The Dark Girls documentary that premiered on OWN last week ripped the lid off of colorism in a way that made some black people in America intensely uncomfortable. For over one hour, dark-skinned black women and girls shared their feelings of rejection, sexual objectification and marginalization in a nation where white supremacy is often perpetuated by a black community.
For generations, we have been beaten – figuratively and literally – into conflating whiteness with superiority and their heart-wrenching stories of existence at the dark end of the color spectrum held whispers of deep-seated feelings of inferiority and fierce resilience in spite of it all.
Mixed reactions to ‘Dark Girls’
The documentary itself met with mixed reviews – primarily for a perceived India.Arie-inspired “I am not my skin” cry for colorblind acceptance as opposed to an “I am my skin and you will deal” confidence.
There were also appearances by two white men, speaking from lofty positions of global access and privilege, who have no place at all in a dark girl’s narrative – unless it is to admit that white supremacy is not only the root of colorism, but the poisonous sustenance that feeds its damaged blooms.
It also received steep criticism for heavy reliance on heterosexual male validation, insinuating that if only dark-skinned women felt as desired by black men as their lighter counter-parts, all this pesky colorism talk would dissipate.
A missed opportunity?
Depending on the lens through which it is viewed, Dark Girls is either a long-overdue public acknowledgment of internalized pain or a missed opportunity. The passionate debates and commentary that followed, however, clearly exposed a continuing House/Field pathology that weakens our community along the fault lines of empathy and privilege.
Writing for Clutch Magazine, Dr. Yaba Blay eloquently states:
Some light-skinned women feel overlooked, their experiences seldom recognized as if their lightness somehow protects them from any pain. But if any of them dare say so, they are quickly and effectively dismissed if not silenced. Brown-skinned sisters who aren’t so light but aren’t that dark are somehow made to reflect on their own skin color as much lighter or much darker than it actually is, just so they can be a part of the conversation. Either that or they watch from the sidelines and remind us every now and again that we continue to push them to the sidelines.
We needed the voice of the light-skinned sister to tell us what it’s like to walk into a room and have women who know nothing about her throw daggers with their eyes, or the light-skinned sister who stays in the sun and has either loc’ed her hair or cut it very close because she’s down for her people and doesn’t want anything about her presence to cause the browner-skinned women she considers her sisters to question their value. We needed that balance, if in fact the purpose of the dialogue is healing.
And in Blay’s insightful passage, there is my voice. I am that light-skinned woman, who used to be the light-skinned girl in Mississippi, who has been judged on sight my entire life as “uppity,” self-entitled and arrogant. I couldn’t possibly know the struggle, because my privilege ensures that I can dodge it if I so choose – or so I’m told.
Through me, black men can fulfill their white woman fantasies without being sell-outs, and white men can indulge their black woman fetishes without being ridiculed.
I will never know what it’s like to be ostracized in popular culture and mainstream media and magazines and videos, because I’m the safe bet. Choose the light-skinned, curly haired woman, white corporations decide, because through them, they can show a cosmetic diversity while maintaining a bastardized European-beauty standard without appearing to be racist. After all, the only ones hurt are dark-skinned black women – and they won’t blame them; they’ll blame us.
The damaging cycle continues.
Light women: Can we admit privilege?
Frankly, I don’t believe that Dark Girls needed that voice. It didn’t need light-skinned tears and a view from the Big House. It didn’t need the voices of women who joke about needing tans, but will never know what it feels, as in the case of actress Viola Davis, to be called a “black, ugly, nigger.”
Our voices needed to be heard, true, but only to acknowledge our tainted privilege and to clearly position ourselves as our dark-skinned sisters’ allies.
It is an unfortunate reality that everyone wants to hold the patent on pain. When pain is discussed, no one wants to acknowledge degrees of privilege, just shared pain. Everyone has their own rendition of “Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine” and the cacophony of voices competing to be understood and validated continues to drown out any real healing in this colorist society. Some light-skinned women often refuse to acknowledge their privilege for fear that it drives a wedge between them and their sisters, but instead of working to dismantle it, they embrace the access their skin provides, while trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist.
That is not being an ally; it is being a passive-aggressive enemy.
Dark and light girls, unite
When it comes to colorism, the immediate need is not simply equality, but equality of outcomes. Black women don’t need a round table that allows light-skinned women to pull up a chair and discuss hurt feelings. We need to look at our sisterhood and acknowledge where the weight of white supremacy threatens us most. And it is in the degradation of our dark-skinned sisters – by men, by society, by some of us. It is in their silent erasure in films and persistent stereotypes – loud, ghetto, promiscuous, uneducated, poor – that dog their steps.
Blackness and the proliferation of blackness, is structurally demonized in our white supremacist capitalist patriarchal society. And our dark girls, who physically embody that blackness, need the space to heal and share stories of how they have navigated this hostile environment without interruption.
And, sometimes, us light-skinned girls need to be secure enough in our own blackness to simply listen.
Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.