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"Dark Girls" Documentary Takes Painful Look at Colorism

Directed by Bill Duke, a 9-minute teaser for his new documentary "Dark Girls" takes a look at how colorism both within and without the African American community affects dark skinned black women. The womens' stories in this release are all quite painful in the rejection they felt or still feel from people, even loved ones, due to their skin color. 

Video and more after the jump.

No one's story in this teaser is unheard of to me. I had friends, classmates and relatives who've all had to deal with negative comments, attitudes, reactions and responses their skin color because they were born dark skinned. But what was most painful to me was the reminder of how even if you try to raise your daughter in a positive environment, so much of our issues towards dark and light skinned people in this country are so engrained, even having enlightened parents can't protect you from society's view.

I grew up in a household where my mother argued for black dolls when she went to the store and couldn't find any to buy for myself and my sisters. A woman who decorated her house in paintings of black people, who told us we were beautiful and taught us our history with pride. Yet, even I, once, at around five years old, got into an argument with my mother over what color my eyes were. I insisted they were blue because I'd convinced myself there was some thin, blue circle outlining the iris of my eye. My mother didn't get upset when I got indignant about it. But this is the magnitude of what black parents are up against. 

Unless they were going to forbid me to play with Barbies and ban the TV from my house, all advertisements, books with non-black characters and pull me out of school -- I was going to pick up on how "beautiful" blue eyes were supposed to be. No one ever made a big deal about the "so dark brown, they're almost black" eyes I was born with. Many of my classmates oooed and aahhed over the kid with the "light" green eyes. Or my friend who had hazel eyes. I, naturally, got over it with time and now love my large, round almost "Disney character" shaped eyes, and think the eye color is perfect for my hair. But I didn't come to that realization until I was in high school, drawing my own portrait for the first time. 

So, I can only imagine how torturous it was for my darker complexioned friends, whose parents often OPENLY compared their darker, shorter haired children to myself and my sisters. I was surprised one of my close friends didn't hate me, since every time I came over the house her mother yelled at her as if it was her fault she was an overweight, dark-skinned 12-year-old with short hair. I would squirm uncomfortably and she, so used to the negative language, almost didn't even flinch as her mother lit into her for not being as pretty as me or styling her hair like mine or getting as good grades as I got. 

I often dealt with the side effects of colorism while my friends dealt with the disease. Like, I always ended up being pursued by creepy guys with weird hair fetishes. Or who "bragged" about how awesome it was that they were light-skinned. Or who were dark and told me it was their "dream" to date a light-skinned girl with long hair. Some of my friends, on the other hand, either A) never got asked out at all or B) were told they were cute for a "dark girl."

But the reason why I say I've always dealt with the side effect is that I know a lot of people have a preference for lighter skinned women with long hair. So most of the colorism I dealt with was either a form of "pre-rejection" by darker complexioned people who assumed I would be mean, stuck up, torturous, rude, ignore or hate them as others had done to them in the past. Or it was an over-abundance of superficial attention that made me uncomfortable. Like the time one of my little cousins told me and my sisters we were "white" even though we are clearly brown skinned (but we were lighter than him so therefore we MUST be white). Or the people who tell me I'm "not that light-skinned" as a slam when I don't consider myself to be light-skinned. Or the people who accuse me of lying about being brown skinned because I'm actually light. Or the little girl who wanted to play with my hair because it was "like a white girls." Or I got in long arguments with people who insisted I couldn't have two black parents and have long hair, who demanded to know what I was mixed with, as if I was hiding 500 years of slavery under my shirt.

But I never had to deal with someone just flat out saying I was ugly, or that I would never find a man, or that it was "unfortunate" that I was so dark because I'd be so much prettier if I was lighter. I've never had the people I love -- mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, sisters, best friends -- lament or even express disgust at my skin color. I've never been called names like "inky" or told I was "left in the oven too long." I was never harassed, marginalized, ignored, rejected or abused simply for not being the beauty "ideal" many claimed to prefer. I never had some black guy say he didn't want me because I was black (even if I didn't want him once I learned out how creepy he was with his colorism issues).

