I have heard this statement many times in my life from well-meaning black women, surprised black boys and peers, family members and perfect strangers who usually make the statement in response or reply to not having seen me in a while or in genuine wonder and fascination. The words come as somewhat of a shock in the moment, somewhat of a criticism, somewhat of an offense. I don’t know if I should be flattered or insulted…
The words, which come to me softly, sometimes hard, but mostly behind smiling eyes and perfectly thick lips, insinuate that one is either pretty or dark-skinned (not both)…and the tendency to be both simultaneously, is possible, but not likely. So, at best, I am an anomaly.
I believed the either/or myth long enough to be
surprised at lyrics that praised “boricua morenas”
and confused at Lauryn Hill’s sweet lyrics of
the sweetest thing she has ever known
being wrapped in “a precious dark skin tone”
and India Arie’s fascination with “brown skin.”
My skin left me feeling like if it weren’t for the fact that I was dark-skinned (or simply just a calm shade of brown), perhaps I could be beautiful/loveable/wanted. The internal conflict came at a problematic time because I already often feel like the merge of two impossibilities (undeniably black and possibly beautiful). Those insecurities sometimes continue with me being a black woman academic… something right (smart and successful) coupled with something wrong (black). What does that make me?
The backwards compliments (“You are pretty…to be dark-skinned”) have often fed my colorism, color complex issues and low self esteem as a child and my curiosities as an adult about my attraction to men who pass the paper bag test… caramel, cake battered skinned men with hazel-dipped eyes have always been much preferred.
My homegirl and I talked about how these color-issues translate to our lives, how we see ourselves (as beautiful or not) and how we are seen (desired or not). In movies, we (dark skinned black girls) are (usually) not the love interest. My friend sighed in surrender as she shared with me that “dark skinned women were never in style.” This, of course, doesn’t mean that men don’t notice that we are “pretty” (I mean chocolate is sweet)…but their temporary short term longings transition to long term sensibilities that tend to send them on quests to find the most exotic, racially ambiguous female to take home to mama or make babies with. Regardless of my qualities, I often(times) hear a man’s words merge with others telling me, I am pretty for a dark-skinned girl, but…
And those words remind me of how many nights I fell asleep on tear-soaked pillows praying to wake up a different me, a light-skinned, good-haired me, thinking and believing that that would somehow make me more…loveable. It was easy to believe that when everyone from my elders to my peers were constantly commenting on my lighter than ebony but darker than chestnut colored exterior and demeaning me (whether they meant to or not and whether they knew it or not) because I was not “white” enough…or “light” enough.
Women of color, black women especially, often struggle with seeing ourselves as beautiful when the epitome of beauty is something like white…
I am far from a Barbie doll—but loving the skin I’m in. Learning to love yourself is a lifelong process and endeavor and I am committed to it and fully aware that in a culture that privileges red bones over big bones I am not sure how beautiful I seem…but I am embracing the mocha in my skin and the mahogany behind my eyes. Even though I have often been told that I am beautiful in spite of, not because of, my “dark-skin” I am dreaming dark and deep.