Black families engage in a racial socialization process, teaching their children how to navigate racial dynamics and develop their black identities. New research from the University of Maryland School of Public Health demonstrates that for black girls, that process intersects with conversations about gender, as families convey messages about desirable skin tones and hair lengths, textures and styles.
The study, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, was led by Dr. Mia Smith Bynum, associate professor of family science, whose research focuses on African American mental health, family interaction and communication in ethnic minority families, parenting and racial identity. Maryland alumna Dr. BreAnna Davis Tribble, was the study’s first author.
Researchers interviewed 29 black women, ages 18 to 40, about messages they received about skin color and hair and how they process them.
Most participants said they heard messages about a hierarchy of skin tones — with lighter being better — primarily from their mothers and aunts but reinforced by peers and romantic partners.
Anticipating racial bias, some families promoted “Eurocentric” beauty ideals — long, straight hair — and discouraged braids or natural styles they felt would lead to societal judgment. Other families embraced natural hair as an expression of cultural pride.
In all cases, the participants engaged in an active process of managing the messages received. While some were self critical when their appearance did not meet established standards, others worked toward acceptance of their natural skin and hair.
The results help researchers understand the ways hair and skin color are incorporated into gendered racial socialization, which few studies have explored in depth.Tags: Friday Letter Submission