The disease -- no matter how obnoxious or hurtful the side effects can be -- always seemed to be a different kind of devastating and cruel. To have your own mother lament you for being dark, like you were born with a some horrid deformity, can't be healthy. But there's no real way to avoid it as an African American -- other than to maybe pretend it's not there. Which doesn't make it go away, mind you. But you can choose to disengage.

A while back I did a post about a Sesame Street character singing about loving her hair and a few people wondered why, we as black women, were "still" stuck on hair. That it shouldn't be an issue anymore. But the operative word is "should." It shouldn't be an issue, but it very much is. For a lot of people, the pain is still very real. The rejection and hate and self-hate and negativity and cruelty is still happening, at this moment, right now. And no amount of wishing it away will kill the dialogue or prevent a child from internalizing hate about his or herself. It simply needs to continue, again and again, until we process our way through it.

I wish I could say things would get better sooner rather than later, but I loaned my best friend Wallace Thurman's Harlem Renaissance era novel "The Blaker the Berry" to read while she was pregnant back in 2008 and she gave it back telling me the thing could have been written now. 

It's still relevant and that's sad. But that's our reality. We have to confront it to get better.

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  • Response
    I’m a dark skinned woman. The situations and instances the women in the trailer discuss have never been my issues. However, if you ask my mother she believed I was colorstruck in high school because a few of my boyfriend’s happened to be light skinned. I told her, “I’m not colorstruck ...

Reader Comments (62)

Saw this video clip on another site. Powerful & sad. Hoping to watch it when it comes out.

Reflecting on what you said and looking back at my own childhood, I think we dealt with the same thing: side effects (i.e. getting called "yellow" and other mean & crass names). I don't even consider myself any particular "shade". I am who I am - Black. But others find & found it more important unfortunately.

Both the side effects and (even worse) the disease need to be obliterated. Unfortunately, it may not happen in our lifetime.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSpinster

This post made me so sad. My sister and I are both darker hued and my parents always told us that our skin was beautiful. Perhaps it is because my parents are from Ghana where colorism doesn't run as deep, but it hurts that a lot of my friends can't see how gorgeous they are because they weren't told to be proud of their skin.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNana

Disclosure: I'm not black. I would love to read/hear/find out about why this issue seems to be so gendered. Dark-skinned black men, as far as I can tell, are not given the same kind of treatment, and you find a lot more of them in the media and entertainment worlds.

Am I wrong about this?

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachelC

@ RachelC:

I'm not 100 percent sure about the reason (perhaps some of our social anthropologist/historian readers can chime in) There a lot of dark complexioned black men who deal with colorism issues as well, but in the last 15 years or so, a lot of women (black and otherwise) have said they have a preference for darker skinned black men as they find them to be more masculine and attractive. Also, men, across the board, usually aren't measured as heavily for their looks. Women are constantly being told their worth is tied in their beauty and that beauty is based on a Western European ideal. So I think the issue hits dark skinned women harder because as women they are judged more harshly for their looks.

May 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterDanielle Belton

I was discussing this with my best friend last night. Both of us (I guess) are considered darker complected. We were both perplexed by the whole thing. Both of us grew up in the South, but neither one of us was subjected to this kind of thinking. I was in college the first time I was called "dark-skinned" in a derogatory way. Fortunately by that time, I was comfortable enough with my looks not to take it to heart. I actually found it amusing that someone thought my complexion was a weapon to use against me.

I wonder why I never picked up this particular complex. Lord knows, as a black woman raised in the US, I picked up every other complex that was lying around. I wonder if the fact that I lived in a predominantly white area affected the fact that I didn't experience colorism. As far as the white folks around me were concerned, we're all just black. No need to try to differentiate between the shades.

I've always been told how pretty I am (and my similarly complected friends are). Now looking back, those compliments tended to come from white people. Now I wonder, if all this time, my community thought I was an "ugly, dark-skinned girl", and I was too obtuse or clueless to pick up on it. This is something I'll have to ponder. Not for long...mind you...I've got complexes regarding my hair, weight, and marriagibilty to stress over too...

