It could’ve been good. Colorism and its many manifestations isn’t the stuff of one-time conversation. It’s big, heavy talk and, piggybacking off the initial discussion ignited by Dark Girls last year, it’s big, heavy, necessary talk. But Light Girls stumbled early in its two-hour stretch of TV time and couldn’t upright itself, not even at the end when they carted out a cute little girl singing about her light shining and India.Arie to strum us one of her soul-soothing affirmations. It just wasn’t enough.
To be fair, a documentary about the colorism-related hurts of light-skinned and biracial women had a hard way to go before it even aired. Critics were loaded, cocked and aimed well in advance across social media, so much so that the controversy kicked up around the show probably netted more viewers than it would’ve gotten without it. It had the responsibility of being doubly good to not only deliver the expected content with aplomb, but squelch the furor of a growing—and very vocal—body of skeptics.
I myself pleaded with folks beforehand to be open-hearted to all women’s stories. The heritage of discrimination against dark-skinned sisters is long and the privilege afforded those who are lighter is too well-documented to be arguable. The discussion could easily turn into the colorism oppression Olympics. Who’s carrying more hurt? Who’s got more right to feel that way? Still I’m adamant that, in this like other things, we should authentically hear each other, not just listen in order to bark back a response.
But there was just too much content from too many interviews with too many people, some of them with nothing really valuable to contribute to the conversation sans the fact that they are representatively light-skinned. (See also: Raven who, by her own admission, doesn’t subscribe to labels. So if you can’t be “Black,” riddle me how you can be “light-skinned?”)
Rather than letting them unfold naturally, the testimonies inside Light Girls’ storytelling trajectory were rushed, crammed into a fleeting series of tragedies and traumas attributed to colorism. I take nothing from the horrors these women have experienced. My heart goes out to them, particularly those who have been violently attacked. Aligning a rape story to a colorism context is problematic, though. That’s an across-womanhood issue. That’s a public safety issue. That’s a criminal prosecution and victim’s rights issue. But it’s not a colorism issue.
This too was noticeable: joke-cracking in Dark Girls was minimal, but the abundant presence of comedians being interviewed made it clear that it’s very OK to make a punchline at the expense of light skin, even in the sanctity of a serious conversation where women are baring their pain and shedding real tears because of experiences inside of it. Up popped Talent, real random-like, talking about a date who wouldn’t get him popcorn at the movies because she was light-skinned and didn’t have to be servile like he expected a dark-skinned woman to be. Then there was the big-wigged lady who chortled and chuckled her way through a memory about a dark-skinned, short-haired girl beating her up because she had just been that light-skinned and pretty. Ma’am.
Stereotypes were only sufficiently filled when guys got a chance to weigh in, so to round out the conversation, the film introduced a gaggle of man fools who exemplified the standard-issue mentality behind complexion biases. They call them preferences, though. Perhaps everything insightful was left on the cutting room floor. A moment of thanks for the duo of Kappas who represented the voice of not dumb.
All this said, I appreciate the effort to talk openly about colorism on a main stage. Part of the contributing pathology is its quiet absorption into our culture, the perpetuation of it even in offhanded, unintentional comments. The issue is out there now, on OWN of all places. That makes it really, really out there. Although the _____ Girls franchise may be running its course, the topic itself is far from exhausted, particularly as it’s a global, cross-cultural issue, which was pointed out during the course of both documentaries.
I spent half my time wondering what was missing as I was watching Light Girls and I think it was because it didn’t feel like it was coming from a healing or solution-finding place. It could’ve been good—if it helped us better understand what we can do to actually remedy colorism. Fingers crossed for the next time around.
Writer Janelle Harris pens pieces on gender and race, and occasionally roller skates down the streets of Washington, DC. She frequents Twitter and lives on Facebook.