Families in Psychiatry

Colorism can lead to intrafamily conflict


The color hue of a person’s skin is the most obvious criteria for society to judge a person and has always been deeply rooted in racism. Discrimination based on skin color is called colorism and is usually meted out by members of the same race and in the same family. The general belief is that someone with a lighter complexion is more beautiful, intelligent, or valuable than someone with a darker complexion. The term colorism can be widely applied in our assessment of conflict within families and society. The following case example gives guidance for psychiatrists faced with a family where colorism fuels family conflict.

Dr. Alison M. Heru, professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver, Aurora

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Meeting the family

The Jaspers, a Black family, arrive at the psychiatrist’s office. They come in and look around before they choose their seats. Dr. Sally watches who sits next to whom and how they organize themselves in the office. After brief introductions, Mr. Jaspers begins, explaining why they are there.

“We are always fighting. We need this to stop. She, my wife, contradicts me all the time. Our kids are getting frustrated, and Bruce is acting out in school. He got in a fight again last week.”

Everyone looks at Bruce. He is darker skinned than the other siblings and carries all the African features in a family that favors the lighter end of the color spectrum. He sits next to his mother who leans into him. Mrs. Jaspers speaks next.

“Bruce gets picked on in school.”

Mr. Jaspers responds, “Well, if you didn’t run in there all the time and take him out, maybe he would learn how to deal with it better!”

“But they are mistreating him,” Mrs. Jaspers says.

The other children look away and play with their phones. Dr. Sally wonders whether this is a pattern: The parents fighting about how to deal with Bruce and his difficulties in the world – and the other siblings getting ignored and not included.

Dr. Sally asks Mrs. Jaspers for more details. She tells a narrative that is a strong thread in this family’s story.

“As you can see, Bruce is darker than the rest of our children. When we see the rest of our family, they all comment on what good skin and light coloring and good hair the other children have. Bruce just sits there. He is always being left out. He doesn’t speak up for himself. Maybe they think he can’t hear them, but I know he does and it affects him. They say the others are more intelligent, but I don’t think that is true. Bruce just gets picked on in school and he doesn’t feel like he matters. He doesn’t say anything, so maybe people think he doesn’t care, but I know he does.”

Dr. Sally turns to Bruce, who is still sitting silently next to his mother, his head down.

“Bruce, what do you have to say?”

Bruce shrugs his shoulders. His siblings still do not want to be drawn in and are otherwise occupied.

At this point, Dr. Sally might be thinking that she could see Bruce alone to assess his depression/self-esteem and maybe find ways to try to build him up. She does not want this to be an opportunity wasted. The goal is to work with the family to get Bruce where he needs to be faster and help the whole family.

Dr. Sally presses on. “Mr. Jaspers, what is your opinion?”

“She babies him. She treats him differently from the other kids. She is driving a wedge between him and his siblings. We fight about it all the time. She is driving a wedge between us, too.”

Mrs. Jaspers jumps in: “But you don’t know what it is like! When I was the only Black person in math class, I got picked on all the time! It made me self-conscious, and I couldn’t do my work. “

The other siblings look up briefly then back down at their devices. Dr. Sally asks them as a group:

“Can I ask you a question as a family? Can I ask the children a question?” They look up again. “Is this what goes on at home?” They all nod but offer no details.

Dr. Sally asks the oldest: “How does this affect your relationship with Bruce?”

They all look back and forth at each other. There is another long silence.

“See!” says Mr. Jaspers! “You can't protect him forever, and you are just ostracizing him from the rest of us! “

“But, but, he, he needs to learn different things. He is different. He faces different struggles. The police will stop him more. I am afraid for him.” Mrs. Jaspers starts to cry.

“You can’t protect him forever,” says her husband, gently reaching over to her.

Bruce has psychologically disappeared from the room, hiding behind his mother, who is now the largest and neediest presence in the room. Mr. Jaspers looks at Dr. Sally helplessly.

Dr. Sally asks the important question to the whole family.

“How do you all think this should work? If you don’t think Mrs. Jaspers is right, what do you think should be the way forward?”

This question is the turning point and indicates that Dr. Sally sees that the solution lies in how the family wants to manage things.

“I believe that your whole family has the answers, that you all have thought through this situation much more deeply and for much longer than I have. I am just hearing about it, and I am White and don’t have this experience. I have faith in your family, that with an opportunity to openly discuss this issue, that this knot can be unraveled. It does not mean that there are not more knots to unravel. For today, how to help you all help Bruce, is the work."

Dr. Sally talks to everyone but finishes up by looking at Mr. Jaspers, who has indicated that Bruce is part of the family and should not be treated differently from the other children.

Sean, the oldest sibling, now pipes up: “Bruce gets everything he wants. Mum spoils him; she always takes his side if there are arguments. Bruce knows this, and he steals our stuff because he knows he will get away with it.”

Bruce is quiet and leans in more to his mother. Dr. Sally motions to the mother not to speak.

“Is this true, Bruce?” Silence speaks that the answer is yes. The disparities in the family are aired for a while longer.

“Mrs. Jaspers, it is now your turn to respond.”

“Bruce is darker and faces more challenges than the others; he needs more protection and to know that he is loved.”

“Your family seems to think otherwise. They seem to think that your protection, while admirable, needs to be tempered to allow him to grow into a man who can stand on his own feet.”

Dr. Sally guides the family as a whole to a place where they can agree on the problem. The problem is now framed as a mother who cares too much and is too protective of Bruce but now her love and care need to be tempered. As a mother, she feels that it is her duty to protect her most vulnerable son. The family knows that Bruce will face more social scrutiny than the others, that he will have more internal struggles with self-worth than the others. How can the family help?

This conceptualization causes the family to look searchingly at one another. It is nothing they haven’t thought about privately, but this is the first time they are together thinking about it.

Dr. Sally says that she can help by providing time and space for them to wok through this together. They all agree to come back the following week with some thoughts about moving forward.

Offering perspective on colorism

In her book “Facing the Black Shadow,” couples and family therapist Marlene F. Watson, PhD, discusses colorism.

“African Americans still have a tough time talking about slavery – the origin of colorism. Seriously, what can we really expect to change without acknowledging and challenging the psychological residuals of slavery in our families and communities? What doesn’t get resolved in one generation is passed on to the next so our issues from slavery go from one generation to the next.”

Dr. Watson continues: “Confronting the secret about skin color in our families and communities is necessary for all Black girls to feel lovable, worthy, and deserving of care and for all Black boys to feel their value lies within them, not a dark, light, bright, near-white or White woman. African Americans need to get that preferring light over dark or dark over light is problematic for all of us. Skin color preferences in the African American community follow society’s racial hierarchy. African Americans as a group are at the bottom in the larger society and dark-skinned African Americans are at the bottom in the Black community.”

Dr. Watson suggests a way that we can help our patients. She encourages families to draw a family tree that tracks the family’s beliefs and patterns about skin color. Her advice is to ask each family member, from oldest to youngest, to identify the spoken and unspoken skin color beliefs he or she experiences in the family. Ask about skin color beliefs from outside that affect family members, and what each person thinks the family could do to stop promoting the “less than/better than” mentality that is often present with skin color assignment.

Thank you to Lynette Ramsingh Barros, who collaborated on creating the case.

Dr. Heru is professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Denver, Aurora. She is editor of “Working With Families in Medical Settings: A Multidisciplinary Guide for Psychiatrists and Other Health Professionals” (New York: Routledge, 2013). She has no conflicts of interest.

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