Color Me Beautiful: A Dark Girl reflects on Dark Girls

[for Clutch Magazine]

The highly anticipated documentary, Dark Girls, made its debut on OWN Network last night. In the days leading up to the world television premiere, as more and more promo materials were released, people began to reach out to me; and on yesterday, no less than a few dozen folks emailed, messaged, Facebook’ed, and tweeted me – “Dark Girls is on! Are you watching?” I had already seen the film during its national tour last year, but I needed to watch it again, not because it was just that good, but because I wanted to see folks’ response to the film in real-time. My Facebook and Twitter timelines confirmed what I have long known to be true – we have been trained for war.

What I witnessed on social media last night was no different than what I’ve experienced time and time again. Whether in-person or on-line, conversations about skin color often transform into scenes that look like they were taken straight out of School Daze. While many dark-skinned women appreciate the acknowledgement of a pain that feels impossible to heal, others resent what feels like new picking at old sores, while many others reject the repetition of personal reflections that seemingly suggest that all dark-skinned women have issues. Some light-skinned women feel overlooked, their experiences seldom recognized as if their lightness somehow protects them from any pain. But if any of them dare say so, they are quickly and effectively dismissed if not silenced. Brown-skinned sisters who aren’t so light but aren’t that dark are somehow made to reflect on their own skin color as much lighter or much darker than it actually is, just so they can be a part of the conversation. Either that or they watch from the sidelines and remind us every now and again that we continue to push them to the sidelines. And where are the men? Either shaking their heads or being blamed for having us caught out there like so. And like clockwork, there are always more than a handful of brothers willing to offer their unsolicited opinions about their “preference.” In the end, we all head back to our corners exasperated and exhausted.

As I watched Dark Girls and the social media warfare that ensued, I couldn’t help but to question the film’s purpose. I mean, I know what Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry have said – that they wanted to facilitate dialogue and help to move us towards healing. I get that, I support that, and I have the very same intentions for my own work. I wholeheartedly agree that a potential for our healing lies in open and honest conversation. However, we have to be purposeful about that conversation. Part of the reason why we aren’t able to have different conversations about skin color is because we aren’t talking about skin color any differently than we have been since forever. We can’t seem to talk about our color without our complex.

For nearly two hours, I watched dark-skinned women, faces tear-stained and emotions raw, testify about all the many and painful ways that colorism has damaged their beings. Unfortunately what I didn’t see were any of the myriad ways that the conversation could have and should have been nuanced. Yes, I am a dark-skinned woman, who was once a dark-skinned little girl who grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and therefore knows all too well how colorism can break you if you let it. But I didn’t let it. And what Dark Girls was missing was that voice. The voice of the confident, assured, self-affirming, self-loving, “I wish you would tell me I’m not the ish” sister, who although she can relate to the pain refuses to stay stuck in it and has somehow figured out how to find beauty in her reflection. We needed that voice, not to distract from or to negate the experiences of pain, but rather to balance them with the capacity for triumph, if the purpose of the dialogue is in fact our healing. If we truly want to heal, we have to stop talking at each other and start talking with each other. And to do that, we need all voices at the table – dark, light, and every shade in-between – without the “vs.” While not with equal measure, colorism does impact us all. I’m not sure that those of us on the darker-end of the spectrum really need to maintain a monopoly on the pain. I think there’s room for other voices and other experiences. We needed the voice of the light-skinned sister to tell us what it’s like to walk into a room and have women who know nothing about her throw daggers with their eyes, or the light-skinned sister who stays in the sun and has either loc’ed her hair or cut it very close because she’s down for her people and doesn’t want anything about her presence to cause the browner-skinned women she considers her sisters to question their value. We needed that balance, if in fact the purpose of the dialogue is healing.

