Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families by Lori L. Tharps.
Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2016.
Nonfiction, 203 pages including sources and index.
This is the study of something few non-academics want to talk about – colorism. While everyone can get behind fighting racism, colorism is more insidous, deeply rooted in American racism and refreshed as immigrants arrive with their own cultural ideas of colorism. Tharps combines information from experts with deeply personal stories from families that are biologically related, but have different physical appearances.
A short introduction first tells how Tharps became interested in colorism – she’s African-American, her husband is from the south of Spain and identifies with dark-skinned people, but her three children each appear very different. Tharps then gives some background information on colorism and an overview of the book.
Four chapters focus specifically on different groups. Tharps explains that she chose to work only with biologically related families because she wanted this book to be focused on colorism specifically and adoption adds other dimensions. However she also states adoptive families will find much to relate to here – I agree.
She also chose to focus only on American families (to keep the concept narrow) and interview only adults over 18 (so they could have a balanced perspective on their experiences). She includes a variety of personal stories and expert commentary because her goal was to write a book that would create discussion about colorism among ordinary people.
The four chapters are African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and Mixed Families. Each chapter is obviously quite different but they follow a similar format. First Tharps tells us the history of how each group was introduced to colorism and dealt with it in the past. In chapter one, I found this less interesting because most of the information was familiar, but I wasn’t familiar with colorism in the other groups.
After that comes a section of personal stories about living in families with the same ethnicity but different skin, hair, and/or eyes. One of the best parts is that Tharps often groups similar stories. In the African-American chapter, she shares stories of different women who grew up with a light-skinned mother and a dark-skinned father. In the Latino chapter two men talk about looking very different from their families. She shows how personal experiences can shape opinions for better or worse and how some family members may choose to join another ethnic group and disavow their heritage.
Many people were asked if they were adopted and insulted for looking different than their families. It’s certainly true that families who look different are often subject to very personal commentary from strangers! In particular, the chapter on mixed race families taught me so much. The final section of each chapter has expert commentary by specialists of each ethnicity. After most chapters is a sidebar with additional information.
I was disappointed that this book did not cover Middle Eastern or Native American colorism, but the author was wise to keep a narrow focus. It was clear even in the Asian-American chapter that she struggled with finding enough interviewees willing to discuss colorism. She does briefly discuss the Loving case, although Mildred Loving identified as Rappahannock.
I believe that being a Black woman helped Tharps with the first chapter, her Spanish fluency and marriage helped with the second, and mothering biracial children offered her credibility for the final chapter. The Asian-American chapter relies more heavily on experts than personal stories, but her commentary on the specific terminology needed to engage in those conversations was enlightening.
This is the first book I’ve read that dealt specifically with colorism. However, there are many books suggested which I’ve added to my TBR. This quick read did an excellent job of combining history, research, and personal stories. I would highly recommend it to all Americans and anyone interested in colorism.