Exploring Unconscious Bias & Colorism in Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health

ParentChild+ Washington State Program Director, Pamela Williams shares a few thought-provoking insights from her recent presentation at the 18th World Congress for the World Association for Infant Mental Health in Dublin, Ireland.

Pamela Williams October 30, 2023
  • Equity
  • Professional Development
  • Blog

Occasionally, Start Early Washington team members are honored with opportunities for thought leadership on a global scale. In this blog, ParentChild+ Washington State Program Director, Pamela Williams shares a few thought-provoking insights from her recent presentation at the 18th World Congress for the World Association for Infant Mental Health in Dublin, Ireland.

A Global Stage for Equity & Social Justice

In July 2023, Pamela Williams joined a global panel discussion at the 18th World Congress for the World Association for Infant Mental Health in Dublin, Ireland, focused on Equity and Social Justice in Infant Mental Health. Joining co-presenters from Canada, Australia and the U.S., Pamela led a session exploring the Residual Effects of Colorism and the Impacts of Implicit Bias in Our Decision Making. This presentation provided a unique opportunity for practitioners to reflect on how unconscious bias affects decision making in their field.

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Unpacking the Impact of Colorism

Colorism is favoring individuals with lighter skin over those with darker skin. It has deep-rooted consequences, resulting in disproportionate access to resources and preferential treatment, perpetuating societal ideals of beauty, success and alignment with a specific image.

Challenging Unconscious Bias

Pamela emphasized, “While we know that racism is systemic, it is important to understand how colorism shows up without us knowing.” She highlighted how colorism reinforces white supremacy and operates as an unconscious bias that influences decisions related to policy, programs, curriculum, resources, materials we select, who we hire and overall decision making.

Colorism sits right there – and while you may not see the varied hues of who represents a community, the decisions we make do.

Pamela Williams, ParentChild+ Washington State Program Director
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Exploring Colorism in Media & Society

Pamela led her audience through a series of thought-provoking questions and exercises, shedding light on the presence of colorism in communities, society and media. She showcased compelling historical and contemporary print ads, billboards and advertisements from the U.S., France and Asia, demonstrating how media supports a harmful, racist narrative that white is best, “the lighter your skin, the better you are.” She encouraged her audience to reflect on the messages the media portrays to Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC), and the messages it portrays to white people.

Broadening the Scope of Race Equity Work

Pamela stressed the importance of broadening the scope of race equity work beyond an American-centric perspective to better serve diverse staff with varying life experiences. Recognizing the disparities in the representation experienced by BIPOC American-born staff and those born outside the U.S., she pointed out that discussions about race need to adapt to the backgrounds of the communities we partner with. “Many of our BIPOC American-born staff struggle to remember the age when they saw people like themselves on TV, and many of my team members born outside of the U.S. said they saw representation all their lives.”

The result is that the conversations around race we may have in the U.S. do not mean the same thing to individuals raised in other countries. However, when we ask what it means to have dark skin, many individuals around the globe can relate to biases around skin tone. –Where the U.S. may embrace terms such as “Black” and “Brown,” individuals born outside the U.S. may cringe at the thought of their child or themselves being labeled with terms such as brown or black because they are viewed negatively in their home country.

Embracing Uncomfortable Conversations for Positive Change

Delving into these deeply ingrained biases, Pamela acknowledged the weight of these discussions. She was particularly mindful of encouraging her audience to stay present and engaged, as addressing these “sneaky little buggers that sit with us” is crucial for positive change and needs to be talked about. As a result, there can be powerful outcomes from doing this hard work; by challenging ourselves to uncover deeply held biases, we can improve our decision making, allowing us to do better in the communities we serve.

Resources For Deeper Understanding

To gain a deeper understanding of colorism, Pamela referenced the book Colorism: Investigating a Global Phenomenon by Dr. Kamilah Woodson. She also shared movie suggestions that explore this subject, including Imitation of Life and Passing. These resources provide valuable insights into the complex worldwide issue of colorism and its societal impacts.

About the Author

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Pamela Williams

Start Early Washington’s ParentChild+ Washington State Program Director

Pamela Williams is the ParentChild+ Washington State Program Director with Start Early Washington, supporting a diverse group of organizations implementing one-to-one and home-based family child care models statewide.

More About Pamela Williams

Advancing Racial Equity

For over 40 years, Start Early has been singularly focused on the healthy development of young children, from before birth until kindergarten, helping close the opportunity gap and ensure children are ready to learn.

We are uncompromising in our pursuit of excellence and remain steadfast in our commitment to dismantling the unjust practices and policies that are harmful to children and families of color. Our work would not be possible without recognizing that each child and family has been uniquely impacted and traumatized by racism and generations of long-tolerated inequities.

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