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBelle

I saw this posted yesterday on Facebook and got into a lengthy discourse about this subject. Danielle you put it into much better words than I could. I said I found it disappointing (having grown up in the sixties) that after decades of much more positive imagery of African Americans out there-Cosby, Oprah, Spike Lee movies-this subject was an underlying theme of "School Daze"- and the Afro-Centric cultural movement that little dark skinned kids in some quarters are still faced with this internal discrimination. I took pride in the fact that my grandfather was so light he could have passed for white, but chose not to and married my grandmother - a very dark skinned woman at a time when "the brown paper bag club" was at it's height and light skinned blacks were marrying each other in the hopes that it would help their children.Then I thought about it-in many if not all of the generic rap videos have dancers with light brown skin and long hair. My dark skinned niece went out for her (HBCU) college cheerleading squad and had to have or buy "hair down to there" just to go out for the team and her mom was very positive and into African/Caribbean culture and pride. Michael Jordan's wife was light like many other black male celebrities and sports figures( I mean, it's their choice, but what was behind their decisions?). Seeing that can't be good for darker hued girls and people in general. Even male friends of mine have uttered inanities like "dark women are mean" which I've always challenged them on . As long as we look at beauty through a Euro-centric lense we'll continue to struggle with this issue.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeitu Hayden

I'm dark and I have never had a problem with it. Really. I can also fight; maybe that has something to do with it....

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSerenity

I'm a big fan of yours Danielle, but I have a totally different take on this right. In fact, I have a post on this in my blog about the "woe is me mentality that we love to revel in". I realize that colourism is real, I witnessed it over and over multiple times. I have watched "black like me" and other documentaries focused on colourism. Lisa Ling even did an eye opening segment about on asian girls that repeatedly picked the blond doll over the chinese doll b/c the western looking doll was prettier.

All of these "documentaries" are awesome because they highlight the problem, but my question is this what is the solution? I respect Bill Duke but I'm going to avoid this documentary like I avoided Precious because I have better things to expend my energy on.

And positive movements like Black girls Rock don't have enough of our support behind it. In fact, when the second show aired, a lot of people either ignored it or criticized it for not having enough big stars.

I'm going to say this again, it seems that we derive a perverse pleasure out of being the downtrodden ones.

::Pure Disgust::

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterUdara

@ Udara

I totally understand your point. But this is the sort of issue that is a non-issue for some, yet still very raw and devastating for others. As for a solution, the best people can do is be aware of their own internalized prejuduces and work to make sure children don't end up with them as well. That, and along with pushing for more diverse images in the mainstream is about the most you can do. The key has always been awareness and education. But some people need to talk about the hurt as they've never talked about it. It's sometimes such a shameful, hurtful thing to confront. Some people never deal with it.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDanielle Belton

Such poison--why on earth do we perpetuate it? I've seen this operation at both extremes. The valedictorian of my high school, whom I'll call W, was very dark; very pretty (perfect features, cheekbones and lip shape that belonged on a runway); super-intelligent (did I say she was valedictorian? and now an M.D.?); and on top of it all had a slammin' body. Yet she went through high school friendless, even villified. Many made much of her dark skin (which happened to be flawless), and she had a chip on her shoulder that in my opinion had everything to do with an equally-dark mother whose life experiences relevant to complexion had left her embittered, and she passed that along to W. On the other end of the spectrum was H., a college classmate. H was rather, um, facially unfortunate. She had a weak chin, a noticeable malocclusion, teeth that desperately needed dental attention that perhaps her parents hadn't been able to afford, an odd facial shape, and chipmunk cheeks (the uncute kind). But H was very light-skinned, and had nearly waist-length hair of a texture referred to the simple-minded and/or self-hating as "good." Presumably because of her skin & hair, H was almost universally considered beautiful, even though the opposite was true. The dark W, who was physically beautiful, was called (and felt, I believe) ugly. I saw how this madness impacted them when they were young and have wondered how it impacts them now as adults. We all know people whose lives have been negatively impacted by colorism. Let's stop the madness, folks. Don't perpetuate this b.s., and if you're one who doesn't, speak up when others do. Do it lovingly, but let's educate and enlighten those among us who perpetuate this crap. This is one vestige of the lessons of slavery it's well past time to leave behind.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSunny

One thing I love about women bloggers, they are so honest and open with their writting. I this is very deep, true and personal. Thank you.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchris

This broke my heart.

