By Guest Contributor Kiana Fleming
The OWN channel aired the world premiere of the 2011 documentary Dark Girls by D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke that explores the prejudice and often-internalized feelings of self-hatred experienced by darker-skinned black women in the United States. As a fellow Dark Girl, the documentary shed light on a subject that is all too familiar.
I distinctly remember my first high school dance. It was held at a Catholic high school for their African-American students. I was a freshman at an all-white secondary school in the Midwest, and needless to say, I was excited. St. Louis still gives off the chills of a racially polarized and sometimes overly conservative city. I stuck out at my school not simply because I was black but because I was a tad bit too ‘radical’ to conform. That year, my history teacher informed me that my assigned paper on my family’s “immigration” to the United States was too harsh and had to be altered. It was about slavery. Later in college, I was given the nickname Malcolmina X by my friends. But I digress.
For the party, I decided on black capris and a black crop top with silver glitter. I looked cute and the outfit showed off my athletic build. The party was full of hormone raged teenagers who dipped off into dark corners or huddled in packs with their friends. I was able to dance with a guy, who was known to be attractive and popular around the Catholic school black scene. He was tall, light-skinned and at the time I thought he was cute. A few days later, my girlfriend, who I attended the party with, and I chatted late into the night as most teenage girls do. She had gotten the 411 on the boy I danced with among other juicy gossip. I can’t remember much about the conversation but one thing: “he said you were too dark to wear all black.”
What? I was confused, hurt and embarrassed. What did that even mean? How was I too dark to wear all black? That quote sticks out to me to this day as the moment I knew my dark skin was perceived to be an issue. I struggled with self-esteem throughout high school and to make matters worse, my closest friends were both very light-skinned with long thick hair, the epitome of attractiveness in the black community. It seemed when we were out together, no one saw me. I didn’t exist. It became clear that my skin color put me in a box of unattractiveness by default, as many would prefer their coffee with cream rather than jet black. Compliments of “you’re pretty, for a dark-skinned girl,” “I don’t usually date dark girls,” “pretty black” and “pretty chocolate” never felt the same as simply being called pretty or someone being genuinely attracted to me rather than fetishizing my dark skin or being an exception to the rule. Once at Burger King, a man walked up to me and said: “I like my women like my meat, well done.” I was disgusted. And even more disgusted, when in college, a suitor thought calling me tar baby was a cute and playful nickname. It seemed also with my dark skin, I was sexualized and not worthy enough to date seriously. As my lighter-skinned friends went on extravagant dates, I was only asked to “kick it” at the guy’s house and it seemed they only wanted to experience what was between my legs rather than what was between my ears. While in college, I had a boyfriend from high school shamefully confess that his friends pressured him to break up with me because I was dark-skinned. He obliged. These differences in dating and mate selection followed me through college. The only time I felt beautiful, and I mean really beautiful – that it radiated in my smile and in my step – was when I lived in Europe for grad school. There, it seemed men of all walks of life, nationalities and colors were attracted to me, just me. My skin color made no difference at all.
After the eye opening experience at the dance, I wrote a research paper exploring the origins of the word black, its negative connotation, the development of its use to describe a group of darker-skinned people and colorism in the black community. I coupled that with a visual, thematic analysis of rap music videos to show the prominence and preference for light-skinned women in our society and often the media. Senior year, I wrote my college essay about this same experience for Spelman College, an all-women’s HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia, I later attended.
At 26, I still see how my skin color affects my dating experience and my overall perception of the world and my place in it. Skin color and hair texture are still as important as ever in the black community and people act accordingly and treat you as such, if just subtly. But with all that, I have learned to love my skin. I love the smoothness of it. The richness of its tone. I love the dark, reddish tint my skin gets in the summer, when I used to cringe at the possibility of tanning. I now sit with my fellow dark-skinned warrior sisters and discuss our pains, our triumphs and our still deep rooted insecurities that pop up from time to time that only we understand. No one but a dark skin girl knows how to feels to be the dark skin girl in the room.
The black community has a long way to go to remove the shackles of slavery’s ghost, of the undisputed effects of European colonization and Eurocentric beauty idolization. We, dark girls, must work to empower those following in our footsteps and let them know that it will be okay, it gets better. As a people, we must learn and teach others to appreciate one another and to respect differences locally, nationally and globally. If not for us personally, but to work collectively to change ideologies and encourage tolerance among all people. I wear my dark skin as a badge of honor and when asked how I would identity myself, I respond: I am black, I am a woman and I am dark. I have learned to embrace my beauty, to bask in all its glory, to appreciate its lessons on self-worth and acceptance. It has shaped me into who I am and I am forever grateful for all it has taught me.
Kiana Fleming is a St. Louis native and received her BA in Sociology from Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a dual MSc and MA in Global Media and Global Communications from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Southern California where her research explored the role of First Lady Michelle Obama’s media persona, First Lady political rhetoric and gender formation. Her personal, research and academic interests include the media’s effect on contemporary social roles and identity, race & gender relations and social advocacy and engagement through media.