Color(ism) Complex(es)


When I heard a documentary called Dark Girls had been produced in 2011 to share the often silenced stories and experiences of dark-skinned women and girls, I felt a wave of emotions and had a range of reactions fluctuating from curiosity and anxiety, to excitement and anticipation.  I wrote an ode to dark (skinned) girls and kept re-watching the promotional video connecting each time to a story of trauma by remembering my own color(ism) complex issues, and feelings of insecurity, rejection, and pain because of my skin color.  I imagined that the documentary would open up old wounds but heal them in the same sitting by hearing truths, shared out loud, and in community.  I would know for sure that feeling like a “black sheep” in my family was not an isolated experience and that perhaps women in my generation and after, who had themselves experienced the “dark side” of colorism were fashioning new narratives for themselves and their daughters (instead of passing on/down the same tired ass colorist preferences that left us feeling broken and unpretty).  I was hopeful that Dark Girls would give dark-skinned blackgirls a starting point to move past the generations-long silence(s) about colorism in the black community and the ongoing and harmful effects of community cultivated self-hate.  Unfortunately, the documentary didn’t live up to my fantasy.  When I finally had the opportunity to watch it in its entirety last summer when it aired on OWN, I was disappointed, confused and (at times) bored as hell and disinterested.  The evocative narratives of dark skinned women that drew me in to the teaser clips were broken up by would-be history lessons about slavery, commentaries about beauty, and men who reiterated the romantic rejection several of the women expressed by claiming their penchant for #teamlightskin .  The failures of Dark Girls far outweighed its possibilities and it felt like an important moment was missed.  Instead of being a space for healing and moving forward there was further stigmatization of dark-skinned-ness nestled between victim shaming, pathology, and an over-simplification of the genesis of colorism.  Further, while dark-skinned women were given space to bear witness to their stories, they were not allowed to analyze them.  Black men were presented as the experts of black womanhood, while white men showed up to chastise black men (for not desiring darker skinned hues) and fetishize black skin.

When I heard that there was a sequel to Dark Girls I was all in my feelings again but for different reasons.  This time I don’t have expectations, I have concerns.  I am definitely here for light skinned women having the opportunity to tell their stories and talk about their experiences of colorism, but I fear that their narratives will be compared, contrasted and set against the dark girl narratives in a public and combative competition of “que es mas oppressed?”

Conversations about colorism are important, complicated, messy and difficult.  The discussions oftentimes feel like we are participating in a fight that unknown, sometimes unseen instigators set up because we feel defensive if/when we believe our lived experiences are being dismissed, and we are reactive to triggers of our personal pain.  No one wants to be made to feel like their “suffering” isn’t or wasn’t sufficient, and it is exhausting to participate in Oppression Olympics.  We walk away feeling frustrated because most of the time the conversations are one-sided because one person’s testimony leads to another person’s silence, guilt, anger, or frustration.  Then we feel resentment towards each other all over again for perceived privileges and/or slights.  We talk over each other if we talk at all and can’t help but judge each other’s stories and compare them to our own.  Then we end up re-telling the same stories to other black women with skin like ours assuming only she “gets it.”

If Light Girls goes wrong it will perpetuate an unnecessary division between dark skinned and light skinned women situated in blaming each other instead of understanding each other.  If it goes wrong, the testimonies will read as a blackened version of white saviorism, marking light skinned women as race martyrs who frame their color discrimination as the fault of their so-called nemesis, dark (skinned) girls (who, in the first film, were faulted for their own issues).

If Light Girls goes right it will be an extension of earlier conversations that do the work of interrogating the built-in privileges of being light skinned alongside the costs and consequences.  If it goes right it will  offer counter-narratives that don’t compete but rather join together in critique of the larger systems of inequality that cause colorism in the first place, namely white supremacy and THE patriarchy.  If it goes right it will acknowledge that racism and heterosexism are, for all intents and purposes, color/ism-blind.  According to those blanket oppressions if you ain’t white, you ain’t right, regardless of how much cream is in your coffee.  A colorism conversation that does it right would need to include both (dark and light) perspectives at the same time, in conversation (and at times fruitful debate) with one another, showing compassion and empathy for our shared experience of “shame” and feeling “too black” or “not black enough.”  The conversation would also be inclusive, not of black men stating their preference of romantic or sex partner, but of black and brown women whose skin color is a shade in-between, and whose stories oftentimes gets lost in translation (and conversation).

