By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid
I recognize the women in this preview: these women were me when I was growing up. The kids at my mostly black Catholic school called me just about every black-related perjorative ever since 3rd grade, letting me know and telling others within my earshot that I was physically inferior solely because I was dark-skinned. I even remember a boy in my 7th grade class drew a picture of me being nothing more than a solid black square. Even though the same kids voted me 8th grade class president…I was still considered in their estimation an ugly (vis-a-vis my skin tone) girl. Even had the only boy who was my boyfriend (we were in 8th grade) dump me for a lighter-skinned and younger girl, to the mocking laughter of the lighter-skinned students.
My mom—a dark-skinned African American herself—told me something that didn’t make any sense through my woundedness: “You know those light-skinned girls people think are pretty in school? Wait ‘til you’re grown and see where you’re at and where they’re at.” Added to this was my mom’s constant admonition to “get an education.” Well, sure enough, what my mom said came to pass. I’ve had photographers approach me and ask to photograph me. I had lovers of various hues—even had a husband. (He was white.) And women of various hues, races, and ethnicities have given me love on the streets, at the job, and at workshops.
I’m not sure how—or even if—some of the women in the clip worked through the pain some black people have inflicted on them. But, instead of the usual devolving, derailing, and erasing conversations of “that’s happened to me, too, though I’m a lighter-skinned black person!” (that’s a thread for another post) or “it wasn’t me! I’m a down black person!” (will be met with an exasperated eyeroll)…it would be a really good thing to simply listen to these women’s truths, as uncomfortable–sometimes, as implicating–as they may be.
Transcript after the jump.
Voiceover: Rise, dark girls.
Interviewee #1: I can remember being in the bathtub, asking my mom to put bleach in the water so that my skin could be lighter. And so that I can escape the feeling that I had about not being as beautiful, being as acceptable, as lovable.
Interviewee #2: If we’re all just hanging out and a dark-skinned girl walked by, [some would say], “oh, she’s pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” And I’m like, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Interviewee #3: I’d used to wish that I would wake up one day lighter or would wash my face and think that it would change. I thought it was dirt and would try to clean it off but it wouldn’t.
Interviewee #4: Just doing something small as standing in front of class to do show-n-tell, I wouldn’t look up or make eye contact with anyone. I would hold my doll really tight because I knew my toy loved me even if they didn’t.
Interviewee #5: “Here comes Blackie”…”here comes Tar Baby”…I remember one in particular: they’d say, “You stayed in the oven too long.” And that was really hurtful.
Interviewee #6: And they would do it every single day without let-up: on the playground, in the classroom, in the cafeteria. Constantly you got it, so I really didn’t have a high self-esteem.
Interviewee #7: It was so damaging. It made us feel like we were unwanted, that we were less than…
Interviewee #8: My mother and her friend, we were driving somewhere. And she bragging on me: “My daughter is beautiful. She’s got great eyeleashes; she’s got the cheekbones; she’s got great lips.” And she’s going on, and she adds,”Can you imagine if she had any lightness in her skin at all? She’d be gorgeous!” And just that last little part…all that pride I had about, you know, her bragging on me, just dissipated. Just dissipated. And I think that that moment I really became aware.”
Questioner: Show me the smart child. Why is she the smart child?
Child: Because she’s white.
Questioner: OK. Show me the dumb child. And why is she the dumb child?
Child: Because she’s black.
Questioner: Show me the ugly child. And why is she the ugly child?
Child: Because she’s black.
Questioner: Show me the good-looking child. Why is she good-looking?
Child: Because she’s light-skinned.
Interviewee #9: I think I remember most saying, you know, if I have a little girl, I just…I didn’t want her to be dark.
(Chokes back tears)
I remember saying that. I didn’t want her to be dark like me.
Interviewee #1: When you’re around so many people that you trust, you know, just because you’re looking at another black person, and you’re thinking, “I’m black, you’re black. They’re not going to have anything derogatory to say about me.” But when you live so many years with people having certain judgments relative to your skin tone, you start to believe it.
Interviewee #10: A friend of mine had a baby. It was my first time seeing the baby. The baby was beautiful. [The friend ] said, “Gurl, I’m so glad she didn’t come out dark!” and when she said it, it felt like a dagger, like someone took a dagger and stuck it in my heart because I was used to expecting hearing things like that from other races. But this was someone I considered to be my sister.
Interviewee #11: Skin color amongst the black community is a huge issue in our time
Voiceover: This is not a phenomenon, It’s just the reality in the black culture.
Interviewee #12: I believe we didn’t like ourselves. Sure, it started in slavery, but we kept the vicious cycle going.
Man on the street: I mean, you know, dark-skinned women…I really don’t like dark-skinned women. They look funny beside me. So, you know, I’d rather not date a dark-skinned woman.
Off-camera interviewer: You’d rather [date] a light-skinned girl?
Man on the Street: Yeah. Light-skinned pretty girl. Long hair.
Interviewee #10: My experience with Black men is I’m exotic, I’m beautiful…they’re fascinated by me—behind closed doors. But when it came to dating, coming to the front door and taking me out in public? Doesn’t happen.
