Dark Girls: Is Colorism Making a Comeback?

BlogHer Original Post

When it was recently announced that African-American producer Bill Duke was working on Dark Girls, a documentary on colorism within the Black community that will premiere in October at the Nashville Film Festival, the reaction was not only positive, but heartbreaking.

Many Black women recounted their negative experiences on the websites that posted the documentary teaser. Some had been teased by schoolmates by family member and by men on the street, who made cruel comparisons between them and their lighter-skinned counterparts.

 The Root suggests that because the film lets Black women speak honestly about how being criticized because of their features had shaped their lives, it makes for an important film:

Rather than vilifying the perpetrators of bias, the preview shows women being allowed to tell their own stories in a manner that sends an undeniable message about how nonsensical, painful and historically fraught our stubborn views of skin color and beauty can be.

Within the same time as the teaser was released, I watched an interview with Oprah Winfrey, taped for one of her “farewell” specials. She recounted how she had been forced to sleep outside by a Black woman who owned the house where Oprah’s mother lived because Oprah, then around six, was ‘too dark.’ However, Oprah’s younger, lighter-skinned sister received much more favorable treatment by both the owner of the house and Oprah's mother. I was shocked to see the tears that ran down her face when the self-made billionaire, the middle-aged woman who had millions of people who revere her, recounted that story of colorism.

The announcement of this documentary couldn’t have come at a better time. In the past few years, articles about how unattractive, un-loveable and ‘unruly’ Black women are perceived to be have been clogging up the blogosphere. In addition, The Root recently reported on a recent study in which the finding argue that darker-skinned women prisoners are given longer jail sentences than their fairer-skinned cellmates:

Villanova researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones received more lenient sentences and served less time than women with darker skin tones.

The researchers found that light-skinned women were sentenced to approximately 12 percent less time behind bars than their darker-skinned counterparts. Women with light skin also served 11 percent less time than darker women.

While the above, if accurate, is extremely problematic, I would argue that while colorism has been prevalent within Black/African and other ethnic communities(ex. South Asian) since the colonist era, when it was used to separate people based on skin tone and physical features to cause divisions among cultural communities and as a measuring tool against what was considered the more superior race and/or ideal, the most emotionally painful symptom of colorism is how it has been ingrained within ethnic communities. We all shout and scream when mainstream media decides to darken O.J. Simpson and Tiger Woods to make them even more sinister; and we always wonder about Beyonce’s photos – did they lighten her skin to match her dyed blonde extensions? Do they have to lighten black women’s skin – those who are marketing products geared towards a larger population demographic – so white folks will buy them?

On Colorlines, Akiba Solomon writes about how Twitter is used to enforce colorism within Black communities. Mentioning club nights like Dark Skin vs. Light Skin, it is obvious that internalized racism no longer exists on the schoolyard or among family members who feel justified in perpetrating racialized myths:

For the uninitiated, since about January a couple thousand tweeps have been using these hashtags to express their complexion-based pride, alliances, sexual desires and anxieties in 140 words or less. A sampling from the last couple of days:

  • “Being a light skin tone has its many advantages #TeamLightSkin.”
  • “#nothingsmoreirritating than the blackest girl on twitter tweetin #teamlightskin confidently!”
  • “So would I be considered #TeamDarkskin or #TeamBrownSkin ? I’ve never really knew. LOl”
  • “If u darkskin I can’t wife u only light skin girls #Teamlightskin date #Teamlightskin not no light and dark”
  • “#TeamLightSkin but sun gone have us dark at the end of the summer lol :/”
  • “Do yall really take a look at how dark kenyans are? They make me not want to even rep #TeamDarkskin”
  • “#honestyhour I think all women r beautiful but im more attracted to #teamdarkskin but dey evil women thou lol.”

However, some commenters do not feel that colorism is an issue. From the article on women prisoners:

Merely having a name that sounds too 'black' (that is, too black for white folks) or wearing natural hair styles can have a negative effect on a person's employment possibilities or job advancement, so how is this study news? I mean...really.

And they have a point: There are people, such as the passenger whose hair was picked through by TSA officials who thought she might be concealing a bomb in her hair, who are probably more concerned with their human dignity than whether someone doesn’t like the shade of their skintone. But on the other hand, its pretty pathetic how the shade of one’s skin tone can determine how we treat each other. If people within the same cultural or ethnic community can perpetrate colorism on a social level, eventually it will (if it hasn’t already) enter the workforce, and if it already hasn’t send a signal to others that if we can so easily be gullible enough to internalize a system created to divide us, than we are gullible to everything.

While Dark Girls is slated for release in October, funding is still needed. Please visit this Vimeo page to donate.

Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

Blog: Writing is Fighting: www.lainad.typepad.com

Writer: Hellbound: www.hellbound.ca

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