Dark Girls: A Review of a Preview [Culturelicious]

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.

Dark Girls: Preview from Bradinn French on Vimeo.

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

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  • Pingback: Rise, Dark Girls: Racialicious writer talks about being called bad names for being dark()

  • Kara Ucla

    I can’t believe some people are taking issue with how “pitiful” the women may sound. I’m sorry, should they make their experiences more light-hearted so that you aren’t made uncomfortable? Honestly, I think the real reason so many people are made uncomfortable by this is because these women are expressing THEIR REALITY, and some viewers are being confronted with the fact that they too, however inadvertently (or not), may have contributed to the long-held feelings of ugliness and worthlessness that has scarred this women for life.

    If this were a documentary about albinism, and the interviewees expressed how hard life was because people made fun of their melanin-poor skin, you wouldn’t be uncomfortable, would you? Well, these women were blessed with just the opposite- melanin-rich skin- and have been put down many times during their life for nothing they did of their own making. 

    Shame on everyone for wanting them to be silenced instead of wanting to enact change that will make it so stories like this no longer exist to be shared.

  • hmmm

    Hm, I’m troubled by the super-critical comments above mine.  Here we have a documentary talking explicitly about the experiences of dark-skinned black women, and I’m just wondering why it would be so totally annoying if we did allow these women (and all the women they are speaking) a space to voice their sorrow, sadness, hurt, etc freely and honestly.  I believe this will be more comprehensive than what we the preview provides, but if we want to get to the nitty gritty, the emotion, the hatred/vitriol that the subject of skin color can bring about, I think this preview did the job.  

    I just think it might be hasty to assume that the “pitiful, unloveable dusky Negress” will be all the documentary shows just from 9 minutes of it.It’s definitely fair to ask the editors/filmmakers to root skin color within histories of colonialism/imperialism, of white racist ideologies influencing peoples of color, and then connect that back to how it’s been internalized and perpetuated within communities of color, between people of color…I hope they do, because otherwise they leave out a huge part of the puzzle.   Also, the statement, “I’ve had photographers approach me and ask to photograph me,” sounds exoticizing to me, but I don’t know the context, so I hope that entire scenario went done in the most flattering, least problematic way possible.I’m having a hard time articulating myself right now, so sorry for the mumbo jumbo comment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000226318506 Sheree Renée Thomas

    Thanks for this discussion!  I also wanted to share that writer Marita Golden (MIGRATIONS OF THE HEART) and co-founder of the Zora Neale Hurston-Langston Hughes Foundation in DC has also written thoughtfully on this subject.  Read her book, DON’T PLAY IN THE SUN: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex.  She also hosted a global symposium on the subject.  There are also some wonderful books for children help strengthen and reinforce positive self-esteem.  Two of my favorites (and they were popular with young readers) are HAPPY TO BE NAPPY by bell hooks and Chris Raschka, NINA BONITA: A Story (Children’s Books from Around the World) by Ana Maria Machado and Elena Iribarren.  I found this lovely treasure in the Caribbean Cultural Center in NYC.

  • Anonymous

    I was actually very moved when I first saw this preview on facebook. One of my closest friends often painfully recalls the humiliation she endured because of dark skin as a child – in the freakin 90s! I can’t imagine people calling me “dirty” and a “spook”day in and out in school. Or saying things like “thank goodness your hair ain’t nappy, too!”

    I even remember sitting around in an event for African-American students on my college campus (highly competitive, private university) and being able to count everyone who was American born and not light-skinned. I cannot do the same when I’m in the projects. I wonder if this film is also gonna explore the connection between skin color and class, criminalization, etc.

    For balance and empowerment’s sake, I hope the full film has moments of empowerment. However, I appreciate women being able to express their pain without symbolically being made to feel like should be over it. While we may develop a thicker skin or find surround ourselves with more people and symbols that affirm ourselves, colorist within our communities is still major and European beauty standards

    • Anonymous

      I wonder if this film is also gonna explore the connection between skin color and class, criminalization, etc.
       Good point! I think this goes back to tracing the roots of shadeism within black communities and using methods like the Paper Bag Test to perpetuate class standings. I’m with you: I also hope the creative team extrapolate what shadeism means as far as internal(ized) class conflicts and other issues.

  • Anonymous

     I understand that it’s documentary style, maybe the heavy handed feeling I’m getting is because they put so many weighty moments back to back in the preview.

    I really hope the movie is better than this.  I think the issue of coloracism should be discussed at length in the media but I almost laughed at some of the personal stories these women told. After recently watching that RIDICULOUS ‘ Colored Girls’ movie by Tyler Perry with all of it’s melodrama and hyperbolic plotlines, I just cannot watch another sob-fest-woe-is-me movie focused on black women without having several “WTF” moments. 

