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.
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.