(c) by Dr. Rhonda Sherrod
Yesterday, I came home from work and went to bed early – very early. My mind was tired from the events that had transpired at work and I realized that I needed rest. At the counseling center where I work, I had just participated in the testing and evaluation of a pretty little brown-skinned 12-year-old girl who was having academic problems. We had had many little conversations in between subtests and after we concluded the testing process, while waited for her mom, she had informed me that she only likes “light-skinned people.” She looked up at me and said, quite shyly, “and… White people.”
All of this came about because she had demanded to know if my “boyfriend” was “light-skinned or dark-skinned.” When I asked if it mattered, she had let me have it. In her scathing critique, she made it clear that dark-skinned people were… well, worthless. My mind began careening: “Here we go again. Here is yet another Black child whose mind has already been infected with the mythology and madness this culture foists upon one Black and Brown person after another. She is infected with the mythology concerning beauty promoted by white supremacy.”
My mind took flight, the trajectory was dizzying. I went in every direction trying to determine the most effective way to address this child. I had so much to say, and my many thoughts danced around in every corner of my mind. I know, of course, that when children articulate this type of nonsense, a lot of it emanates right in their homes where they have already been traumatized by bizarre comments like, “Bring your Black a__ in the house,” or “Get in here outta that sun, you already Black enough.” These types of utterances represent the more innocuous coded messages, but they are unmistakable. The parent is conveying to the child that there is something fundamentally wrong with being Black. The more aggressive and low-down messages come more direct: “Look, don’t go get no real Black one,” the mother says to her son. Or, “Come here, let me deal with that nappy head; I wish you had good hair;” or “Act your age, not your color.”
That, or course, does not even begin to address the myriad ways many Black parents communicate to their darker-skinned children that lighter-skinned, or better yet, white children are preferred and of greater value. The ways in which some Black adults lavish sun-kissed praise on light-skinned and white children is, frankly, sick. I remember going to a holiday get-together at the home of a friend whose mother had the temporary care and custody of a little White foster child whose own parents did not want her. There were Black children who were members of that family at the party, but you would have never known it. All the attention went to little “Megan.” My heart churned in pain as I looked into the sad, almost desperate eyes, of the beautiful little Black children who, ignored, sat silently as they inhaled the love and attention that little Megan received. Get her some juice; get her a small piece of cake; oh, look, I bought Megan a cute little dress; oh, let me comb her little blonde hair; oh, I promised Megan I would bake her some chocolate chip cookies; oh, my goodness, she sneezed, turn the heat up…
When one of the little Black boys, sensing it was okay, asked for a piece of cake, his request was met with a venomous tirade about how he knew better than to eat cake before dinner. One little girl, obviously perplexed and tormented, sidled up to me and asked if I thought her hair was pretty. The behavior of the adults was in a word, disordered. So, much for holiday cheer, I thought, as I made my apologies for having to leave to my shocked hostess and, ah… “friends.” My heart ached for those little Black children and my anger toward the Black adults had reached the zone of rage. I was uncomfortable with this pathetic display and I knew, intuitively, that it was time for me to leave, before I made someone else share my discomfort.
But back to my little examinee at the counseling center: As I struggled to regain my composure, I recognized that I was in a delicate situation. I was not there to preach to this child, and she was not intellectually prepared to receive my comments and ideas on the matter, anyway. Yet, as a responsible woman of African descent, I could not allow such blatant self-hatred to continue brewing and ravaging this child without an attempt to at least prick some area of her consciousness. This was all the more so because this child truly liked me. She had asked me over and over if she could go home with me. She had said if I were her teacher she would like school! (Bless her heart, she probably could sense that I truly valued her.)
I remembered that my little examinee had told me that she liked basketball, specifically Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. So, I parried:
“I thought you said you like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal.” Satisfied, I smiled.
But she countered, swiftly I might add, “I like they basketball, I don’t like them. They ugly.”
“Wow.” I thought. “Little sister is serious.”
Exasperated, I had to play my trump card.
“What about your mother? She’s dark-skinned. She’s pretty. You don’t like her either?
The little girl blanched… but just for a moment, and then she recovered.
“That’s different. I’m talking about boys. I don’t like dark-skinned boys.”
Having never seen her father, I gambled, “Is your father dark-skinned?”
“Naw, he light.”
And she lit up as she gushed, “His whole family is light. And my grandmother was Indian with long pretty hair. Ooooh, I used to love combing her hair. It was so long.”
I asked her about her Indian grandmother, even though I already understood that her “long hair” exempted her from being disparaged even though, indubitably, she was probably “dark.” Then, although I didn’t want to, I asked her if she liked herself, because she was not “light.” Shocked for a second, she began to laugh, and then, as if I were both physiologically and metaphorically blind, she said, arms outstretched as an offer of proof, “I’m light.” She could not believe that I did not comprehend her as light-skinned.
I gazed at her — tried to hold it back, but decided that I needed to say it. I gently lectured her, in age appropriate language and as diplomatically as I knew how, on the folly inherent in liking people because they are light or white, and how ridiculous and self-defeating it is to dislike someone because s/he is dark. I concluded by informing her that some of the best-looking, smartest, most talented, gifted and creative people on the face of the planet are, in fact, Black – and many are dark in complexion.
I thought about this pretty little brown-skinned child as I drove home that evening and I thought about her as I bathed and got ready for bed. It was 6:30 pm when I sat on the side of my bed, and then it came to me. This system of mental domination and annihilation that we as a people have been subjected to is like psychological AIDS. It has shut down our intellectual immunity — our ability to defend ourselves from the lies of this culture. The fact that this syndrome is acquired is especially salient, too, for Black children do not come into this world hating themselves. No, they come in strong-minded and strong-willed and then the system grabs them with the complicity of their already infected parents…
Copyrighted material, by Dr. Rhonda Sherrod. Excerpted from an essay entitled, “Psychological AIDS,” from the upcoming book, “Surviving, Healing and Evolving: Essays of Love, Compassion, Healing and Affirmation for Black People,” by Dr. Rhonda Sherrod. Dr. Sherrod is a lawyer and a licensed psychologist.
Note: The excerpt from my essay above describes events that took place before this year.