    Then again, some people don’t catch subtlety so you need to slap them in the face with the message.  But for the ones who do appreciate subtlety, this preview comes off as overblown and forced. 

    Like someone else was saying, I hope they do focus on the root of this self-hatred.  It’s not like blacks have a natural aversion to dark skin.  That aversion that is present in some (dare I say many?) blacks is a result of the years of anti-black sentiment and eurocentrism that we have lived under in this country.  I really hope the director doesn’t make this out to be a “black people are just fucked up and backwards” kind of movie.  It could end up like the one drop rule.  Black people didn’t come up with that rule, it’s complicated, it started with whites.  But people, without examining history, now look at blacks funny when we claim that Obama is a black man.  WTF.  Black people didn’t invent coloracism, it is a result of white discrimination, yet people will look at black folks funny when blacks talk about light skin being better.  WTF.  Gots to start with the ROOT or else the issue will never be resolved.  It’ll just end up being another way for people to talk about how “racist” or “backwards” black people are.

  • http://twitter.com/cheekymonkeyboo Helen Dunson

    i was made aware of the preview via facebook. I agree that my first reaction was the ohh boohoo poor ugly black women video response. But i have not seen the whole film so i realized that the film maker is most likely trying to show a good convo about this subject! one thing i must say is that perhaps some black women are so sick of hearing about dark skin/light skin im unloved it feels insulting to bring it up like woe as me…but some women do in fact feel this way (obviously). When the film debuts i will be glad to see/hear more reactions….

  • http://twitter.com/whattamisaid whattamisaid

    Beautiful, beautiful post. A must-read.

    I also hope that this film steers clear of “Good Hair” syndrome. Among that film’s myriad problems was failing to show that the preferencing of long, straight hair is not some quirk of African America, but instead a result of the larger society’s racism and preferencing of long, straight hair. 

    Over on other blogs, I’ve already seen presumably non-black commenters’ breathless exclamations that “I had no idea this problem existed in the black community! Why, I just looove dark skin. Dark brown women are sooo beautiful. I wish my pale white skin were dark brown…gush, gush, patronizing gush.” It is clear the commenters are, again, seeing this as a “Black people don’t like dark skin. How odd!” thing, rather than a “Black folks have internalized the hatred for darkness present in the larger community” thing. 

    I hope Duke digs at the roots of this self-hatred. 

    • Anonymous

      Hey Tami—coming from you, I’m deeply honored! 
      I will be fair to the filmmakers: two interviewees (Interviewees #12 and #16) in the clip do touch on the roots of African American shadeism coming from the days of slavery. So I’m hoping there’s an expansion of that in the flick and not just a head-nod segment and the rest of the doc is an otherwise unremitting parade of Dusky Negresses with a Thousand Self-Esteeem Sorrows. (And I hope the filmmakers will give us the names of the interviewees, too.)
      As for those patronizing “y’all got suuuuuuch pretty negroid skin” convos, I always fight the urge to bounce in on that chatter, be obnoxiously non-anti-racist, and say, “Superior genetics. Anything else?” (Yes, we at the R can get that way, too. Just letting y’all know…and, yes, I’ve used that statement to shut down such annoyingly silly exchanges pre-Racialicious days. Complete with batting eyelashes and cold smile.)  I’m with you, Tami, on your reason that, for the most part, the statements come from pitying a Black “pathology” than trying to connect it to the larger systems of racism. Jeez…  

  • Anonymous

    I could say a lot about colorism in the black community, but that could take pages and pages.  So I won’t.

    But I love love love your childhood picture.  You were so cute and your smile radiates so much joy.  It still does.  I’m glad you had a mother who was not only uplifting, but a source for your own empowerment–that is awesome!

    • Anonymous

      Awww! Thanks for that, SayNay. I’ll also pass along your kind words to my mom.
      I told my mom about writing this post and about the women in the clip.  And I told her I wished I could have loaned her to them, so they could’ve heard what she told me.  Moms said, “Andrea, I went through this myself in my own life.  In order for me to be able to tell you, I had to dig through that pain.  Did I want to? No. But I also would have been remised in my duty as a mom if I didn’t teach you. So, I had to.”
      That’s Moms for you…what can I say?

  • Anonymous

    We’ve been talking this over at Qalil since the first preview came out and one question was asked, “Did you ever wish you were light skinned or white?”

