A Black Woman’s Take on “Dark Girls”
This post comes to us via the generous contribution of a personal friend of the blog, Nina Gloster.* Nina is a Black woman, Spelman College graduate, and filmmaker.
I was very excited to hear about the documentary that would be appearing on OWN, a network dedicated to entertaining, informing and inspiring people. Watching the documentary, I can admit that it elicited several responses of anger, sadness, and pride, which is all very effective for such a documentary. I was content at what the documentary was able to provoke, but as a fellow filmmaker, Woman Studies/African American studies degree holder, and more importantly black woman, I was hoping that the OWN special would delve a bit deeper into these issues. Firstly, I also felt it a bit jarring to watch certain ads during commercials breaks, some of which would be contradictory to the message in the documentary.
In a world post-enslavement, the documentary touched on concepts such as the snow and blow and paper bag test. There was also an explanation as to where the ideas came from through Westernized infiltration. These testaments of physical and mental colonization make for a perfect explanation of the painful dichotomies that create this approximation of whiteness being valued. However, what was missing was a larger question about the historical origins of these ideas and how they are perpetuated today. The most important statement that stood out to me was the quote made that, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
It was important that the documentary focused on colorism as a global notion. I wish I had heard examples of theories such as Frantz Fanon’s, “Black skin white mask,” when appropriating the cultural code of the colonizer. It is one thing to witness a white scholar on screen explain that, “nothing in our DNA suggests that a particular shade is inherently better.” However, it is more important to understand that this issue is a common experience of racialization and discrimination throughout the diaspora. Why not explore further historically? When explaining that the issue is one that is faced globally, such as in the Dominican Republic, why not elaborate on the 1937 Haitian Genocide in the Dominican Republic? When we can understand from where the issues of internalized oppression spring, we can take better steps to conquer those same notions.
For years now working as a filmmaker, I’ve come up with a recurring question that I ask people of color and women especially which is, “how can you see yourself if your mirror is shattered?” For black women, especially, the film industry has been an on-and-off love affair in which black women have been invited, exploited, reexamined, and diminished. In the documentary, Viola Davis stated that when growing up, there was never representation of beauty associated with darker complexion on the television screen and how blacks have emulated this over the years. It broke my heart to witness the effects on early-stage development and the heartbreaking stories of girls: one of whom tried to cleanse her skin of the color, another hating her father for the attributes she inherited from him, and yet another (and most painful) asking for bleach in her bathwater. It was important to hear these testimonies. However, I was hoping that the documentary would provide some healing perspectives. I was hoping to hear about artists like Rene Cox, who gave emphasis on our need, as black women, to take back our representation and not to keep looking to Caucasian culture for the definition of what beauty should be. There was an OWN special following the documentary which highlighted several of the most influential black actresses on screen in the last couple of decades. This was an effective choice by Oprah as a positive follow-up. I only wish the documentary had included images such as these to counter the testimonials of negative self-perception.
When looking at the evolution of hip-hop culture, for instance, we need more discourse about how the genre which was created as a means of providing a reactionary outlet from dislocation, displacement, rootlessness, marginalization, and racial oppression has become in the media a means of pushing a false standard of beauty on black women. What is glamorized is a Western standard of beauty that is not one reflective of our people. Although the documentary touched on skin bleaching, there was a larger opportunity to explore the less threatening measures of attaining this standard of beauty through hair, eyelashes, black women’s bodies, etc.
I took to twitter during the OWN special where a tweet really stuck out to me. It read, “Light skinned girls are villanized by dark skin women & dark skin women are villianized by the world. Big difference.” This quote made me think for a while, and I was snapped out of my trance when I finally heard a voice on the documentary say that, “this issue is not so much about racism, or internalized racism, than it is the lack of unity within the race.” As important as it was to hear the painful testimonies, we needed to hear a voice of victory and pride that didn’t diminish one group or the other. A lot of the voices on the documentary as well as social media’s response became a “whose struggle is worse” instead of a shared pain that has been inflicted from years of pain and oppression. I was ready to hear the stories of my dark skinned sister’s experiences without the idea of the light skinned woman’s experience being glamorized. Growing up with fair skin, it was a common occurrence to hear, “You’re mixed, you’re not black!” My response in my naiveté: “I am I swear,” in a defensive plead. If only I was educated enough so that I could have fully embraced, prideful instead of ashamed, my particular blackness. I would have loved to hear about these different intersections of oppression. The idea that, as Audre Lorde would say, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
There was also a strong emphasis on the male perspective as validation for women’s beauty with respect to light and dark skinned women. I couldn’t help but dwell on the fixation of men’s idea of a woman’s beauty as validation for a woman. I noticed that there was absolutely no “in between” when it came to the ideas of black women’s beauty. It was either ignorant or completely discriminatory towards lighter skinned black women. I hate to admit it, because even though I LOVE to hear a black man talk about his affinity for black women (or even preference for darker-skinned women), and even though one of my absolute favorite rap lines of all time is Tupac’s, “Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots”, I couldn’t help but feel some sense of shame associated with being light-skinned. The men spoke either about their completely ignorant preference of having a “long haired red bone” as “better” or more “pleasing to the eye”, or they made it seem as if their darker skinned preference made them more inclined to be in touch with their own blackness. Darker skin was continuously associated with “queen” as if the lighter your complexion, the further you are from being black because it just “isn’t the same.”
One important statement that was made in this regard was that a woman “can’t depend on a black man to liberate them.” While I completely agree, I feel a certain absence of discourse and honest communication regarding the standards of beauty that we have not only internalized, but thrust upon one another through projecting our own insecurities. There was a huge opportunity for that in the documentary. It had the opportunity to talk about the fascination with dark girls always having a sexual approach, and from where this derives. The documentary highlighted a few white men and their appreciation for black women, but I could only associate them with the white men that for years have simply “exoticized” black women. I read an important statement on social media: “there is a fine line between preference and pathology.”
Finally, I was very torn in relation to the ending of the documentary and its focus on the Obamas. My face lit up, for I knew Michelle Obama would be featured in how proud she has made us as a face for black women. I was a bit tainted, however, by the responses of “relief” at Michelle being dark skinned because she was a “real sister” in the white house. It was disappointing because there was an amazing opportunity to highlight such an accomplished black woman, a woman of darker complexion, who has the platform to be a positive role model to black girls everywhere and has since exceedingly done so. Instead, yet another opportunity was taken to further the dichotomy of light vs. dark skinned black women. I certainly appreciate Bill Duke’s commitment to this issue and charge us as black people in 2013 to delve further in healing from such a long rooted and ugly issue in our community.
Nina’s twitter: @Boninaapplebaum