Welcome to my obsession.
Having lived my life at the extreme light-skin(ded) end of the spectrum, I’m hyper-aware of colorism. For 20 years, I’ve worked to contribute to healing this insidious mental and psychological disease that weighs us down, holds us back and keeps us fighting among ourselves.
But wait–don’t we have far more urgent issues to address as a people and as a nation? In the last week, we’ve ricocheted between Paula Deen’s nostalgia for plantation life, the start of the heart-wrenching trial of Trayvon Martin’s accused murderer, and a double-whammy from the Supreme Court trying to roll back both affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act.
As my FB friend Elaine Porter noted, it’s starting to feel a lot like 1968.
Against this backdrop, we’re processing the documentary “Dark Girls,” which aired last weekend on Oprah’s OWN network. I’m thrilled that actor/director/producer Bill Duke and producer/director D. Channsin Berry chose to tackle this topic, and to focus on the perspectives of my sistren at the other end of the colorism spectrum.
Dark girls deserve a forum in which to speak out. Some might find it strange that someone of my pale hue would feel that way. But we can’t move forward without being honest, and it’s dark girls (and guys) who bear the brunt of this form of oppression, not just from society—the whole world, really—but from their own people, often their closest and most beloved family and friends.
Their mistreatment often grows into a resentment of light-skinned people, who are accused of “thinking you’re so cute, so smart, all that,” often before we have any idea what’s behind the accusations. Then when the topic arises, we’re bludgeoning each other with our pain, wounded, weary and wondering why we can’t seem to break this vicious cycle of distrust and hostility.
We can break it, but we must—all of us–be willing to listen to—and really hear—each others’ truths in order to validate our own. Light and dark: we are two sides of one coin. Or, as Curtis Mayfield sang in “We People who are Darker than Blue,”
“High yella gal, can’t you tell, you’re just the surface of our dark, deep well…”
FB friend author/activist Kola Boof asked me to discuss the tendency of some light-skinned women to suggest that dark-skinned women’s pain is caused by their own self-hatred. I’m glad Kola raised this point, because it represents some of the many fallacies we have about ourselves and each other.
Colorism is a potent form of collective self-hatred that was planted in our ancestors throughout the Diaspora. Our dark sisters’ experiences, truths, pain and testimonials are not signs of self-hatred, but rather the logical effects of the whole world devaluing you based on how un-White you are.
When dark girls testify, they’re not just telling their truths, they’re telling mine—and yours—as well. And it is through their truths that we see the equally damaging and insidious nature of light-skin privilege. Yes, light-skin privilege is real—obviously, I know. It’s well-documented that the lighter-skinned, straighter-haired and more White-looking you are, the more beautiful/handsome, desirable, intelligent, charming, pleasant, and just generally appealing you are perceived to be.
The worldwide epidemic of skin bleaching—yes still—isn’t taking place because people are crazy. It’s because life generally tends to be better for those who are closest to White.
Light-skinned people do nothing to deserve this privilege—we’re born into it, based strictly on our looks. It’s not foisted upon us because we are somehow worthy. This preferential treatment is a ploy to use us to maintain the dynamics of a system based on the mythology that White is Right.
“Dark Girls” is not the first contemporary documentary to tackle colorism. In 1992, my homegirl Leasa Fortune invited me to be part of a documentary made in Washington DC by two young Black women. Paula Caffey (light-skinned) and Celeste Crenshaw (dark-skinned) gathered sisters of all shades to share our tales of skin/hair and how colorism had shaped and affected our lives.
That documentary, “Black Women On: The Light Dark Thang,” took years for Celeste and Paula to finance (in the days before crowd-sourced fundraising). Years after they shot the footage, their documentary was aired on PBS stations around the country, earning an Emmy Award.
Unlike “Dark Girls,” “Black Women On: The Light Dark Thang” presented a rainbow of women from different countries. Celeste was the on-air host, providing context and introducing each segment. Our stories were candid, our emotions were raw, but there was not a speck of tension anywhere.
That inspired me to join sister-author-friends Tracy Price-Thompson, Elizabeth Atkins and Desiree Cooper to write first book in our Sister4Sister Empowerment Series, “Other People’s Skin: Four Novellas” dedicated to “healing the skin/hair thang between Black women.” Read an excerpt
And I was honored to be interviewed for Marita Golden’s ground-breaking book, Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex.
