Beauty in My Dark Reflection: An Essay on Colorism
In honor of Valentine’s Day (sort of) and Black History Month (kind of), today, I’m going to talk about one of my own past hurdles.
You familiar with “Team Lightskin vs. Team Darkskin”? Even if you’re unsure about why it’s such a popular topic, the chances are that any casual social media user has seen a litany of memes, posts, and tweets about it. Instagram profile bios alone are rife with #lightskin and #darkskin descriptors.
I bring this up because of an old journal entry I recently found again that reads:
"The other day, I heard a little girl say she wished she wasn't 'so dark' because 'dark' is ugly and she didn't want to be ugly. She was about a shade darker than myself, and I'm just plain brown (exactly like the brown color in the crayon box). It made me so sad to see a little kid unhappy about something like that.
The little girl said she wanted to have 'pretty light skin like Beyoncé.' As I walked past, I'll admit I wanted to cry. Not just because of what she'd said, but also because what she'd said reminded me of a boy who'd teased me relentlessly when I was little, always calling me 'blackie' or 'darkie,' which had made me feel the same as that little girl--ugly. And it wasn't until I'd gotten a little older that I realized that the boy himself had been much darker than me and that it made no sense for him to make fun of my skin tone.
When I got home, I started to wonder about the effect the superficiality of TV and magazines have on people--on black women in particular. And as I thought about it, I realized that none of the popular black female celebrities of Hollywood--Jada Pinkett-Smith, Queen Latifah, Halle Berry, and Taraji P. Henson to name a couple--had skin even a shade close to mine. Some, like Halle Berry, are hailed as the most beautiful women in the world. All of them very light, and all of them with minimal, if any, typically 'black' features. The media shoves these kinds of black women in our faces all the time because they are what is preferred."
Ever seen the popular 90's show A Different World? It's one of my absolute favorites. ADW managed to be comedic and fun while also being able to delve deep into very serious social issues as well as address niche problems within the black community itself. In season 2, there's a character by the name of Kim Reese. Kim (my fave character, BTW) was played by Charnele Brown, who was one of the darkest black actresses on TV at the time. Both the character in the show and the actress in real life expressed concerns about having a darker skin tone while lighter-skinned black women were the ones socially preferred. In a 1991 newspaper interview with reporter Shavony Andrews, Brown said that being darker made it very difficult to get "positive roles" because light-skinned black women were the ones to whom the studios often gave such roles. From what I see in the entertainment industry today, I don't doubt it.
Even when it came to casting for shows with a majority of black characters, having dark skin was a setback. Why? Being darker in skin tone shouldn't be seen as ugly. What the hell for? Colors make the world go round. (Or is that love? Whatever.) A little girl shouldn't be made to feel that she's ugly. And especially not because she's dark-skinned. Beauty comes in different shades and shapes. It's way past time that mainstream media acknowledged that and stopped promoting this "light is right" doctrine because I honestly never want to hear something like what that girl said come out of any child's mouth ever again. I don't ever want a child to feel as though they're inferior because of their race and/or skin tone.
This is 2017, not 1917, and yet black women still face the same oppression from the "master" we call the media machine. Back when I was a freshman and fashion major, I learned this firsthand. The cold truth hit me like a splash of ice water in the winter, dousing the last vestiges of my naivete. (Do you recall February 2016's horrific backlash against one of MAC Cosmestics' Instagram lipstick promo photos? The backlash that occurred simply because the model, Aamito Stacie Lagum, is a dark-skinned black woman with, as many angry commenters put it, "[N-word] lips"?)
Years later, I wish that I could say that I believe it's gotten better, but truthfully, I can't say that I've seen much progress. Misogynoir--misogyny specifically directed towards black women--and colorism have created a hostile environment in which black women have even started segregating ourselves from one another. The alarming rise of #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin, especially popular hashtags among adolescents and young adults, is a direct result of this.
It's not only a disturbing and ridiculous line of thinking, but extremely dangerous to the mental health of black youths. It took me until sophomore year of college to love my skin tone completely and realize that I'm just fine the way I am. I still have times when I feel unattractive, but in recent years, those times have become less and less frequent. One day, I hope that they stop altogether. I'm going to work on that.
But how long will it take that little girl to feel that way about herself? Worse still, what if she never comes to the realization at all?
It's sad to think about. And sadder still that over twenty years after A Different World first aired, people still have to wonder, "Does the amount of melanin in my skin really make that much of a difference in how people see me? In how they see each other?"
I honestly wish that I could answer "no" to those questions...but I know better.