Yaba BlayThe 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. 

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  • I did not see the film, but from what I have been hearing about Dark Girls it seems that they did not speak to Black men. As a lighter skinned Black women I have had many dark skinned men speak badly about their beautiful complexion to me.I would hear things like “I’m surprised you like a crispy n*gga like me.” WHAT???? It is so disheartening. It would have been great to hear from these guys as well! It is their insecurities that they project on their dark skinned sisters which lead them to chase after lighter ones.

    • Miss Nefertari, I agree with you on the many issues of our black men. I did see the documentary, and it was worth seeing, but at the same time, sad. Many of the black men had negative reasons for not dating dark sistah’s versus light sistah’s (I dislike the use of the politically correct reference of dark versus light skinned), but the documentary was clear and I noticed that some issues that I thought were gone have never went away. As a beautiful honey toned sistah, and others would use the term light skinned, I am happy that this issue is being discussed.

  • Pingback: “Dark Girls”: A Critique | the negress()

  • PB

    Noirluv45, I am in agreement with you 100%. I think we have lost sight of the source of the problem. It’s as if we’re trying to cure an active disease (color discrimination) without having clue about what’s causing it. The shallowness of my people on this issue scares me. It causes me to feel like people lost their lives fighting for equality only to have us worship the looks of people who looks most like “massah.”

  • cabugs

    I saw the documentary and I was very disappointed. I didn’t think I would be. I guess I just expected more. I would really like to see a more comprehensive docu about colorism w/ these features I will mention below. The fact is, this is a multifaceted issue and we are doing this phenomenon and ALL (yes all, not just dark-skinned) black people a disservice if we don’t treat this nuanced issue like it is truly a nuanced one. Features that were missing in “Dark Girls” that should be talked about or incorporated:

    -Few or no dark skinned men. What are their troubles or joys on being dark skinned? How do they view darker skinned women and lighter skinned women – both ones in their family and those outside who could be potential mates?

    -Lighter skinned women (and men). Yes thats, right. This is not Oppression Olympics like so many people have stated so many times! Let the lighter sisters speak, goshdarnit. This is a nuanced issue and knowing their side of the story (both the troubles and joys, and acknowledgment of privilege of course) is worth it for EVERYONE. One person’s story of sorrow, however privileged it may be in some aspects (not ALL aspects) benefits us all, and does not discredit another’s story).

    -The children! So there was one little black girl in the docu, we need more children (boys and girls!) to speak on this. This awareness of color, and really the undertones of any society’s preferences and prejudices becomes tangible for young children really early! We must know what they are thinking now, so we can save them and future generations from this destructive mindset.

    -I agree with some that the white men in the docu are not necessarily needed. Only if the docu had more comprehensive features should the white men have been added. Otherwise they are just taking up space that issues more pertinent to the topic could have been covered. And while they are at it, if they are going to add people of other races, where are the non-white men and women? I know they had that Korean lady. They should add women (and men) of more nationalities if they were to make a more intensive docu.

    -Medium toned sisters – Yup, you thought I forgot you all, didn’t you? Haha, so another thing that I see is that some get lost in the conversation because in some situations they are considered light, in some they are dark, and in others yet, they are just neither or “medium” – Let the medium-toned (whatever that is) sisters speak too! Here’s a humorous take on this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K44o4ta4P3w

    -What do we really care to know about? Everything: this convo shouldn’t just be about attractiveness and dating, it should be about how skin tone affects job prospects, who goes to jail, who gets what parts in movies and media representation (well that is def always covered), who gets promoted in the workplace, etc.

