Skinfolks vs. Kinfolks: Know Who’s Who

By Tanay Adams

As a Black woman, I am used to being “the only” in many situations. It doesn’t matter if I’m at work or in line at Chipotle; looking around and seeing a sea of white faces isn’t a new experience for me. This is even more true now that I live in a predominantly white region, state, and town and work in a predominantly white workspace. These situations of being “the only” have made it clear that I will always be hyper-visible whenever I’m not in my home, no matter what I’m wearing, whether or not I choose to. This is the reason why it touches my soul to see another person of color, specifically a woman of color… more precisely a Black woman, in any space that I happen to be or am required to be. However, over the years, I have learned not to become too excited too quickly whenever I see folks who look like me in similar spaces with me because I need to figure out whether they are Skinfolks or Kinfolks. Failure to categorize them accurately becomes a threat to my safety and the students of color I work with.

Though I am sure most have heard this expression before, a brief definition would be that Skinfolks are those who share the same skin as you but operate in a way violent and oppressive to those that look like them. Usually, they do this to appease and secure closer proximity to whiteness and create a chasm between them and Blackness – an act also known as ‘coonin’. The opposite would be Kinfolks, those who share the same skin as you, and spirit, understandings, and usually politic. As the name would suggest, these people are family! They comfort you in spaces where you expect to be “the only,” as well as the ones who choose to see and affirm you in these spaces. I have met my fair share of both types, especially within higher education. I personally know what it feels like to be tricked by Skinfolks who presented themselves as Kinfolks in spaces where I was just looking for understanding and has led to a lot of anger and distrust when it comes to being in community with people at work; however, the true Kinfolks that I have found, and that I do trust, are a big part of the reason I can survive another day. So how do I tell the difference?

  1. Figure out who they look up to. If none of their mentors are of color, Black, women, queer, or marginalized in any way; that’s hella suspicious to me. It tells me how you define success, and what you’re aspiring to, as well as what and who you respect.
  1. Notice who they choose to hang around, and who chooses not to hang around them. If you are a Black person who chooses to constantly hang out with white folks, or a Black person who other Black people do not feel comfortable being around; you’re suspect to me.
  1. Track when they choose to speak up and when they choose to stay silent. If they always have something to say in support of white folks and initiatives, but when it comes to advocating for or supporting Black or marginalized voices; they go ghost. THAT LOOKS SUS TO ME.
  1. Observe what they allow around them. If I see a Black person allowing white people to tokenize them, touch their hair, use the “N” word, call them their “Black friend”, and shrink them in any social outing; I do not feel safe around you. 
  1. Trust my gut. She’s rarely wrong, and if she’s not sitting right; it’s usually for a reason. I don’t gaslight myself anymore, and it’s done wonders for my emotional health.

So the next time you’re at work, attending a conference, or in a classroom, and you relax just a little, because you find a person with some melanin; take some time to figure out if they’re Kinfolks or Skinfolks before you start calling them family. Because you might still be “the only” one there. 

Tanay Adams – Tanay M.A. is a contributing writer for the Pedestal Project, LLC. Tanay’s passions lie in holistic education and creative/poetry writing; both are heavily influenced by her love of Black Women, and her love of creation. You can follow her on Instagram @theamazingtanayzing

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