This topic never ceases to affect me, particularly because it conjures up memories of being called "ugly", "African booty-scratcher" and "cockroach" (I actually beat up the boy who called me that when I was 11) growing up with dark-skin. I remember not having a date for prom because no one would take me. I remember not truly feeling beautiful until I was 27 years old. Never mind that I had symmetrical features, smooth pudding-like skin, and high-cheekbones, the very traits that people consider pretty and desirable. My darkness negated all of that.

The solution to this colorism issue has to begin with us as individuals; we need to believe our black is beautiful in all its shades. Trying to resolve this issue collectively will not work. I'm infinitely more confident now, and, as a result, I personally refuse to perpetuate this foolishness. Personally, I'm not above correcting a black woman or man when they automatically refer to loosely curled or straight hair as "good hair". Personally, I do not support artists or products that glorify one end of our black beauty spectrum and not its full range. And, when I have children, personally, I will not be above opening up a can of whoop-azz on anyone who tries to put that colorism poison on them.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterViv

@Viv: BRAVA!!

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSunny

Even though I am only half black I had a HUGE complex when I was a little girl and absolutely neeeeded to have blonde hair. My mother and aunt tried to rationalize with little 5-6 year old me by telling me that I didn't need it and I was beautiful the way I was and could not understand what the obsession was all about. Finally they got fed up and told me that they would buy me a blonde wig so that I could see just how ridiculous it would look on me and how blonde hair just did not belong on my head. In hindsight I feel so sad for that little girl. Even though at the time I was growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood I still wanted to have the white features that every Barbie doll/Disney character had. It's so sick what becomes ingrained in the minds of innocent little children who should be able to love themselves for who and what they are. It truly makes me sad and I can only hope that change will eventually come around. Probably not in my lifetime.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjamalama

Excuse me, Iman, Beverly Johnson, Kenya Moore just to name a few, are so striking that it seems that the creator took a little more time with these regal women .And surely that is only naming a few. See, the problem is blacks have been brainwashed since slavery to believe that their color isn't desirable but that ain't what master thought at all, thus, the rainbow of colors we have now! And i will not pretend that people can't have true preferences just as with everything else ;Prince makes my knees weak as well as denzel;.both men of color. Here's a piece of truth for you all; most people want to be somewhere near the middle-not too fat, not too skinny, not insanely rich , not dirt poor, not purple black, not alabaster white.Thats why there's bleaching cream and tanning lotion, lip injections and lip reductions. I grew up in the hood so to speak and i witnessed the same things talked about in this topic. I believe that until people evolve in their thinking, change will NEVER occur and ignorance never takes a holiday. I weep in my heart for all cultures who endure this mental insanity (blacks are not the only group by the way).Just hold your beautiful heads high and do you! From our lips to our hips, you know were the shit and you don't have to wait for the world to catch up and validate this.We're the first women put on this globe! God is our validation.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermagan w


I have friends on both ends of the color spectrum and I've seen the tremedous hurt each "end" received. I guess I was always confided in by both sides because I didn't make the "color" jokes. (My mom didn't allow, when I heard others speak so harshly about one's dark or light skin, it made me cringe.) As one somewhat in the middle, not too dark, not too light, and with what was considered "good hair", I wasn't "attacked" (well, not for skin or hair, let's not talk about being the chubby girl).

But, as I was reading this post and incident came to mind: I was 17 and my boyfriend at the time was not doing me right..he was messing with this other girl a few blocks over. (You know how it used to be, everybody in the neighborhood knew your business was someone else's before you knew it...LOL) Anyway, I'm talking to my friend about it and her boyfriend hops in the conversation and says: "Well, what do you expect, that girl is light skinned, with good hair and green eyes?" I'll never forget the way he said I was just dirt or something compared to this girl. The worse thing to me was his girlfriend (my friend) looked just like should have seen the look on her face...she was stunned & hurt!!! (SN: I never liked him after this lil convo!)

