Seeing Ourselves: The Art of Black Girls & Women Loving the Skin We’re in

by Anna Gibson

When I was younger, I recall a Christmas when I opened my gift and realized I’d been given a black barbie as opposed to the white one I usually got. At the time I was about age 4 or 5, and I didn’t even know they came with darker skin. When I questioned my mother about the sudden change, she simply said, “Because It’s important that you see yourself in the world around you.”

At the time, I had no idea what she meant. I remember asking myself how my Barbie’s skin color had anything to do with the playhouses and toy Corvettes my black barbie rode in with her ‘boyfriend’ Ken. I was also confused about what she meant when she said, “she wanted me to see myself.” I recall thinking, “I look nothing like Barbie or Ken, and I don’t drive a pretty car like that (yet), so what does she mean?” That line of thinking of course, was the problem.

Looking back, I understand completely what my mother was trying to do. By allowing me to play with a barbie who ‘had it all’ (so to speak), at an early age I was getting something that unfortunately, most black girls grow up without: positive representation. By playing with my Barbie and Ken set, I could start to ‘see’ that it would be possible to have these things, even if I couldn’t consciously grasp this at the time.

On January 19th, the premiere of the documentary Light Girls will air for the first time on the OWN Network. Light Girls will serve as the follow up documentary to the critically acclaimed Dark Girls, an examination of colorism against women who possess a darker complexion.

Colorism is defined as a practice of discrimination by which those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin. As the documentary will show, this form of self-hatred can also occur in reverse. More often than not, while light-skinned women are often seen as more desirable than dark-skinned women, they also bear the brunt of hatred, being called things such as ‘light bright’, or ‘ghost’. More often than not, this destructive criticism comes from their darker sisters, but it’s also known to come from white and black men as well. This isn’t just a phenomenon that occurs in America either—one can see a number of cases of colorism across the world from the darker Shudra (also known as the “Untouchables”) of India, to the Aborigines of Australia.

Dark Girls expounds upon the phenomenon of colorism, stating that it began in during colonial times, and extended to slavery and beyond. Since at the time, slave masters would often idealize white women, anyone who appeared closest to their skin tone was often revered.

This is why black women of a fairer complexion would serve in the house, usually as a servant or maid. Meanwhile, darker women would plow the fields just like men. Due to the way Black women have been perceived as hypersexual, they were also subjected to rape. Racial tensions and residual ideas about race and shade can be found in these historical contexts. The stereotype of dark-skinned women being ‘exotic’ or ‘lascivious’ comes from them being used as ‘breeders,’ or being used as sexual objects for slave masters. Since slave masters needed an excuse to commit such acts, they claimed that these women ‘seduced them.’ As they worked in the fields, women of darker complexion were often perceived as being ‘stronger’ and ‘more aggressive’ than their lighter-complected counterparts. Interestingly enough, both stereotypes play out today in the archetype of the Sapphire, the angry black woman, and Jezebel, the sexualized black woman, found in most movies and TV Shows.

The Sapphire archetype originated on the TV series Amos and Andy. The character Sapphire was perceived as angry and emotionally unstable. We can see this negative portrayal of dark-skinned women even today, in movies such as Precious and more recently, Candace Young in Tyler Perry’s production, The Haves and the Have Nots.

Meanwhile stereotypes against fairer skinned women typically portray them as being sexually lascivious—or in some cases, inaccessible and aloof. This is the Jezebel archetype, a temptress typically portrayed as a light-skinned woman who leads a man to his metaphorical doom. The most obvious media portrayal of this archetype can be seen in the movie, The Devil in the Blue Dress.

With so many negative representations of ourselves in the world, one has to wonder how do we really begin to "see ourselves"? Black girls should not have to identify ourselves through a crooked lens or one dimensional archetype, but instead we should see ourselves through the fullness of our being. When we do this, we could better combat the negative media portrayals of our character. Studies as early as the 1940’s demonstrate that black girls and boys formulate ideas about their identity at a very young age.

In this way, one needs to combat colorism on a number of different levels. While giving young girls darker Barbies to play with is an excellent start, media representation is just as important. University of Michigan recently announced that children ages 6-11 spend 28 hours in front of the TV. For parents, this could mean turning off the TV and engraining a love of books instead, reading them bedtime stories, and starting mini-book clubs with other kids in the neighborhood. Another way to instill a sense of self-love in girls is to talk with them and spend time with them—by being invested in their lives, it shows that their experiences and thoughts are valuable. It may seem like some of these things are self-explanatory, but in many houses, they simply don’t happen.

On a societal level, there are more positive portrayals of black women in the media, even if some are still met with controversy or critique. Most notably, hows like Scandal starring Kerry Washington and How To Get Away With Murder starring Viola Davis, are beginning to show black women in power positions. As the First Lady in the White House, Michelle Obama has also provided positive representation of Black women. Not only has she implemented some important cause-related projects during her tenure as FLOTUS, but as an Ivy League educated lawyer and mother, she has given black girls hope that they too can be successful and influential.

It’s clear that from Barbie to blockbuster series, black women have come a long way from the way we’ve historically been seen to something much greater. For black girls everywhere, this means we’ve finally got a chance to ‘see ourselves’ as who we are: whole, beautiful, brilliant, and worthy.

Photo: Shutterstock

Anna Gibson is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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