OWN’s Dark Girls emerged as a bold attempt to enlighten contemporary society about the unwavering presence of colorism. The vision displayed great effort and care in representing the dynamic of having dark skin. Light Girls surfaced as an effort to continue the conversation of color in the black community. While both documentaries seem rooted in good intention, they are proof that the best intentions often go astray.
Reversion: Components of the documentary that took us two steps backwards…
Demonizing “dark girls”
Perhaps what stood out most about the documentary was the overt demonizing of darker skinned women. Now, I am purposefully careful not to alleviate the fairer skin woman from a degree of victimhood, as I do believe that she is a victim to a certain extent. However, crafting fairer skinned black women as a victim at the expense of those of a darker hue hurts not helps the issue of colorism.
The depiction of fairer skinned black women as victims is undermined as the provided anecdotes paint victims as color elitists. The anecdotes of self proclaimed fair skinned black women, recount violent experiences with those referred to “black girls.” One woman even referred to her offender as “black with short hair” while she referred to herself as “ light with pretty sandy brown hair.” The description reeked of condescension, implying a nasty reality of aesthetic superiority by fair skinned black women to her more sun kissed counterpart. Thus, what is intended to portray the bullying of the fair skinned woman, actually depicts fair skinned black women as the bully.
The main issue with the documentary’s depiction of victimhood is that they deflect from the true victimhood of the black community. The anecdotes of the fairer skinned black woman imply a personal nature to political practices. The whole “thinking your cute” phrase that is tirelessly tossed around throughout this documentary is a performance of internalized inferiority. The offenders aren’t violent against a specific girl’s beauty, but the politics that make this girl beauty in the same image of a darker girl’s ugliness.
This light skin/ dark skin dynamic is perhaps best depicted in Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye. This novel delivers the unforgettable scene between characters Frieda, Claudia and Maureen. With fair skin, long hair and a polished appearance, Maureen is adored by everyone at school. On the surface, Frieda and Claudia hate Maureen because everyone loves her, but really because she is everything they are not. In the heat of an exchange, Maureen declares her own cuteness while denouncing their beauty of classmates Frieda and Claudia, calling them “black and ugly.”
In two pages Morrison depicts the very anecdotes conveyed by the fair skinned black women of the Light Girls Documentary. For it wasn’t Maureen that the girls hate or even resent for making that comment, but the society that makes the Maureen’s of the world desirable in the image of their undesirability.
LSLH: Light Skin Long Hair
Another issue with this documentary is the implication that lighter skin is synonymous with long hair. Comparatively, the Dark Girls documentary implied that darker skin is synonymous with kinky or short hair. These portrayals substantiate not alleviate the stereotypes of each group.
Absence of child perspective
The inclusion of a child’s perspective plays a pivotal component of each documentary. However, the drastic difference in portrayal, is cause for concern.
In the Dark Girls documentary, a young girl was presented with sketches of five girls, each of a different hue. The child was then asked “who was the cute/smart/dumb/ugly child?” The child effortlessly attributed lighter skin to being cute and smart. Contrastly, the darkest shade was attributed to being ugly and dumb. This depiction, while painful, captured the early states of internalized self-hatred.
Interestingly, the Light Girl documentary omits the fairer skin perspective of this same experiment. While the spectrum test is omitted, the documentary does include the input of a child. With honey blonde hair and green eyes, a child of no more than six or seven sings “this little light of mine” after speaking about the value of inner beauty. While it is certainly refreshing to see a child with such maturity and perspective, it would have been even more powerful to see this perspective in the same experiment featured in Dark Girls.
The absence of this color-attribute test from the Light Girls documentary, reveals an anxiety with representing issues of colorism as a shared perspective of black women regardless of skin color.
How would a fair skinned child’s correlation between superiority to those who look similar to themselves, juxtapose with their sun kissed’s proclamation of the same truth? The answer is simple, it would align black women as bearers of the same harsh internalized fallacy.
It seems as if producers tried very hard not to explicitly represent the ideas of superiority that many women of a lighter hue have been nurtured to believe. These ideas are of course are quite similar to what women of a darker hue have been conditioned to believe, but are manifested differently based on personal placement on the color spectrum.
It appears that in the attempt to make fairer skinned black women as vulnerable to their darker hued counterparts, producers aligned vulnerability to victimhood. Given that many women in Dark Girls spoke of being ridiculed because of their skin color, it seems producers deemed it necessary to provide the same platform for those of a lighter hue. While all testimonials were commentary on the black experience, the anecdotes of victimhood manifest differently based on the storyteller’s assumed relationship to privilege.
