beauty ideals Black women Colorism Light Girls documentary self-esteem
An Honest Response to "Light Girls" from a Brown-Skinned Sister1/21/2015
by Ogechi Emechebe On Monday night, OWN premiered the long awaited documentary Light Girls—the sequel to 2011’s Dark Girls—which expl...
by Ogechi Emechebe
On Monday night, OWN premiered the long awaited documentary Light Girls—the sequel to 2011’s Dark Girls—which explored colorism and the effects of it, particularly in the black community. Colorism is defined as:
A form of oppression that is expressed through the differential treatment of individuals and groups based on skin color. Typically, favoritism is demonstrated toward those of lighter complexions while those of darker complexions experience rejection and mistreatment.
Most of the women in the film shared the same sentiment: Growing up, they were bullied for not being “black enough,” accused of being stuck up, or threatened by others to have their hair cut off. Being light-skinned/mixed/racially ambiguous came with a sense of rejection from fellow black people and led to them struggling to find their identity.
While I sympathize with my lighter sisters and understand how such treatment growing up is harmful, we’re missing the larger picture here: Light-skinned women are not really victims of colorism. They benefit from it and need to realize their privilege comes at the cost of others being oppressed and abused.
I’m not being dismissive of the struggles that some go through, nor am I trying to further the division between light and dark-skinned black people. Rather, I’m stating that we can’t afford to have debates arguing colorism affects all shades of black people in the same way. It. Does. Not. Colorism is the direct result of slavery, colonialism, and institutionalized racism. Since the time our ancestors were enslaved, those who were lighter-skinned—”mulattos”—received preferential treatment and were deemed “good enough” to work in the master’s home. (Yes, they were still enslaved, but that’s where we have to accept intersectionality of privilege.) This legacy of dividing Black folks by color would then influence how we treated each other. For example, the brown paper bag test was used to determined who could have access to certain “elite” black organizations, schools, sororities, and even churches.
The documentary failed to recognize the privilege that comes with being light-skinned. Black women who are perceived to have a lighter skin tone are given 12% less time in prison than those with dark skin. Light-skinned black men and women are usually perceived to be more successful and educated than their dark counterparts. They are also seen as wealthier, healthier, and perceived to come from a good upbringing. Those who are darker are usually stereotyped as more ignorant, poor, lazy, and less educated.
While colorism affects us all on a surface level, no one suffers from it worse than dark-skinned women and girls. From the minute they are born, it's ingrained in them that they are the least desired and attractive within our society. Their skin tone makes them the target of systematic discrimination—both by whites and fellow people of color. They are teased, bullied, and insulted in ways that make them question their very existence and self-worth, while their lighter-skinned counterparts are uplifted and put on a pedestal for being the “right shade” of black. Darker-skinned women’s identity is completely erased in the media, their image and representation consistently replaced by lighter ones with straighter hair who set the standard for what it means to be black and beautiful. After centuries of being ignored, mistreated, and rejected, many dark girls begin to internalize those messages which manifest into self-hate, low self-esteem, and feeling invisible.
Another issue the documentary did poorly in addressing was explaining our society’s standard of beauty. While it’s true that Westernized/European standards of beauty damage the self-esteem of young black girls everywhere, it ignored how light-skinned/racially ambiguous black women have become the face of brown and dark-skinned women everywhere. In the media’s pitiful attempt in representing more women of color, they take mixed or biracial women who may be able to pass as white if need be, and tell us this is as close to black they will get. Anything other than this image of racially ambiguous “blackness” is deemed unattractive and unworthy of recognition. And in the rare occasion that a darker-skinned woman is acknowledged or considered attractive, the media will still refer to you as “less than classically beautiful” in comparison to other light-skinned actresses.
Another aspect that was problematic in the film, is that while it addressed how Black men perpetrate colorism, but it did not truly hold them accountable for their harmful attitudes. Black men like Kevin Hart are given platforms to insult women who are the exact shade as him. He has been quoted with saying lighter-skinned women have better credit, and referred to darker-skinned women as “broke ass hoes.” He also said dark-skinned women take a punch to the face better. And please, spare me the explanation of it just being a joke. There is nothing funny about participating in a system that devalues and brutalizes black women of a darker hue. I find Kevin’s comments to be ironic though; he jokes as if he’s been spared from colorism himself.
Historically, dark-skinned black men were largely the victims lynchings, burnings, and mutilations. This is still seen today, as Black men continue to be stereotyped as thugs, incarcerated at higher rates, and become the victims of racial profiling and police killings.
The film also spent a lot of time focusing on volleying blame for colorism, but spent very little time discussing how we as a community could heal from it. But we can begin deconstructing colorism by taking a few steps. First, acknowledge colorism and light-skinned privilege exists. Those who are lighter have validity to share stories of pain and hurt, but must understand their pain is not the same as their darker-skinned brothers and sisters. Those who respond with “but we’re all black,” are just as annoying as privileged whites who claim we’re all human to hijack conversations about racism. It’s a silencing tactic used to muffle the cries of those who are most victimized.
We see colorism in our homes, communities, and schools. If we ignore the bullying and favoritism that come with it, we are actively participating in the division amongst ourselves. More light-skinned people need to take action in fighting against the way they are celebrated for the brightness of their skin tone. If someone says, “You’re black, but not too black,” they should tell them it’s not a compliment and there’s nothing wrong with being black. When men tell darker-skinned women, “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” they should shut those ignorant fools down immediately and tell them all dark-skinned women are beautiful, period. Stop treating brown-skin sisters like they are the exception to the rule. It’s a backhanded compliment and nothing to be flattered by.
Colorism is the offspring of white supremacy, but it has been raised within the black community. There are hierarchies based on skin tone/racial ambiguity, and we must be open and honest with ourselves to eradicate them.
I’m a young, brown-skinned black woman, and although I don’t benefit from light-skinned privilege, I realize I’m spared from certain treatment and preconceptions that my dark-skinned counterparts can’t escape. I see beauty in all my light-skinned, brown-skinned, and dark-skinned sisters. If you truly believe black lives matter, you must be more proactive in fighting a battle that was intended to divide us.
Because if we don’t, who who will?