    I remember being passed over for treats and special privileges in the larger family because I am “as dark as my father” (which was usually spat out at me. Mom’s light.) and wishing that for a moment I would be lighter so I could get the treats.

    Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there were guys who thought I was beautiful! I love the dark chocolate color of my skin!

    I’d gladly give my story too!

  • Bejewelle

    I saw this clip a few days ago and although I think there’s value in addressing the issue, I did find all the sad pitiful stories, one after the other, somewhat off-putting [as a dark hued woman myself], so like you say, I do hope there’s a different perspective also included in this documentary.

    I’ve also commented elsewhere that although this attitude can be found worldwide, it does seem particularly pervasive in the USA. Where young dark-skinned children [but PARTICULARLY girls] have a constant barrage of disparaging, mean, vicious put-downs to contend with from such an early age. From their own family members [!!!] and their own communities, where they should be receiving love and upliftment. I understand how tragic and bitter these women are, yes, I do – because I don’t know where the h*ll they ever receive positive reinforcement. We really have to do better as a race…

  • Lisa

    I really like this post. I am a dark skin black girl as well. Unlike you, I never had anyone denigrate me for my skin tone as my life revolved between a mainly African community and white ones. I never came to a realization or appreciation of African American communities, beyond Ebony and Essence, until I was in my early 20s. I made the mistake of assuming my truth had to be their truth and doubted it was as bad as they made it out to be from that clip because it just seemed so beyond my comprehension. I guess I am just so tired of the ‘woe is the black woman’ stories, of people declaring themselves the “bottom of the ladder”, and I am so scared that we say this enough we will make it our truth.

    But, you are right. I and everyone should sit back and listen. I do hope it is balanced because something tells me some of those women came right on the other side.

  • http://twitter.com/drperipatetic Dr. Peripatetic

    You’re so right. As much as this discussion needs to be had, I’m uncomfortable with the pitiful slant it takes — dark-skinned woman as ‘helpless victim’. Even the use of the word ‘girl’ instead of woman emotes immaturity and vulnerability that isn’t necessarily the case with women of our complexion. Like you, I do hope the full-length doc shows some empowering conversations also.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Naima-Ramos-Chapman/8906880 Naima Ramos-Chapman

    Thanks for this. I think it is important for all people of color’s growth to hear how our remarks to one another proliferate this pigmentocracy that was seeded by European standards of beauty, but reaped and resown by all people of color. But take heed, our self-loathing (and they are self-loathing; because all any light-skinned PoC has to do is look at their grandmother to see where they came from…) behavior is a symptom not the disease itself….

    That said, being light skinned, I know I cannot even attempt to relate and say “I know what you went through” because I do not. Stories of being called “yellow girl” or “white” by darker skinned elementary school friends pale in comparison. Those “insults” (the inflection in tone made them insults) were just one side of a coin…the other side were uncomfortable comments remarking on my “good hair” “nice skin” “exotic” “good mix” etc…..all of those “compliments” made me cringe only because I knew came from a place of collective self-loathing. Thankfully I had a mother who knew what it was like to be called “colored girl,” and she reminded me that skin color was not a badge of honor one earned just a color ascribed at birth. Be proud of your identity sure, but not your hue. The best thing we can do is listen, challenge our own concepts of what being “black and beautiful” has come to mean, teach our children better,  and figure out how to work together to eradicate the stupidity that is shadeism.

  • ChezCerise

    When I see videos like this it makes me sad and it makes me cry because I had no idea that people feel the way they do about being dark skinned.

    My mom’s side of the family is VERY fair skinned and my dad’s side is VERY dark skinned. I remember when I was a kid wishing that I could have darker skin like my dad’s because I always noticed that they all had beautiful, clear, and even skin tones and pretty white teeth compared to my mom’s side. I was terrified of getting older and having skin like those on my mom’s side. I always thought that darker skin was so beautiful.

  • Anonymous

    The story seems a bit extreme. I don’t want to dismiss peoples experiences but damn. And after the whole “black women are single and lonely trope” as mentioned in conjunction to the movie “Good hair” I don’t think I can bear another one of these stories/movies. 

    • Anonymous

      moionfire–I get what you’re saying. Yes, the stories of the women in the clip are extreme. And having lived through a version of this myself (I’m 42), I can tell you  that these stories are very, very real.  It brings to life the truism that “racism makes black men feel stupid and black women feel ugly.” But, that’s racism for you: it is an extreme system that produces extreme actions and reactions, like internalized stereotypes of beauty that people within some communities–some families–feel very free to espouse, to the scarring of the person hearing it. Especially if it’s heard again and again, and reinforced by stereotypes in the media and in dating and mating choices.