In the midst of popular messages that speak about the unconditional nature of love, to what extent might it also be true that “What love looks like, depends on what you look like?”
After having spent several hours in labor, a black mother and father (first time parents) were overjoyed to welcome their new son into the family. By the end of the first month, when they were no longer sleep-deprived zombies, and had developed a semblance of a routine, they figured they were ready to receive family visitors. At the knock at the door, the mother adjusted the baby’s clothing and patted down the baby’s full head of hair under his blanket. Her husband opened the door to an eager family member who offered him a hasty hug all while looking over his shoulder to see the main attraction: the newborn baby. As the female relative reached for the baby boy, she exclaimed:
“Look at you! Oh, he’s so cute … Let me take a look at you (she takes the baby in her arms and inspects him by holding him up at a distance) Wow, look at all that hair! Ah, he’s got that nose. You see it don’t you? It’s wide and spread across his face. I’m sorry you got that nose (laughs loudly). Oh, you’re such a big boy! I’m sorry he got that nose from me! You see it don’t you? It’s wide and spread across his face. What are you going to do with that nose? I’m sorry that wide nose is just spread across your face!”
After having spent over 16 months in the homes of Black families in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, I collected ample evidence about how evaluations of racial features shaped people’s experience of love and impacted the distribution of affection in families.
In The Color of Love (2015), I offer examples of how evaluations of racial features (such as wide noses and afro-textured hair) can impact how a mother expresses her love for her children, how sibling relationships can go awry because of differential treatment based on racial appearance, and how romantic partnerships can be conditioned on racial appearance. These examples suggest that racialized competition and favoritism could actually undermine affective ties and impact people’s life chances. Reflecting the broader import of these dynamics, these findings echoed previous work on colorism in the United States (Burton et 2010; Wilder 2013) and have since been reiterated in my own more recent research on Afro-Latinxs in the U.S. (Hordge-Freeman and Veras 2020). Even so, I maintain that while Black families may engage in these types of practices, they often also simultaneously express love and affection in ways that affirm blackness, embrace black-looking features (including hair texture, facial features, and skin color) and, at times, challenge racism and colorism (Hordge-Freeman 2013; 2015).
What is evident from the research is that love and affection in Black families around the world must be understood within the context of broader systems of domination including racism, colorism, sexism, among others. In fact, the complex negotiations of love in Black families are essential elements of what it means to be part of the African Diaspora – it is the stuff of global racial domination. Indicative of the ubiquity of these experiences, the observations of the baby introduced above are, in fact, not from my field notes or interviews of Black families in Brazil (Though, they very well could have been). Instead, they are one of many comments that my husband and I encountered from our own family members in the U.S. after the birth of eldest child. In an unsettling way, as a Black transnational researcher, my entrance into motherhood less than a year after my research in Brazil proved to be a double-sided mirror that served as the basis for which I understood how research takes on new meaning when it “takes us from the four corners of the world back to our own front door” (Hordge-Freeman 2015, 246).
In my research on love, racial features, and Black families, what most readers often return to as the most fascinating finding is the conclusion that what love looks like depends on what you look like. But, loving someone differently, does not always mean that you love them less or even more. In fact, differential expressions of love can be transgressive. For example, displaying love for dark-skinned Black boys who tend to be viewed as criminally threatening and caring in distinct ways for dark-skinned Black girls who are often excluded or hypersexualized could be an intentional way to invest in what I refer to as affective capital – positive resources that accrue as one is exposed to positive evaluations and experiences.
In my research, Dona Elena, a Black Brazilian mother of several children, decides to enter the darkest and ‘blackest-looking’ daughter into beauty pageants as a way to affirm what she refers to as “true black beauty.” An Afro-Brazilian father in my research, who goes by the name of Pantera Negra (Black Panther), invests in the education of all of his biological children and also offers free job training to the dark-skinned Black boys in his neighborhood. He especially views his one-on-one time and mentorship as providing a type of paternal love and affection that many of them need but do not have. Unfortunately, these subtleties of how love and affection function in Black families and Black communities are often overlooked in exchange for discussions that exclusively center trauma, Black pain, and dysfunction.
In the end, my incursion into research on love and Black families has been an intellectual endeavor and one that is also political and personal. It offers a reminder that researchers can and are often deeply implicated in the dynamics about which they write. Rather than deny this, researchers would do well to embrace it. These insights informed the way that I highlight how the racial and gender socialization practices that Black parents may reinforce racism, but may also include intentional efforts to prepare their children for bias, while also offering affective validation about the racialized attributes that their children possess that the broader society view as dangerous or repulsive. Ultimately, the love I have for my dark-skinned Black son and medium-brown toned Black baby girl who have tightly-coiled afro-textured hair and ‘black-looking’ features is boundless; what my children look like does not shape how much I love them, but as is the case with many of the Black parents in my research, it absolutely shapes the distinct ways that I show that I love them. Indeed, in a white supremacist patriarchy their survival, success, and happiness may very well depend on it.
Dr. Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of South Florida. She received her B.A. from Cornell University and her M.A. & Ph.D. in Sociology from Duke University. Her areas of specialization include race & ethnicity, sociology of family, colorism, and labor exploitation emphasizing African Diasporic groups in Brazil and the United States. Her first book, The Color of Love: Racial Features, Stigma, and Socialization in Black Brazilian Families (UT Press, 2015) received three national book awards and is topic of her 2015 TEDxUSF talk. With the support of a Fulbright grant and a Ruth Landes Memorial Fellowship, she is completing a book manuscript entitled, Second-Class Daughters: Informal Adoptions as Modern Slavery in Brazil, which is based on over seven years of ethnographic data and interviews in Brazil. www.drhordgefreeman.com.