"The truth is, I would shave layers off my body if I knew I'd be lighter. In two more days, I could've been truly light-skinned. And without my cream, what if-what if the spots change back?"
Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams is a book that reminds me middle-grade reads have the power to tackle social issues that affect us way into adulthood. This book follows Genesis, a dark-skinned thirteen-year-old girl from Detroit trying to fit in at a new suburban middle school. It's hard to capture all of the nuances of colorism and the self-hatred it breeds in our darkest moments as Black women and girls, but Williams manages to do it so well.
Genesis has a list of reasons why she hates herself. it started when in fifth grade, two girls slipped her note titled "100 Reasons Why We Hate Genesis." Instead of throwing away the list, Genesis now adds to it. And #70 reads: "She can't stand being this black." This is the main thing Genesis dislikes about herself - her dark skin.
Her path to lightening her skin starts when Grandma talks offhandedly about using lemon and exfoliation to get rid of aging spots. Genesis tries this in secret, but it fails to bleach her skin. This doesn't deter Genesis. Genesis soon finds out about skin bleaching creams online that "women all the way in Jamaica, Africa, India, and Korea" are finding success with (btw, this quote highlights how colorism is global). Genesis buys this cream by stealing her mother's credit card and starts using it.
It's not just colorism Genesis is dealing with. After the family is evicted out of their home in Detroit, her father promises Genesis and her mother a new life in the suburbs which he says he can now support with his promotion. But he still can't seem to stop drinking, gambling, and forgetting to pay the rent. And a part of Genesis wonders if her father drinks because he hates her dark skin.
Will this cream truly fix Genesis' problems? And where did Genesis learn that dark skin was an issue in the first place? Often it's from the people closest to us.
Let's begin with a definition of colorism before I delve deeper into my thoughts. Because I often feel like people think talking about colorism is superficial. Or worse, people suggest colorism goes "both ways." This saddens me because colorism really is racism's twin sister, both being worldwide manifestations of white supremacy and premised on the idea that darker-skinned people are inferior.
Colorism is, according to Merriam-Webster, "prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin." Or as Oxford puts it, "prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group."
And even though many Black women are particularly outspoken about this issue, colorism is not specific to the Black community. it exists, unfortunately, in other communities of color.
What is interesting is that, while racism is something people of different races do to each other, colorism is usually something people within the same ethnic group will participate in against each other. This is captured by the book so well - notably, all of the characters who are colorists to Genesis are Black.
When we meet Genesis, she still attends her diverse Detroit middle school and is trying to become friends with a mean girl group lead by Regina, another Black girl. It's Regina who calls Genesis "Char", short for charcoal, and "Eggplant" to make Genesis feel bad about her dark skin.
Fast-forward to Genesis's new suburban school with "so many white faces all in one place," and it’s Terrance, one of the few Black boys at the school, who taunts Genesis with "Dang, she's burnt." It's also interesting how colorism can be gendered. Even though Terrance is "a real dark boy" himself, he can say that to Genesis. Many Black women, including me, have experienced the "same-color-as-you-but-hates-you" Black boy in your class.
Yes, Genesis has friends in Sophie, a Greek white girl, and Troy, another dark skin boy who models self-love. but these taunts are hard to ignore.
It's not just peers, but family. Genesis' maternal grandmother tells Genesis that it's no secret why their family ended up all successful - they married light. In fact, Genesis' mother was never supposed to end up with a dark skin man like Genesis' father.
But arguably, the biggest source of shame about her dark skin is Genesis' own dark-skinned father. He is an alcoholic with a gambling problem. He also watched his brother die as a child, had a mom who hated him for it, and didn't like his dark skin. I get that these things don't make him an irredeemable person.
But what does make him irredeemable are the colorist things he says to his daughter Genesis. For instance, in a drunken rage, he yells at his daughter "You were supposed to come out lookin' like her," referring to Genesis' light skin mother. Yet, even though I didn't like Genesis' father at all, it is important what he represents which is colorism as generational trauma. a self-hatred that is passed down generations. a colorism that hopes light skin women will make their daughters look different and then is upset when it doesn’t.
Colorism isn't the only thing tackled in this book. Texturism, or hair discrimination, is discussed here as well. In her safe space, Genesis likes to sing in her room. To "prepare," she'll put on her mom's lighter foundation and tie a black shirt around her hair to give her the feeling of having long, straight lustrous black hair.Those stunned by the foundation but not by the black shirt are missing something also addressed in the book: Kinky hair is as much an issue in the Black community as skin color.
All said, this book was a great read, capturing what colorism feels like when you are thirteen. But more than that, it illustrates the emotional turmoil that occurs when a Black girl is conditioned to think that beautiful is the antonym of (dark-skinned) Blackness.