We also needed to hear more from men about their own experiences with colorism, not just their opinions about women’s experiences. In our dialogues and debates, we act as if colorism doesn’t affect men too. Again, not with same measure, but impactful still. There’s a reason why dark-skinned men have no problem opening their mouths to report that they “prefer” light-skinned women and perhaps that reason has something to do with how what they see in the mirror makes them feel. Instead of continuing to ask men about their personal “preferences,” why not hold them to task and ask them to make sense of that in light of their own complexions? (pun absolutely intended) For every dark-skinned man who wants only a light-skinned woman, there is a light-skinned man who only wants only a dark-skinned one. Like his darker skinned brethren, he also doesn’t want his children to go through what he went through. Either that, or he wants a woman who will validate and authenticate his Blackness and therefore his manhood. And on the subject of White men – yes, there are White men who appreciate our complexions, but there are also White men who exoticize us in ways no different than their forefathers did. So no gold stars for the White men who adore their chocolate lovers. Dark-skinned, light-skinned, or White, as I always say, there is a fine line between preference and pathology.

I find it interesting that the two dark-skinned male directors were inspired to make the film because of their observations of “the unfortunate pain” of others and not their own. I’ll admit that I take issue with Dark Girls for the same reason I was incensed by Chris Rock’s Good Hair: aside from the fact that it is Black men leading the conversation about Black women on issues that also affect Black men, most problematic is the absence of any substantial contextualization within global White supremacy. To Dark Girls’ credit, there was some focus on enslavement and the trauma it caused, as well as some discussion of the global impact of the media in creating particular images of beauty, and I do believe one of the experts interviewed actually said the word “global White supremacy.” (Good Hair offered no such context which ultimately served to pathologize Black women – as if our issues with our hair came out of nowhere. We are some peculiar creatures aren’t we?) Still, in focusing on personal story after personal story, that much-needed context was somehow lost and the issues were over-personalized. We needed to walk away from the conversation assured that we are not “crazy” and that we did not do this to ourselves. What we needed was a conversation centered more on the history and continued legacy of global White supremacy because “if you do not understand White Supremacy — what it is, and how it works – everything else that you understand, will only confuse you.”(Neely Fuller, Jr.)

Our relationships to colorism and to each other made me hesitant to offer any critique of Dark Girls out of concern that they would be seen as just another line of arsenal in our on-going wars. For as much as I have to say about the film, while watching with my social media crew last night, I tried very hard not to say anything at all. I knew that the film would be very powerful for many women and that many of them would finally feel affirmed by the fact that the conversation was being had in such a public manner and that it was endorsed by Oprah no less! But I also know that if we don’t start having new and nuanced conversations about skin color and colorism, we will continue to be at war.


18 Replies to “Color Me Beautiful: A Dark Girl reflects on Dark Girls”

  1. I could have not written this article any better if I had written it myself. I agree the documentary was truly one sided. Imagery starts at home. I was raised to understand that beauty should reflect all aspects of the rainbow.

  2. Thanks for this. I do agree that the conversation on the legacy of global white supremacy is needed to truly understand the source of this epidemic. Though most may not agree, I also feel that at some point “they” need to be at “our” roundtable. As we begin to understand, heal, and become empowered, I find it important for white men and women to be a part of this conversation because much of their behavior is learned, passed on from 1 generation to the next without truly understanding or caring about the effect it has on people/women of color. (accountability) In my interactions I have come to realize how invisible we are in their world, even with our high rate of visibility. They have the privilege of choice. They can choose to not see us on TV, Magazines and such. We on the other hand accept what is being fed because we feel we have no choice and what is being fed are the European standards of beauty and success which most times don’t include us. We must educate and empower ourselves but I do believe that part of that includes educating others.

    just a few of my immediate thoughts : )

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I do think there’s a conversation that “they” need to have, a conversation that “we” need to have, and conversation that the larger ALL OF US can have together. Thank you for reading and for sharing your thoughts, Nikki.

