The highly anticipated documentary, Dark Girls, made its debut on OWN Network last night. In the days leading up to the world television premiere, as more and more promo materials were released, people began to reach out to me; and on yesterday, no less than a few dozen folks emailed, messaged, Facebook’ed, and tweeted me – “Dark Girls is on! Are you watching?” I had already seen the film during its national tour last year, but I needed to watch it again, not because it was just that good, but because I wanted to see folks’ response to the film in real-time. My Facebook and Twitter timelines confirmed what I have long known to be true – we have been trained for war.
What I witnessed on social media last night was no different from what I’ve experienced time and time again. Whether in-person or on-line, conversations about skin color often transform into scenes that look like they were taken straight out of School Daze. While many dark-skinned women appreciate the acknowledgement of a pain that feels impossible to heal, others resent what feels like new picking at old sores, while many others reject the repetition of personal reflections that seemingly suggest that all dark-skinned women have issues. Some light-skinned women feel overlooked, their experiences seldom recognized as if their lightness somehow protects them from any pain. But if any of them dare say so, they are quickly and effectively dismissed if not silenced. Brown-skinned sisters who aren’t so light but aren’t that dark are somehow made to reflect on their own skin color as much lighter or much darker than it actually is, just so they can be a part of the conversation. Either that or they watch from the sidelines and remind us every now and again that we continue to push them to the sidelines. And where are the men? Either shaking their heads or being blamed for having us caught out there like so. And like clockwork, there are always more than a handful of brothers willing to offer their unsolicited opinions about their “preference.” In the end, we all head back to our corners exasperated and exhausted.
As I watched Dark Girls and the social media warfare that ensued, I couldn’t help but to question the film’s purpose. I mean, I know what Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry have said – that they wanted to facilitate dialogue and help to move us towards healing. I get that, I support that, and I have the very same intentions for my own work. I wholeheartedly agree that a potential for our healing lies in open and honest conversation. However, we have to be purposeful about that conversation. Part of the reason why we aren’t able to have different conversations about skin color is because we aren’t talking about skin color any differently than we have been since forever. We can’t seem to talk about our color without our complex.
For nearly two hours, I watched dark-skinned women, faces tear-stained and emotions raw, testify about all the many and painful ways that colorism has damaged their beings. Unfortunately what I didn’t see were any of the myriad ways that the conversation could have and should have been nuanced. Yes, I am a dark-skinned woman, who was once a dark-skinned little girl who grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and therefore knows all too well how colorism can break you if you let it. But I didn’t let it. And what Dark Girls was missing was that voice. The voice of the confident, assured, self-affirming, self-loving, “I wish you would tell me I’m not the ish” sister, who although she can relate to the pain refuses to stay stuck in it and has somehow figured out how to find beauty in her reflection. We needed that voice, not to distract from or to negate the experiences of pain, but rather to balance them with the capacity for triumph, if the purpose of the dialogue is in fact our healing. If we truly want to heal, we have to stop talking at each other and start talking with each other. And to do that, we need all voices at the table – dark, light, and every shade in-between – without the “vs.” While not with equal measure, colorism does impact us all. I’m not sure that those of us on the darker-end of the spectrum really need to maintain a monopoly on the pain. I think there’s room for other voices and other experiences. We needed the voice of the light-skinned sister to tell us what it’s like to walk into a room and have women who know nothing about her throw daggers with their eyes, or the light-skinned sister who stays in the sun and has either loc’ed her hair or cut it very close because she’s down for her people and doesn’t want anything about her presence to cause the browner-skinned women she considers her sisters to question their value. We needed that balance, if in fact the purpose of the dialogue is healing.
We also needed to hear more from men about their own experiences with colorism, not just their opinions about women’s experiences. In our dialogues and debates, we act as if colorism doesn’t affect men too. Again, not with same measure, but impactful still. There’s a reason why dark-skinned men have no problem opening their mouths to report that they “prefer” light-skinned women and perhaps that reason has something to do with how what they see in the mirror makes them feel. Instead of continuing to ask men about their personal “preferences,” why not hold them to task and ask them to make sense of that in light of their own complexions? (pun absolutely intended) For every dark-skinned man who wants only a light-skinned woman, there is a light-skinned man who only wants a dark-skinned woman. Like his darker skinned brethren, he also doesn’t want his children to go through what he went through. Either that, or he wants a woman who will validate and authenticate his Blackness and therefore his manhood. And on the subject of White men – yes, there are White men who appreciate our complexions, but there are also White men who exoticize us in ways no different from their forefathers did. So no gold stars for the White men who adore their chocolate lovers. Dark-skinned, light-skinned, or White, as I always say, there is a fine line between preference and pathology.
I find it interesting that the two dark-skinned male directors were inspired to make the film because of their observations of “the unfortunate pain” of others and not their own. I’ll admit that I take issue with Dark Girls for the same reason I was incensed by Chris Rock’s Good Hair: aside from the fact that it is Black men leading the conversation about Black women on issues that also affect Black men, most problematic is the absence of any substantial contextualization within global White supremacy. To Dark Girls’ credit, there was some focus on enslavement and the trauma it caused, as well as some discussion of the global impact of the media in creating particular images of beauty, and I do believe one of the experts interviewed actually said the word “global White supremacy.” (Good Hair offered no such context which ultimately served to pathologize Black women – as if our issues with our hair came out of nowhere. We are some peculiar creatures aren’t we?) Still, in focusing on personal story after personal story, that much-needed context was somehow lost and the issues were over-personalized. We needed to walk away from the conversation assured that we are not “crazy” and that we did not do this to ourselves. What we needed was a conversation centered more on the history and continued legacy of global White supremacy because …
“if you do not understand White Supremacy — what it is, and how it works – everything else that you understand, will only confuse you.”(Neely Fuller, Jr.)
Our relationships to colorism and to each other made me hesitant to offer any critique of Dark Girls out of concern that they would be seen as just another line of arsenal in our ongoing wars.
For as much as I have to say about the film, while watching with my social media crew last night, I tried very hard not to say anything at all. I knew that the film would be very powerful for many women and that many of them would finally feel affirmed by the fact that the conversation was being had in such a public manner and that it was endorsed by Oprah no less! But I also know that if we don’t start having new and nuanced conversations about skin color and colorism, we will continue to be at war.
Dr. Yaba Blay is currently co-Director and Assistant Teaching Professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University. Her research focuses on Black identities and the politics of embodiment, with particular attention given to hair and skin color politics. She is the author of the forthcoming book (November 2013), (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race.