I’m Not the Nanny: Multiracial Families and Colorism

I’m Not the Nanny: Multiracial Families and Colorism

Book Review
The New York Times

Allyson Hobbs, Associate Professor of History
Stanford University

SAME FAMILY, DIFFERENT COLORS: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families
By Lori L. Tharps
203 pp. Beacon Press. $25.95.

In Danzy Senna’s 1998 novel “Caucasia,” two sisters — Cole and Birdie — share a bond so intimate that they create a language only they can understand. Engulfed in the racial chaos of Boston in the mid-70s, the sisters nestle themselves away in the cozy world they have created in their attic bedroom. Their lives are forever changed when their mother, a liberal white New Englander, and their father, a black man with radical political leanings, decide to divorce. The sisters are divided: Birdie lives with her mother and essentially passes for white, while Cole, who looks black, moves in with her father and his black girlfriend. In a city as racially divided and explosive as Boston in the 1970s, this separation by skin color strikes the reader as a chillingly rational decision.

Forty years later, America is no longer the bipolar racial regime of black and white that set Birdie and Cole on such different paths. Not only have personal attitudes changed, but the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 — which upended American immigration policy by abolishing the quota system based on national origins — has also transformed the country’s demographic character. The landmark Loving v. Virginia case of 1967 prohibited legal restrictions on interracial marriages. Federal racial classifications now recognize mixed-race identities. But neither Cole nor Birdie would have been widely understood as mixed-race in the 1970s. As Danzy Senna, who is mixed-race, has written of her own experiences during that tumultuous decade: “Mixed wasn’t an option. . . . No halvsies. No in between.”

Lori L. Tharps’s new book, “Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in America’s Diverse Families,” is an urgent and honest unveiling of how generations of American families have lived with these changes. Tharps focuses on “colorism,” which she notes is not an official word, but has been defined by Alice Walker as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color.”…

Read the entire review here.

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