All this to's so sad how we do each other...especially those who look just like us! Perhaps that's why many do it..."I'm ugly--I don't like myself, you look like me, so I don't like you either". SMH

Keep doing what you're doing, Snob! ;-)

I wish I was in DC...I'd apply for an internship. ;-)

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTheRYL1

Way to go Magan W.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterECW

This is depressing ! I really don't get it. Isn't Tiny and Wendy Willams proof that light skin doesn't equal pretty ? It's weird to me. The same poeple with these complexes are same ones running around acting all pro-black ? I was more tea...sed because of my dark lips and being a dirty indun. I can't realy relate to either black or white stanard of beauty. I look more austronesian than northern european or west african and there's not alot of people of that orgin in states, so..............I always ended up not liking either doll. Skin color isn't something I really care about. I'm more into face and body. My ideal is an oval face with a small button nose, small slighty eyes with full almost black lips, a curly flat body. I don't find big noses, big butts or thin lips attractive. Red and brown hair is the best. I don't get it. What's the big deal ? People need to get over it. There's more things important than someone being 2 shades lighter than someone else.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterUsagi

i wub dark skinned chicks.


May 27, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterswiv

When I was growing up, I was constantly called a little yella this or a little yella that. When I got acne I used to deliberately pick at my face because I thought if i got enough brown spots on me I could be brown and not called yella all the time. My mother finally told me that the next time someone called me yellow to tell them "Yellow is the color of your teeth." It shut people up quick.

May 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSandy

Life is hard, get a helmut. You get picked on if you're to dark, hated on if your too light... The grass is dead on both sides of the fence so dust it off and learn to love yourself and surround yourself with folks who love you. That doesn't mean they have to find every inch of you to be the most beautiful thing on the earth.Hell, you don't even need to be in love with every inch of yourself but you have to find a way to make peace with what you can't change or you will go crazy. This will never change. There will always be folks who don't want what you have to offer and thats ok, move on and find folks who will sign on.

There are hundreds of little black babies being born to black parents every day so there are plenty of folks who are willing to subscribe to a darker berry.

May 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenternovanova

magan w ? You nail it ! Bravo!

May 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLumumba

It is a problem within ALL minority cultures--hispanics as well. I wonder however how much of this is related to whether a person is pretty/good looking--as opposed to the coloring. Everyone cannot be pretty but I think some black women who are NOT pretty make themselves LOOK worse by dying their hair blonde (and they're dark skinned) and wearing too much makeup and lip gloss. Black men do not wear makeup and would be among the more attractive species because women like men who are masculine, confident and cool. I do think the black race in general does not love itself--it shows throughout the entire continent of africa where there is black opressive leadership. It shows when you have a black President and black professors in the media cursing him out (not realizing thati rather than looking open minded they appear to be hating the one thing that can help them rise).
That said: I think these documentaries are nececssary so that we can all stop pretending we love ourselves and thus learn how to. Some blacks do love the race and that shows--I think of bill cosby...but among a large bulk--if they admit it, there's still measure of not being good enough that is there--due to the overall belief of the society both in the US and worldwide. it is worldwide folks! It's sad because human beings are supposed to be the intelligent species but you never see (in the animal kingdom) one dog shun another because it was a different color.

May 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterplasticheadblog

Danielle, I'm sensing a few trolls on here. Correct me if I'm wrong. :-/

May 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSpinster

For lack of a better way to say this: this post broke my heart. Coming from a family that is predominantly fair skinned, I was one of the few with a browner complexion. Though I was considered light skinned by my classmates, I would always come home to my fair skinned mother, brother and sister. As a child, I overheard a conversation between my mother and uncle, where my mother told him that my grandmother hadn't left me any money after she passed because I was the only dark skinned grandchild. I remember being so hurt for days. For years I had wished to be "just a shade lighter". For some reason, however, one morning I woke up and decided if God made me this way, I might as well embrace what I have and make it better. I stopped religiously straightening my hair and embraced my curly hair and began drinking more water to help my skin become clearer. Not until recently did I become completely comfortable, and in love, with my complexion. It's unfortunate that this is still an issue in our community, and that our own men perpetuate it. We can only make a promise to ourselves to raise sons that embrace beauty from all angles and daughters who embrace their own beauty.

May 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTippy
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