  3. I appreciate your comments. However, the film is about “Dark Girls”, not light girls, or brown men, but dark girls. Discussing some of the things you suggest would have changed the scope of what I believe the filmmakers were trying to convey. Moreover, changing the scope would water down the analysis of darker women in America. A documentary is almost like a dissertation and tends to focus on a narrow subject. I would not watch a film on Russian Jews and then critique it for not including Polish Jews. I wholeheartedly acknowledge the existence of the Eurocentric history of the world that has lead us down this path. I agree that the film would have benefited from more exploration of the root and historical causes of colorism in addition to the “effects” – which they did a very thorough job of discussing.

  4. Why is it that any time Dark skinned Black women have a flicker of sunlight beemed upon us for one hot second after 400 years of diregaed in the Americas it is proclaimed to be the cause of disharmony in the Black community ? I’m not buying it. It is not wrong for 2 Black men to dedicate time to honor the struggles and lives of Dark skinned women and they don’t have to apologize to anyone for bringing their vision to film. Nearly every Black oriented film and video produced in this society has Lightskinned and Brownskinned women as the central focus. Are you writing blog posts to accuse them of division in the Black community?Thanks for your post. The reason why there needed to be a “Dark Girls” is because in this White Dominant society the space available for Dark girls is minuscule. The Black media has, for generations, done nothing but celebrate light skinned women. Please do not tarnish the brashness of the producers of this film to start talking about light skinned women and brownskinned women. The creation of this film, however flawed, is a masterful accomplishment. Can’t we get even a second to luxuriate in the moment created for us, after centuries of neglect? There are thousands of media outlets available to tell the lightskinned woman’s story and the Brownskinned women’s story. That’s all BET, Ebony and Jet do. The reason that the release of this film is so important is precisely because other Black media outlets have ignored us for so long. Part of the reason why the scars are so deep and the years flow is precisely because of the intentional neglect of Dark women.
    Two Dark men dedicated a moment in history to recognize and honor Dark women when the rest of the community takes us for granted and people flip out. Why? Because they are so used to seeking Dark women be ignored that the decision to put the spotlight on us after 400 years makes them uncomfortable. Why? Because many Black people have low self esteem but at least they can feel superior to Dark women. If Dark women can be recognized and honored they will have to rethink their self appointed superiority. No, this film did not have to talk about lightskinned women and brownskinned women to have value and importance.
    Having said that, however, I agree with you that the continual representation of Dark women as oppressed sad sacks is more than tired. I am a very happily Dark woman who lives a very happy and vibrant life and there are many more like me.

    1. Thank you for taking time to read Sandra. Like I said in the article, I hesitated to critique because I knew how important the film would be for dark-skinned women. If you look at the rest of my site and other posts you’ll see that colorism is my life’s work. I will do this until I can’t anymore. It’s not a one-time film or a one-time book for me, so I suppose I have higher standards and expect more especially because I am dedicated to our healing. I appreciate your passion and I appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

  5. Well said. I’m dark skinned and I married someone even darker. Our son is very dark yet very handsome. At about 7 or 8 years old he expressed to me that he was ugly and to black because the kids in school (religious school) were teasing him. I told him that he was beautiful and I said those little girls don’t know what they are talking about, all my friends say how handsome you are all the time. These grown women are always complimenting you on your eyes and your handsome features. When those little girls grow up they will realize how handsome you are and will all want to be your girlfriend! He smiled, he accepted that and never looked back! Honestly I think I created a monster because from that point he carried himself like he knew he was the boom. We as parents have to help our children love themselves and others will see them the way they see themselves. All skin is beautiful.

  6. Awesome post Yaba, talk the truth. I wonder when our men will analyse their own issues and come to terms with their own biases and suppressed psychological trauma.

    1. Give thanks, Michelle. Good question. Maybe “Dark Boys” would have open our eyes to something new…for us to see just how insidious colorism is – it affects us all, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or location. THAT would have been nuanced.

  7. Dr. Blay,

    I couldn’t agree more, and excitedly wait for September 14th when you speak to 500 girls on the issues of colorism. More importantly, how we begin to move pass the pain, and into our power.

    #Empower #Encourage #Inspire


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