    – The elephant in the room: Is it really about skin tone or is it about the features? I saw a comment that said that sisters are passed more for the fact that they have “ethnic” features rather than that they are dark-skinned. I know this comment will be problematic to many because it begs the question “what are ‘ethnic’ features anyway”? But we all know deep down that we know exactly what she is talking about. Now, this is a whole other conversation in and of itself that could even have its own documentary, but anyway. I’m guessing what she means is that people of West African descent (most African-Americans who have ancestors from slavery qualify here) more often have darker skinned coupled with wider noses, plumper lips, less aquiline features than our Eastern and Horn of Africa brethren and sisters do. She is absolutely right. Sometimes when I see photos that people have posted to say: “See! See?? She is dark skinned and absolutely stunning!” What do I see? Narrow noses, plump lips (big-ish lips are always okay for women, I guess), high defined cheekbones, and just features overall that represent a certain black woman rather than a more diverse range including all kinds of features. That then leads to the question that all want to ask, since for most this convo is about attractiveness more than anything else: Are these women being considered unattractive because they are dark, or because they are just truly unattractive? And what exactly decides what kinds of features (facial features excluding skin tone) are attractive and which ones aren’t?

    -MOST IMPORTANT: This docu simply touched on the institutionalized, systematized phenomenon of racism and imperialism of the West which births colorism. But that’s it. They simply “touched on” it. This needs to be the overarching framework in which the whole conversation is structured in the first place. Colorism is vicious, however, we have lost sight of the fact that it is not the disease itself, but the symptom of a much more destructive disease – an epidemic in fact. Colorism is EVERYWHERE. When they told you bleaching creams are one of the top products in most countries in Asia and Africa, let me tell you – they were not lying! I am from Ghana and even when I go to the African shop in the U.S., (yes in the U.S.!) the display counter right in front of the Cashier has soooo many skin lighteners, and “even tone” creams, and bleaching creams all on sale right there. There are two full shelves in the store for it, so obviously there is a market! This problem is worldwide. Outside of “developed” countries, it’s not just “White is Right”, it is “West is Best” – any and all images imported from the West to Ghanaian, Nigerian, Indonesian, Cameroonian, Indian, etc. TV screens are what the youth aspire to be. They feel their culture inferior from the times of colonialism. Yes, it’s a deep case of Stockholm syndrome that will take forever to unravel. Where do we start? I think it’s okay if another more comprehensive docu has more questions than answers, as long as the conversation evolves. We have been talking about the same things for too long! I am not one of those people who advocates dropping the colorism topic altogether. Rather, I think we need to move from discussing the basics that we all know to the more insidious, barely perceptible things.

    Oh, the shame. This issue really is complicated. As a dark skinned woman myself, I just have to say that the convos have been all kinds of disappointing to me ever since I got super interested in colorism during my freshman year of college. It always leaves more questions than answers (which is not necessarily a bad thing). All I know now is, I have grown to love who I am in all aspects, including skin color (which is just a tiny aspect of it all) and I don’t resent men who state their preference for lighter skinned women (I used to). Because I can’t find the answers I need/want, I have decided to resign from this conversation (until it evolves) and go with: you like what you like. No use expending energy with no returns. Like some have said, you cannot shame someone into finding you attractive. No use. I go with the motto, find who DOES like you and move from there. We are not going to change any minds by being angry, mean, or depressed killjoys. Live your life and be open to all possibilities of men, from African to South East Asian, to African American, and Latin American- wherever you will find quality love. And even with my closing statement, I see how I have made this convo all about beauty again, when it’s also about jobs, how society views us, incarceration rates, etc. But I am a woman who is of dating age. Let me be a little vain please?

    • Have you checked out the author’s work at this website:
      http://1nedrop.com/ ?

      Pics are interesting, but the journal is down right fascinating. I think you’ll find that website to have more of the type of convo you’re looking for. Plus there’s a book and other references.

    • cabugs

      I will take a look at that. Thanks!

    • ConsciousWoman

      In my opinion most of the women interviewed for this documentary were not “dark skinned.” They were considered medium toned. Also, it is the elephant in the room, but most of the women also likely had issues in life because of other factors besides their color. Beauty perception, weight. IJS.

  • lunanoire

    The name of the documentary is “Dark Girls.” Why do non-dark girls have to be included? If it included light and medium-toned women, it could be called “Black Girls.” If it included black men, it could be called, “Black people.” With a topic like Dark Girls, dark women are the center of discussion, which is rare, because they’re usually expected to share and are accused of being jealous haters when they speak up about colorism.

    Colorism is more important in terms of discrimination in housing, jobs, medical care, the criminal justice system, etc. Just like there are studies showing racism, the same for colorism. It’s MORE than hurt feelings.