The fault in this portrayal, is its dedication to the equality of the black experience, not the equity. While black women are equally abject in the projection of racism, the value of experience is manifested in a variety of ways.
A black woman’s navigation through society is determined by her relationship to skin color, hair texture, body type, socio-economic status and education. The varying relationships black women have to these factions create a black experience that is equally as saturated in racism but not of the same value.
Despite the validity of her pain, a woman closer to the beauty aesthetic as a victim of her socially constructed beauty operates from a position of privilege. To feel pain in what makes you “beautiful,” is a gift to those born with the curse of “ugliness.”
Nevertheless, those conditioned to believe that they are superior due to their lighter skin are equally as cursed as those conditioned to believe that they are not beautiful in the absence of lighter skin. Both beliefs, cultivate black women to determine their worth by a westernized perception of an African trait. It is virtually impossible for the western world to properly compartmentalize blackness, thus this conceptualizing cripples all black women, fair skinned or chocolate from seeing their true beauty.
I found it quite unsettling that a documentary seemingly centered on the black female experience with colorism was saturated in male opinion.
However, the “Men on Women” section in both documentaries did prove quite informative. This section featured men interviewed on their perception of fair skin and more sun kissed black women. I was honestly disappointed in most of the responses, as most lacked substance. One man in particular mentioned that he preferred “darker skinned” women because “lighter” women were “much more high maintenance.” He goes on to mention that if he goes to the movies “ a darker skinned women would be more willing to get up and get him some popcorn.”
Now, while some women of a darker hue may have smiled at his initial preference for chocolate, his reasons were stereotypical. This man unconsciously linked women of a darker hue to the role of a servant and the fairer skinned women to that of a trophy. This too revealed the unsettling reality of internalized racism’s influence on black love.
A younger man commented that “light skin stands out” and if a girl is light skin “she does not have to be anything else.” He went on to say that darker skin girls typically have to possess other qualities to compete. While this comment was certainly disheartening, it does reflect a reality of perception. Light skin, to those of a colorist mentality is the highest form of beauty, making all other attributes secondary.
Not reserved for light girls
The Light Girls Documentary featured the segment “ What Are You?” with the objective of tackling the fair skinned battle with racial ambiguity. While I do not contest that this is a reality for fair skinned black women, this practice is not limited to women with fair skin. Fair skin is just one signifier of blackness, other attributes are facial features (notably the nose and lips), hair, physique, speech, and socio-economics (money and class).
Blacks are stereotyped as having a restricted place in each of the previously listed categories. Thus, blacks who reside outside the stereotype for any of the given categories, are faced with inquiries. For example, a woman who may not be fair skinned may be considered racially ambiguous because her hair is outside what is perceived to be “black hair.”
Intelligence is another factor that causes many to question an individual’s blackness. Blacks have been traditionally disassociated with being of supreme intelligence. So those deemed superior intellectuals have often been questioned about the purity of their blackness.
The Paperbaggin’ of Tatyani Ali
Perhaps the most disappointing component of this documentary was the reception of certain participants of this documentary. Particularly unsettling was the paper bag test many viewers performed on The Fresh Prince alum, Tatyani Ali. Now, I never heard Ali refer to herself as fair skinned in the documentary, but the backlash unveils that lightness, is a narrowly defined, exclusive construct.
To see black women guard this white aesthetic is yet another performance in internalized inferiority. Many of the documentary’s responsive tweets referred to Tatyana as “ kinda dark” and even suggested that “under no amount of fillers is Tatyana Ali light skinned.” The harsh undertone of these comments color these words with the unsightly reality of color complexities in the contemporary black community.
Now, whether Ali is fair skinned or not, her looks have afforded her privilege that is commonly associated with fair skin women. As the youngest of the Banks children, Ali’s portrayal of Ashely Banks followed the journey of a cute adolescent to one of the most gorgeous women of the 90’s. With her sepia skin and long, curly- turned -straight black hair, Ali was as sweet as she was beautiful. While of a deeper hue than on- screen sister Karyn Parsons ( Hilary Banks on The Fresh Prince), Ali does posses a form of racial ambiguity. Ali is black, but not excessively. And it is this absence of “excess” that undoubtedly granted Ali her starring role.
Nevertheless, Ali’s reception reveals an anxiety that black women have with who is given the label of “light skin.” It’s almost as if giving someone the label of “light skin” inevitably admits their beauty, so the label is given sparingly.
