Today, I am revisiting the first blog I wrote for the collective in 2010. I can’t remember why I wrote about colorism, but it feels as fitting and relevant today as it did two years ago when I first found the words. I wrote about how “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” is a backwards pseudo-compliment that leaves dark-skinned girls caught up in a conundrum and half-smile, wondering if the two things she is being called (the two things she is) are oxymoronic, canceling each other out—does being pretty make up for being dark-skinned, does being dark-skinned cancel out being pretty? What the hell?
As I attempted to put a new take on it, my recent reflections remind me of how infrequent I hear a personal compliment or affirmation at all. Sometimes, not hearing who we are, particularly from the people around us, makes us question it. Pouring from my own needs I tend to shower people with compliments. I call my students beauties, just in case no one has (ever) told them they are beautiful. I want them to know that they are beautiful people—not out of manipulation, but sincerity; and not because of what they look like, but because of who they have the capacity to be. When I notice something beautiful about a person I tell them, specifically and intentionally, that they have a sweet or calming spirit, a beautiful smile, remarkable eyes. Beauty, for me, is more than skin deep…it’s not about what people see, it’s about what they can’t see. This is how I survived my formative years, when people called me what they saw/thought (“ugly”) based on standards I could never meet (“light, bright, damn near white”), and I still had to figure out how to love myself.
When I was younger I thirsted for the words, even if they were empty. Perhaps that is why I found myself in empty situations with hurt feelings, a battered heart, and a beauty so scarred I couldn’t see it for years! When someone finally told me I was beautiful they were able to use it against me like a weapon because down deep I never thought I would hear it again. Once I picked up the pieces and got perspective on the ways that colorism mimics so many other built-in discriminations and privileges (i.e., heterosexism, ageism, sexism, racism, ableism, etc.) I vowed to never be that thirsty for a compliment again… and to actively remind myself, and others, (especially beautifulbrownandblackgirls/women) that beauty ain’t never been stingy and there is enough to go around! This post reminds me that I need to call my damn self pretty…more. I need to rely less on other people’s opinions, release myself from being bound by other people’s stubbornness (to give a compliment), or opinions, or lack of home training, or insecurity, or down right meanness and love myself… fiercely and unapologetically. I will look long and deep til I see my own damn pretty, and say it out loud (because sometimes I need to hear it), and if needbe take a picture and keep it on my nightstand.
So this morning, after re-reading the post, I stood in the front of the mirror and stared at a early morning, wild-haired, glassy eyed, bloated bodied me… before I washed my face, brushed my teeth, got in the shower or could even see myself good I decided to love on myself for a moment. I noticed the moles on my chin, the line that forms on my nose and forehead when I squint, how my teeth and lips hide my gums when I smile, and how dark and brown my eyes are. I saw my mama’s nose, my daddy’s mouth, and my grandmother’s sass hidden behind too few hours of sleep and puffy eyes. I saw the imperfections, birth marks, stretch marks, and chocolate dipped exterior and thought to myself, I am pretty…period!
Self-care includes self-love! Be about it.
Original Post: April 1, 2010, see amended version below
“You’re Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl…”
I have heard this statement many times in my life from well-meaning black women, seemingly surprised 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… I mean we never say “you’re pretty for a white/light-skinned/skinny/athletic/young/able-bodied/heterosexual girl….” It is always the opposite that deserves comment. In other words, “you’re pretty to not be normal/what I have come to expect.” (Yeah, folk can pretty much keep those pseudo-compliments to themselves).
The words, “you’re pretty for…” is no different than saying “you’re pretty, but…” The old-school women in my church would often talk ish while smiling, sandwiching a compliment between critique like meat and bread. “You putting on some weight? You look good, but what you doing with your hair?” Uh…yeah? Or, “She got strong features. Favor her mama. Look just like her daddy.” Uh-huh.
The words would come at me softly, sometimes hard, but mostly behind smiling eyes and perfectly thick lips, insinuating that if it wasn’t for _____ I would be acceptable. The other implication was 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 had ever known
being wrapped in “a precious dark skin tone”
and India Arie’s fascination with “brown 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…
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, unlike dark-skinned men, were never in style.” This, of course, doesn’t mean that people 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 person to take home to mama or make babies with. Regardless of my qualities, I often(times) hear 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, long-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.