Interviewee #1: The darker you are, it’s more of a sexual approach. It’s more of a relationship-without-much-meaning sort of approach more than I-could-get-married-to-that-woman-and-have-a-few-kids.
Interviewee #7: All my lighter friends had those boyfriends. They were always seen together. But if someone wanted to date me, it was “I’ll meet you after school.” It was more of a hidden thing. Nobody ever just wanted to be with you.
Intervierwee #5: There’ve been places I’ve gone that there are just a lot of whites, and they would tell me, “You have such beautiful skin! Is that your hair? Did you dye it? Is that your natural hair?” It’s really questionable to me that they think I’m so beautiful and my own people don’t see any beauty in me at all?
Interviewee #13: I was once on CNN, debating the whole controversy about Beyonce ‘s L’Oreal ad. When a picture of her in motion was placed against a picture of her in print, everyone said there’s no way that they didn’t lighten her skin. And I don’t want to believe that that’s still happening in this day and age.
Man #1: And she’s got that good hair, too.
Man #2: You like what?
Man #1: I like girls with that light complexion.
Man #2: You’re a moron.
Man #1: I can’t help it.
Man #2: What? Being a moron?
Man #1: Yeah, that too.
Interviewee #14: Several years ago, I had decided I wanted to, umm, wear a ‘fro. I remember one young lady said to me if she ever had hair look like that, she’s had to cover it. I said to her, “Well, if you take the perm out of your hair, that’s exactly what it looks like.” And she said she’s never seen her natural hair because, from when she was small, her momma had always put something in it.
Young woman: It doesn’t look clean, I feel like. It looks, like, nasty almost. If you just roll out of bed and your hair is nappy, it’s, like, the most disgusting, most unclean thing.
Interviewee #11: I’ve had issues with having longer hair since a small child. And it did come from black kids.
Interviewee #1: Being in school, there was just such a separation among girls who were lighter-skinned and girls who were darker-skinned
Interviewee #15: It was really bad in junior high school. With Nair, I knew people who threw bowls of it in their hair just to take it. So, yeah, we were separated, and it caused a lot of friction among children. Which now, as an adult, just seems stupid to me.
Interviewee #16: The racism we have as a people, among ourselves, is a direct backlash of slavery. The “house niggers” versus the “field niggers.” The paper-bag rule: if you’re darker than a paper bag, the whole thing. We as a people were so disenfranchised that we adopted some of that. A lot of that.
Interviewee #17: I think the problems within the black community has to do more with our lack of unity. We really don’t see each other as being part of the community, partly because we don’t have a language or have something tangible besides our skin color to say, “I am a part of you. You are a part of me.” In the black community it’s, “No, I’m not black! I’m Caribbean,” or ‘No! I’m not black! I’m Haitian.” No, you’re black.
Interviewee #9: Rise, dark girls. Rise.
Yes, these women in the clip remind me of myself, where I could have gone mentally (emotionally, spiritually, etc.) if I didn’t have the mom I have. Watching this clip made me want to loan my mom to each and every one of them so they could hear her intervening message and wipe their tears. Moms may even update her advice: “And I’m going to tell you what I just told my own daughter: look at the First Lady and tell me that a dark-skinned woman is unattractive and unloveable.” I may even send Moms over to the house of Interviewee #8’s mom to verbally whup her ass.
At the same time, as I told sex blogger/filmmaker Arielle Loren in our Facebook conversation about the preview, I feel a bit skeeved by the clip. Even though the conversation about shadeism and its particular effects on darker-hued black women is needed, it also plays on the “pitiful, unloveable dusky Negress” trope that can be emotionally exploitive for the participants and for the viewers…and seems to be a new spin on the “unattractive and unmarriable black woman” trope that’s been on the uptick for a minute. As Arielle said in the thread, “While I don’t want to shake the finger at something “positive,” if the director still is in the editing process…It’s important to also show dark girls who were empowered and managed to build strong self-esteem despite the overwhelming negative opinions of our community and society at large.” I responded, “ But what you’re saying makes me wonder if 1) the doc makers (Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry) even interviewed anyone with an “empowered” perspective or 2) when this clip was edited for the ‘ad campaign’ the thought was ‘let’s use the trope of the ‘unloveable, pitiable dusky Negress’ to get the buzz going and, eventually, to get people to watch it.”
But again, this is a preview. According to the Vimeo page, the film won’t be released until Fall or Winter 2011. I think this film is participating in a conversation that’s so necessary—if, for no one else, for the women in the documentary and for quite a few darker-skinned black women carrying and maybe destructively acting from this wound. But, as we say in these parts, Black people—and that definitely includes Black women—aren’t a monolith. So, I hope this film presents more sides to this issue, more and varied voices of dark-skinned black women to speak about this hurtful issue. And that this clip will be re-edited to reflect those women’s experiences.
If need be, I’ll happily volunteer my mom and me.
Photo credits: Courtesy of Andrea (AJ) Plaid