I personally found Ali’s presence in the documentary refreshing. As a bearer of a degree in African American studies from Harvard University, her voice is seasoned with academic knowledge and as a product of color complexities within the Caribbean community. As both a familiar face and an educated black woman, Ali’s presence in the documentary was as uplifting as it was necessary. It is quite disappointing that Ali’s credentials are overshadowed by the need of self- hating viewers to limit her to skin color.
Interestingly, the documentary also featured sun kissed scholar Iyanla Vanzant (of Fix My Life) to whom received no commentary regarding her hue, or involvement in the documentary. Thus, it seems the animosity towards Miss Ali stems from those who wish to literally dim the light on a beautiful black woman.
Amber Rose Confession
Light Girls featured a candid interview with model and socialite Amber Rose. Amber confessed to her family’s severed relations with their blackness, admitting that this distance probably influenced her mother’s decision to reproduce with a white man. I found Amber Rose’s confession to be very candid and heartfelt. However, if the man who propelled her into fame did not possessed some of her family’s beliefs, would she be famous?
Now, Rose is undeniably beautiful. However, her recounting of a troubling perception does not alleviate her from the privilege that resulted in her being interviewed in the first place.
Bearing a similar appearance to the equally as beautiful Lupita Nyong’o, Rose and Nyong’o both have close cut hair and enviable bone structure, but have vastly different physiques and reside at polar ends of the color spectrum. In contrast, Nyong’o obtained her fame after playing a slave in
2013’s 12 Years A Slave and we first saw Rose as Kanye West’s arm candy back in 2008. The very different ways these women entered stardom mimic their enslaved perception, in which darker and lighter women were both faced with the abjection of slavery but in vastly different manifestations.
It also stood out to me that Light Girls featured star studded commentary from well known faces such as: Essence Atkins, Amber Rose, Kim Whitley, Keke Wyatt, Salli Richardson, Tatyana Ali, and Iyanla Vanzant. This is in complete contrast to the underwhelming star power of its darker hued counterpart- Dark Girls. This observation supports the reality that women of a lighter hue are cast far more often then those of a deeper hue.
While both documentaries feature input from cultural intellects, the absence of star power from Dark Girls misses an important opportunity to nurture self esteem within young black girls.
The presence of historians and cultural intellectuals may be necessary, but whether deserved or not, celebrities maintain a glamour not attained by intellectuals or historians. To intertwine this glamour in discussions of black beauty would prove influential to young black women struggling to see their own beauty in magazines, music videos, sitcoms and movies.
Thus, while the racially ambiguous woman remains the Hollywood prototype of blackness, it is important that darker hued woman see a place for themselves among the Hollywood lights.
Refreshing: Components of the Documentary that were pleasant to see or hear
Light skin not enough
The documentary featured honest comments from fair skinned black women who were criticized for their possession of African traits. One woman commented that she heard her mother’s friend mention that she would be “so perfect” if it wasn’t for her “wide nose.”
This demonstrates that fair skinned women are susceptible to many of the same criticisms as their sisters of a darker hue. This parallel is pivotal in prompting black women to hold hands across the color line.
Color All Over the World
I thoroughly appreciated the documentary’s look into how a variety of cultures conceptualize lightness as the epitome of beauty. The documentary featured commentary from Indian, Asian and Caribbean women who spoke about the bleaching epidemic and other effects of colorism.
I found this segment enlightening to any and everyone who attributed colorism to being solely a black issue.
The very division of the documentaries into Dark Girls and Light Girls, depicts the restricted and troublesome classification of black women. If we can’t even be joined together in documentary, how can we hold hand in a racist system that is against us both?
Opposing the reality that we are a race of many shades, these documentaries also problematically imply that there are only two colors of blackness. Regardless of shade, we as black women are victims of an abject place in society. The division of black women distracts us from collaboratively seeing the beauty that of our blackness.
Perhaps the most resonating component of the entire documentary is the line “ Everyone wants to be black, except black people.”
As a sun kissed woman bleaches her skin, there is a non black woman checking the forecast to see if it’s warm enough to tan. As a full-lipped lady of color shuns her gift, the most celebrated celebrities are having fillers applied to look more like her. As a curvy woman of color is ridiculed for their curves, women outside the diaspora consult with plastic surgeons to gain the gold many black women are born with.
Tanning and plastic surgery are just two of the million dollar industries that foster attributes of blackness onto non black women. This alone substantiates the reality that though there is pain in black femininity, there is also buried privilege in unclaimed beauty.
Are we a flawed group? Certainly. But together, we are the envy of the world- so let us light, dark and in between unite in green…