My concern is that the sequel will perpetuate the ongoing war of words (and pain) between light skinned and dark skinned women, attempting to determine who has it worse.  Admittedly, as a dark-skinned blackgirl who grew up with a light-skinned sister and high yellah best friends, I sometimes feel hard pressed to sympathize with the struggles (that from the outside looking in always looked like benefits) of light-skinned-ness.  Don’t get me wrong, I know that colorism exists (and is fueled in the black community), and that the essentialist assumptions about light skin (read as good/privileged/pretty) creates and therefore competes with essentialist assumptions about dark skin (read as bad/disadvantaged/unattractive), but I also don’t know any light skinned chick truly trying to be dark (keep in mind, being darker when you are already light skinned is not being dark skinned, it is being a darker shade of light—there is a difference).  And as I reflect on that admission I have to deal with its implications, rooted in my childhood desire to be light(er) and deep seated resentments I felt when it seemed my peers took their light skinned-ed-ness for granted (or punished me for not being ‘light like them’).

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the documentary if only to see if they get right what went terribly wrong in the first film.  I hope they make space for the narratives of light-skinned women who love the skin they’re in, instead of focusing exclusively on those who wish their skin was a darker hue (celebration of one’s complexion was missing from the first film).  I am also hoping, like Yaba Blay, that we “hear more from men about their own experiences with colorism, not just their opinions about women’s experiences.” I want to hear the stories that are seeped in black masculinity, gender and sexuality, the stories black men bury in the so-called pathologies of black womanhood, and the stories that cause black men to wrestle with their own complexion-coded insecurities that they oftentimes take out on black women or encourage black women to take out on themselves (or each other).

One thing is for sure, though.  Come Monday night there should be some interesting conversations, critiques, and stories shared, and whether that happens in the film or in reaction to it, I’ll be listening.


5 thoughts on “Color(ism) Complex(es)

  1. This article is ON POINT! As a light-skinned woman myself, I was fearful when I clicked on this article because I thought it was going to be yet another critique of light-skinned women getting spotlighted, but you amazingly connected both light-skinned and dark-skinned struggles within the larger context of white supremacy and patriarchy WHICH ISN’T DONE ENOUGH.. Oftentimes black women [of different shades] fight each other without acknowledging that this subject is very complex. I too wish there was ONE film where black women of different shades just talked about their experiences in a way that didn’t dismiss the experiences of their other sisters.

  2. I didn’t watch the Dark Girls doc, and I won’t be watching the Light Girls doc. The reason why I didn’t watch the first one is because I expected it to be the same ole same ole, plus I become very angry and shocked that in this day and age, Black women are made to feel not worthy and rejected simply because they have dark skin. The light girl doc I expect to be about how much they were teased by mean dark girls and how they are made to feel “not Black” enough…YAWN…no thanks.

    BTW, I never thought Diahann Carroll was light skin, she always seemed like a beautiful brown sistah to me, however in recent years she appears to have gotten lighter with age (major side-eye).

  3. Had similar feelings regarding the Dark Girls doc; I think I’d built it up in my head so much that the reality disappointed me, but I disliked the fact that the dark girls’ experiences were portrayed as being near-universally miserable and hopeless, and that the few interviewed white men were shown as saviors who rescued a handful of these women from their low self-esteem.

    Here’s hoping that Light Girls will remedy several of those issues, but as a dark-skinned woman, I won’t pretend I’m not going to be entering this doc without a raised eyebrow. If I hear anything about ‘mean, bitter, jealous’ darker-complexioned black women while watching this, well…

  4. Yeah I have to echo some other comments here. The reason I never watched Dark Girls was because of everything the author mentioned. I could tell from the trailer that the origins of colorism were WAY oversimplified and further it just didnt feel like it was going to be touching on anything I didnt already know. After reading your critique I’m glad I didnt see it.
    Now I have to say after watching the trailer for Light Girls I dont have any hope for it either. I see alot of light-skinned victimhood at the hands of those mean, angry, rough dark-skinned women narrative in this and I’m not at all interested in supporting that bs. I didnt see one clip that wasnt directly or indirectly blaming dark skinned women for all the trials and tribulations of light-skinned women. So yeah, at the end of the day its good that the conversation is there but if the conversation is framed in the same tired ass tropes I just cant support it.

  5. Wow. It’s impressive how this is blocked off so heavily from white people. I feel really bad. It is remarkable how cut off all the cultural communities are from each other. How we try to dehumanize each other so much… and just because of looks too.

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