The Brown Girl’s Dilemma: Beauty Standards, Media, and Colorism

It is 2011.  Colorism should be a relic of  America’s ugly racist past. Yet one look at Twitter or a BET video countdown and you will see that Black America’s internal struggle with complexion is still alive  and thriving today.  Hash tags of #teamlightskin and #teamdarkskin abound in online social networks and this is sad.  Media conceptions of Black beauty all to often fail to show its remarkable and brilliant diversity; this should change.

We all know that divisions around complexion were created  during slavery to further manipulate and conquer a stolen people.   However, I wonder why we continue to internalize such divisions to collective our detriment.

Today, I  can say without any reluctance or shred of dishonesty that I for one love the brown skin I’m in.  Yet complexion has informed my conception of myself for as long as I can remember.   Whether it was growing up and questioning if my brown skin was really beautiful, or wishing for long silky hair; the issue of colorism crystallized for me well before I could intellectualize it in a useful way.

At five-years-old I did not know about America’s tradition of slavery and legalized discrimination. Then “Jim Crow” would have sounded like a  funny name for a Sesame Street character.  However, I could observe and it was made clear to me through film, television, and even family dynamics that light-skin was preferable.

My father’s family were very dark-skinned people, and in contrast my maternal grandfather could have passed for white.  This led to an interesting color politic between the various households I moved through.   I grew up hearing pejoratives and stereotypes associated with both light and dark skin that definitely colored my self-perception and how I perceived others. Some of the malarkey I heard growing up included stereotypes like: “dark-skinned” women are naturally mean and could not be trusted.  In contrast, “light-skinned” or “yella” women—though beautiful—were highfalutin.   Children were embraced and doted on for their beauty  based on their complexion. Light eyes and soft hair were rewarded, and dark skin and kinky hair were resultantly penalized.

My grandma checked my ears at birth to either confirm or deny what my complexion was going to be.  However, to be fair she was born in 1916 and a lot of her ideas around race were a product of being raised in a segregated South.  My father once told me he wished I had his soft curly hair instead of my mother’s less than soft and curly hair.  As a little girl, I can even remember asking my mother why I was so much darker than her, and expressing that I wished I was her complexion.  It is memories like these that formed the foundation for my  self-conception as a dark skinned Black woman.

School reinforced this original conception.  When I played pretend with my schoolmates, we would imagine we were light-skinned with long hair.   In the 80’s and I would argue even now, fair-skinned beauties were the dominant representation of  which Black was beautiful.  We wanted to look like Vanessa L. Williams, Tracey Spencer, Pebbles, or The Good Girls. From where I stood, the girls in school who were considered the most beautiful and popular were those with fairer skin and long hair.  I am positive that this experience was felt entirely differently from the girls who embodied these traits.  In fact, since my adolescent travails around color, I have talked to my girlfriends who have the light skin, the green eyes, the soft hair.  Guess what?  They experienced just has much hurt and color confusion from being ostracized, stereotyped, and otherwise harassed.

Dating  in the DMV is always an interesting experiment in color politics.  This area is probably more susceptible to this kind of nonsense because of the transient nature of the residents and  the area’s historic ties to Black Bourgeoisie or African-American elite.   As a very brown girl, I have had the experience of being told I was beautiful–with the caveat.  Those who have this experience know exactly what I mean.  You know the whole “your pretty for a brown-skinned girl” or “I don’t usually date dark girls” spiel.  I frankly cannot stomach this kind of talk and it is an immediate turn off. It is fine to have a preference around what you find attractive; however, I would challenge those with these kinds of ideas about complexion to look at their own experience. I’d ask you to consider how much of what you deem attractive has been informed by the media, hip-hop, the beauty industry?   Similarly, I say to the women who say they want their kids to be light-skinned or have good hair, you are simply fueling a disgusting cycle of self-hate.  Please stop.

You may have seen the trailer for the soon to be released documentary film “Dark Girls”.  The film—produced by Bill Duke for Duke Media and D. Channsin Berry for Urban Winter Entertainment— documents dark-skinned African-American women recounting their painful experiences around their color. The amount of sadness, self-loathing, pain, and denial in this brief preview is demoralizing.  Yet the film has ignited  a long overdue public conversation around colorism and intra-racism.

Ultimately, we need get away from these toxic and misinformed conceptions born of a racist past.  We should not let this ugly tradition fuel what and who we are today.   Beauty is socially constructed and hence can be deconstructed.  Accordingly, we need to start embracing various representations of Black beauty.   However, if we look critically at this issue, I think more than diverse representations we will find the need for a catharsis.  The hurt caused around this issue is what troubles me more than anything.  I hope that “Dark Girls”  will be a platform for this.

So where do you stand on this complexion thing?   How has colorism affected your self-conception?  How does it affect your dating choices and options? Where do you see historic remnants of colorism playing out in our modern time?  Do you subscribe to the Team Light Skin and Team Dark Skin parodies? Do such attempts to make light of this obviously complex issue help or hurt the matter?

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