I’m notoriously optimistic, but even I have to come off my silver-lined cloud of fluffy hopefulness and accept that some things are just unfortunately never going to go away. Racism is one of them. Colorism is another. They’re like second cousins in the family of sociocultural pariahs, fueled by similar conditioning that has made one side of the spectrum of brown skin more desirable than the other.
About a week ago, the national tour of Bill Duke’s documentary, “Dark Girls,” made its stop here in D.C. I didn’t get a chance to see it—mommy duty trumped anything else on the agenda. But I’ve discussed it at length with ladies who are all too familiar with the subject matter at the heart of the film. They’ve grown up carrying other folks’ baggage about how dark is too dark, shouldering hurtful comments about their unacceptable shade of brown, and questioning themselves because they believed, in the pit of their souls, that life would be better if they had been born able to pass somebody’s paper bag test.
I feel that hurt for them. My best friends are chocolate women who have stories that make my blood boil hot like fire whenever they tell them, painful memories of grandmothers preferring one child over another because of lighter skin or elementary school classmates taunting with names like “African bush boogie.” That’s not including the mess that men and the media have offloaded on them as they matured into beautiful but fragile young ladies. But I can’t help but feel like focusing on just some Black women’s experience with colorism works to reinforce the same divide that colorism creates in the first place.
I didn’t grow up knowing anything about being dark-skinned or light-skinned, at least in my early years. In my mama’s hand-me-down perspective, it didn’t matter if you were café au lait or chocolate deluxe. You was just Black. Out in the world, she argued, nobody was splitting hairs about complexions or shades. She herself is relatively fair, but she grew up slinging fists from being called “nigger” just like the darkest of the kids in her school. Being light-skinned didn’t spare her from any of the head or heartaches of being a Black kid in a grudgingly integrated town in the 1960s so it held no merit or mention in our house.
One day, back when my life’s greatest thrill was dressing Barbies in those itty bitty little outfits and trying to shove their feet into those teeny tiny little shoes that never fit quite right, my favorite cousin, who was almond-eyed and deep mocha brown, came over to play. She unpacked her pink box of trinkets and thrust a brunette, barely tanned doll in my lap. “This one should be you,” she said. “Her skin looks more like yours.” To me, them was fightin’ words and I was indignant. “But she’s white!” I squabbled, reaching for the clearly Black one I had my sights set on. I ended up getting her—I’m an only child and when I was a kid, I was a classic example that only children are used to getting their own way. As we got older, it became clear that my cousin wanted to be light like me and I wanted to be dark like her. She was Black without question. Mine was always up for interpretation.
On the one hand, you aren’t Negroid enough for some folks, particularly if Mother Nature had the audacity to pair you with straight-ish hair or non-African features. And God himself help you if you talk “proper.” I got teased because they thought I thought I was white or, at the very least, better. Even as an adult, other people’s hangups have elbowed their way into my subconscious. Too many times walking down the street and being hooted at with “heyyyy redbone” or “what’s up, light bright?”—especially in the deeply colorstruck District of Columbia—has made me question whether dudes are attracted to me or my complexion. Once, after a blind date, a guy confessed that he was relieved I was “just the right color.” He preferred light-skinned women, he said, and even added that my complexion looked good next to his. He thought it was a compliment. All he did was reduce me from a person to a skin color.
Women are picked apart in the worst way. How big our breasts are. How round our butt is. Hair, height, thighs, lips and of course, complexion. But we’re more than a sum of our pieces. Colorism isn’t going away en masse but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a healing among all brown women because most of us have, on some level, experienced the fallout. We just have to be willing to listen and appreciate both side of the experience. If the rest of the world won’t do that, the least we can do is extend that courtesy to each other.
- Red Carpet