When I first started this blog at the beginning of the semester, it was a very personal decision for me. I have experienced the effects of colorism in ways I only realized in the last few years have profoundly affected my sense of self, identity development,and relationships with others. I have also seen how colorism has affected my family members, classmates, and friends in the form of discriminatory comments, as well as a lack of adequate representation in the media and a lack of sufficient access to various goods.
This week, however, I came across an article from late 2015 that discussed how colorism and internalized racism may be risk factors for youth who may be vulnerable to sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. The author provided several vignettes of young women who linked their beliefs about their complexion to their entry into and participation in the commercial sex trade:
Danica: So when I got into the life that was the only place that I felt it was okay to be light skinned because I started making a lot of money. The tricks like-if they couldn’t find a White girl they’d take me. If they wanted a Black girl and didn’t want a dark skinned Black girl because they might be afraid she’d rob them, they’d take me. Ya’ know what I’m saying. So that kept me out there many, many years. That was the only place I felt like I was beautiful and a star and I must be ’cause they keep giving me all their money.
Yet another survivor, Jada, described how her darker skin color related to her negative self-concept and subsequently influenced her positive feelings toward a lighter-skinned pimp who had approached her while she was in a restaurant at a penny arcade.
Jada: My first pimp came to me. He was hot. He was gorgeous. I’m dark skinned. You had to be light skinned and this is my crazy saying. You had to be yellow to be my fellow. I’m straight crazy. He looked like Rod Stewart. He had the little gold streak in his hair. Because my self-esteem already played in me bein’ black, my color.
Reading this article was interesting for me because, as I mentioned earlier, the issue of colorism is deeply personal to me. In curating this blog and participating in this class in general, I’ve been able to process and work through feelings of internalized oppression and to unearth and combat many biases I’ve found within myself. Because this process has been so challenging personally, I think I have sometimes overlooked an incredibly important piece of doing this work — understanding how isms also affect our clients.
In essence, this article reminded me of the intersection between the personal and the professional. At first, I thought of how this research might intersect with my work next year. I’ll be working at Legal Aid’s Exploitation Intervention Project doing mitigation work with women who are charged with prostitution-related offenses. In my own research, I was aware of how a child’s SES, race, child welfare involvement, homelessness status, and history of child maltreatment among other things could make a child more susceptible to CSEC. But I had never stopped to think about how colorism could affect a child’s entry into sex work. It makes so much sense though. As the article suggests, many children internalize the messages they receive from others and society about their complexion, which can affect their sense of self-worth. This can lead to a host of issues, such as “accepting limitations to one’s own full humanity, . . . an embracing of ‘whiteness,’. . . self-devaluation, . . . resignation, helplessness, and hopelessness” and “significant emotional distress.” All of these factors can then make someone more vulnerable to CSEC.
This research also relates to my work right now. Studies show that some individuals become involved in CSEC during adolescence, which is the age group I work with now as a high school social work counselor. I know the messages some of my clients receive about their complexion are not positive, and I know that can detrimental to their emotional wellbeing. This is why it is so important for clinicians to understand how isms affect their clients. Because clinicians can be a positive force in the lives of their clients, helping them to be empowered by their race or complexion despite society’s messages. Doing that strengths-based, empowerment-focused work can be a huge protective factor against a whole host of negative things, including CSEC-involvement, before it occurs. Recognizing the ways isms affect clients can also be important after a traumatic event has taken place because it can help the clinician validate their client’s experiences, which can bring a sense of understanding and support to the therapeutic alliance.
Hurst, T. E. (2015). Internalized Racism and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). Race, Gender, and Class, 22(1/2), 90-101.