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A Teen Faces Colorism At School And At Home In 'Genesis Begins Again'

When teacher Alicia D. Williams asked kindergartners to pick out a crayon that reflected their skin tone, she says something heartbreaking happened: Out of a spectrum of multicultural options, "Never, never, never do our kids of color choose a skin tone that's close to theirs. They go as light as possible."

Observations like these inspired Williams to write her first novel — Genesis Begins Again — about a 13-year-old African-American girl who dreams of having smooth hair, and skin as light as her mother and grandmother. Genesis keeps a running list of things about herself that she hates — her skin is #95.

Genesis encounters prejudice and colorism from classmates, strangers, and members of her own family. Williams says these stories come from a very personal place — from watching her students, and from her own experience.

"I've seen it growing up, not just within my family, I've seen it within our community. ..." Williams says. "We still talk about light skin vs. dark skin. ... This whole thing starts all over again in each generation."

Interview Highlights

On wishing she had been more like her character, Genesis, as a teenager

I wish I was as feisty as her. I wish I could have been a little bit sassy, but I was this quiet, nerdy, book reader. ... [I was] trying to figure out: How do I be Alicia? I think so many other middle schoolers are trying to figure that out — so they pick up words, they pick up phrases, they pick up the clothing styles, hairstyles, trying to figure out: How do I fit in in middle school?

On what it's like to be the only black student

I know how it was for me in undergrad — walking into a room, being the only black in 250 students around me — but as a 13-year-old, or 12-year-old, how does that feel, and how do you keep your identity? Do you find someone to connect with you? ... How do you make friends?

On pointing out racism within one's own community, or within one's own family

I'm terrified. I'm so terrified. ... You say: You don't talk about this in front of white folks. You don't let them know what's going on in your house. I'm nervous about giving people words or ammunition. I'm so nervous because, as a writer, you start thinking: Is this going to be a good thing? Will I do more damage, or will I help?

On what motivated her to tell this story

The whole thing was: How can I help heal some children? ... It's not just colorism that I want to heal them from, but to let them know they're good enough. ...

Across each ethnicity there's always something [other kids will tease you about.] ... I saw children definitely affected by colorism. I saw friends. I still felt the residue for myself. ... Whether people receive it [this way] or not, I know my intention and the impact that I want is to heal some people. It may not be for everyone, but have to heal somebody. ...

This is something I needed to hear. ... I need to hear ... It's not going to happen overnight, that I'm going to love myself, but, you know, it's going to be OK.

Justine Kenin and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.