Last month, I traveled to New Jersey to discuss colorism and identity with young women (including my 19-year-old daughter) in the Sister to Sister Mentoring Program at Montclair High School. The students, along with a few mothers and adult female mentors, were deeply engaged, listening intently, sharing freely, and bursting into spontaneous applause at the end.
I shared with them an excerpt from the popular “Willie Lynch Letter,” explaining that whether Willie Lynch was real or mythological, the dynamic used to turn slaves against each other so they’d be less likely to try to harm their masters or escape, was not only real, but still controls us today.
And I explained a few basic facts about colorism:
1. It’s a by-product of racism, which is a tool of White Supremacy. The society in which we live encourages us to keep it going, but we have the power to stop it.
2. Colorism is not unique to Black people in the USA or anywhere in the world. It’s a global disease and no matter what the cultural variations might be, the root cause is the same: domination based on the myth that some people are superior to others.
3. Light-skinned privilege is, as we used to say, a trick bag. It pits us against each other to fight over crumbs from the cake of power and privilege tossed our way to keep us from uniting to confront the people who not only own the cake, but the means and ingredients to make it.
This is a tough battle, but I’m convinced we can overcome this form of madness. Fortunately, a movement is building:
Dr. Yaba Blay, co-Director and Assistant Teaching Professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University, expert on Black identities and colorism, wrote the definitive, affirmative and healing, “Color Me Beautiful: A Dark Girl Reflects on “Dark Girls,” which states in part:
“Yes, I am a dark-skinned woman, who was once a dark-skinned little girl who grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and therefore knows all too well how colorism can break you if you let it. But I didn’t let it. And what Dark Girls was missing was that voice. The voice of the confident, assured, self-affirming, self-loving, “I wish you would tell me I’m not the ish” sister, who although she can relate to the pain refuses to stay stuck in it and has somehow figured out how to find beauty in her reflection.
“We needed that voice, not to distract from or to negate the experiences of pain, but rather to balance them with the capacity for triumph, if the purpose of the dialogue is in fact our healing. If we truly want to heal, we have to stop talking at each other and start talking with each other. And to do that, we need all voices at the table – dark, light, and every shade in-between – without the “vs.” While not with equal measure, colorism does impact us all.”
Oprah.com featured an essay by Dr. Cheryl Grills, a psychologist in “Dark Girls,” describing what she and her colleagues at The Association of Black Psychologists are doing to promote “the emotional emancipation of Black people”:
“In the midst of colorism, we are not without tools to protect ourselves. … Basic practices can be put in place in neighborhoods and communities, schools, the media, and in the home to foster positive images for the young, thus changing the negative effects of colorism.
“One effort being launched by The Association of Black Psychologists, in conjunction with the Community Healing Network, are Emotional Emancipation Circles (EECs). EECs are community-based gatherings of African Americans working together to defy the lie of Black inferiority and embrace the truth of Black Empowerment. These self-sustaining community gatherings seek to promote resilience and resistance to colorism.”
And a group of Black psychologists offered “11 Things You Can Do for Your Dark-Skinned Daughter” on Oprah.com as well.
I’d like to add a few suggestions of my own:
1. Tell every child—all genders, every hue—that they are beautiful, brilliant, important and valued—every single chance you get. And if you don’t get a chance, create one.
2. Don’t assume that light-skinned people think they’re better, or that dark-skinned people are angry, resentful and jealous. Examine your own assumptions—we all have them—and challenge yourself to grow. Then help others do the same.
3. Think about who you consider desirable, and why. Might your preferences have grown out of colorism-inspired programming? No shame, no blame–just an exercise to encourage awareness.
4. Check your language—and that of others. Lose the qualifiers: “She’s pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” Let her be a pretty girl. Period.
5. Break the habit of getting into a war of the wounds, comparing battle scars to see who has suffered more, and remember that we are all in this together.
Matter of fact, this is a perfect time for us to be addressing this issue. After all, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has famously admitted that his anti-Black policies on the bench stem from how he was treated as a dark-skinned child. His pain has influenced national policy—to our entire community’s detriment.
As we witness the next chapter in the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, react/respond to and regurgitate the freak show that is Paula Deen’s Pathology on Display, and reel from the Supreme Court’s overtly racist actions, it’s obvious that unity is our only hope for progress. If recent events prove nothing else, it’s that field or house, we were all slaves in one way or another. And these days, we are the only ones with the power to set ourselves free.