Colorism Is No Joke. I’ve heard more colorism-charged jokes than I can even count. I must confess, I used to laugh at them when I didn’t know better. That’s why you need to address when you hear family members, or even your own children, making fun of someone because of darker skin. I have a friend who is the darkest in her family, and she has always been the butt of the jokes in her family due to her complexion. She always laughs, but I could tell it bother her, and I know she has struggled with low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence.

  3. Compliments The Right Way. My grandmother used to say “there is only one beautiful child in the world; each mom has it”, and it’s true! We all believe our children are beautiful and it is natural we want to tell them so. However, we must be careful in the kind of compliments we tell them and avoid at all cost to do comparison between children, no matter if they are family or not.  Saying, “you have beautiful hair” is not the same as saying “you have the good hair, so beautiful!”. Same goes with skin color, praising a child for having a lighter skin color not only harms the darker-skinned kid, but also their own sense of beauty. I like to tell my kids how beautiful they are and who in the family they look like. Each of them loves to know that they either look like daddy, mommy or grandma. It makes them feel loved and beautiful because they love us and believe we are beautiful as well.

Do you have any tips to avoid colorism within the family?


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    Onel Delorbe

    Hey, great article. I’m a Latino of color here in Miami, and let me tell you that the phobia becomes real! Not a day goes by that I don’t walk around wondering if the white Chilean or Argentinian or even Colombian standing next to me feels I’m about to rob him or her – especially her. Yes, for some reason I think the women are annoy more prejudiced than the males.

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    We will reap what we sow.
    Be kind to a person of color each day.
    Get to know a person of color each day.

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    Sheila gaskins

    Great article, though I am not from a Latin community, I am very familiar with Colorism. My dad would tell us stories of how hard his life was while growing up in Baltimore communities with a light mom and a dark skin Dad. He was the darkest of 8 siblings.
    His stories resonated with me deeply.
    I know to well the strife and complexities of Colorism.
    One tip- Know your history. Research the history of America.
    Words are important. Choose your words carefully before you speak.
    If you see something say something.
    Examine your own biases.
    Try not to compare yourself with others.
    Love the skin your in!!!
    – Sheila

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