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?

What Happened to Ciara?: R&B and the New Sex Entrepreneur


It seems like it was just yesterday when little Ciara was singing an ode to the benefits of keeping one’s cookies in the jar.  Six years later,  her now delicately cultivated sexual Lolita image has been either co-opted or manipulated into outright hedonistic vixen.  I for one am not happy about it.  With  her recently slumping album sales, this new level of sexuality reeked of desperation and was bad form for a clearly talented young woman.

I was extremely disappointed with the video for her gym friendly single “Gimme Dat”.  The single has her once again leveraging the southern fried hip-hop laced stylings that put her on the map, except this time around the audience is distracted from the intricate choreography and gravity defying dance moves that made her famous.  Instead, we find her in a full sexual spectacle popping it on a handstand, gyrating, and clad in her underwear dancing in the rain.  Her dancing is amazing, but the imagery makes her come off like a glorified pole dancer; she even performs much of the dancing in the ubiquitious stipper shoe—the glass heel.

Make no mistake that this exotic dancer/stripper imagery is by design. It is not an accident.   With the recent popularity of Amber Rose, Maliah—others, it makes sense that the largely patriarchal music industry sees an economic opportunity in co-opting the images of its female R&B starlets to  evoke a similar aesthetic.

I do not want to get all judgmental big sister on Ciara because sexuality has always had its place in R&B and soul, but there is a thin line between sexy and trashy.  Take for instance, Christina Milian.  She was carefully managing the naughty good girl image—up and until—her video for “Dip It Low” found her sliding across the floor and gyrating in pools of oil.  Her singing career tanked soon there after.  Even Janet Jackson—the master of the naughty good girl image—couldn’t survive the nipple slip seen round the world.  She blurred the line between trashy and classy for a good run, but one near fatal move finds her musical career barely gasping for life.

With Rihanna giving us a lot of manufactured S&M imagery and both Keri Hilson and Kelly Rowland  following much of the same path, it seems to succeed the modern R&B star must become a sex entrepreneur.  She must balance equal parts talent, sexuality and purity−so as not to appear “deflowered” to their male fans (see inside image of Rihanna’s Loud CD). This seemingly impossible challenge has been mastered by few.  Remarkably, Beyonce has managed to walk this tightrope for over a decade—balancing sex kitten, with empowered feminist, diva, and business woman.

I would hate to prematurely morn the loss of Ciara, as I believe she has the time and talent to rebrand and redeem her image.  I am not suggesting she take the sex out, but instead she remember the importance of artistic integrity to her fan base.  She is certainly not a strong vocalist like a Melanie Fiona or a Jennifer Hudson, but she was well positioned to inherit a Jacksoneque like role as a consummate entertainer.

So what do you think?  Are the sexualized images of R&B stars like Ciara, Rihanna, Rowland and Hilson simply the norm now for a music industry plagued by poor album sells?  Does legitimate talent allow artists to avoid the trappings of the over-sexualized image?  Does the male consumer drive this trend or are women—as consumers—equally responsible for our representations?

Hoop Ho Diaries: In Defense of Evelyn


Ah Basketball wives…how do I love thee…..let me count the ways….

Basketball Wives is everything great about bad reality TV: conspicuous consumption, beautiful women, melodrama, sex, gossip, enough cats fight to rival your local all girls parochial school, and if that wasn’t enough; they even gave us a little Al Reynolds this season to boot.  The show chronicles the lives of women who are married to or in most cases divorced, separated, or otherwise presently/formerly copulating with NBA players.  We watch them argue, back bite, and generally go at it for an hour each week, with no clear path for redemption , growth, or other identified higher purpose.  The show more or less plays like a post-post-adolescent mean girls, but yet I really dig it.

The intellectual in me realizes that this show is fraught with problematic images for minority women, and for that matter women in  general.  The characters are petty, superficial, and oft-times morally debased.  Nevertheless, it provides a  perverse and painful adrenaline rush, somewhat akin to popping a pre-date zit.

I’ve said only half in jest that Basketball Wives is the only sports that I’ll willingly watch.The recently aired reunion specials had all the spectacle of a championship basketball game with better shoes. There was man-to-man defense with little Royce outmatched by the lengthy Boricua show-stopper Evelyn, with host John Salley playing the referee.

Since bedding Cincinnati Bengals Chad Ochocinco on their first date (***clears throat*** 5x) and admitting to sleeping with co-star Tami Roman’s  then husband Kenny Anderson, Evelyn has been catching a lot of shade for being a ho, trash box, alley-cat, or any other synonym one might come up with for a so-called loose woman.

Yet, I find something fascinating about Evelyn.  I kind of admire how she has strategically positioned herself as the show’s archetypal villain; the move shows a unique kind of genius.  All good reality shows need a “bad guy” and on Basketball Wives Evelyn has earned her place among the Natalie Nunns, Omarosas,  New Yorks,  and Jade Coles of reality TV’s past.  She has leveraged her sexuality, fire-sharp tongue, and power over the other women to create her brand.

Mark my words she will leverage this brand into her own reality series, which will more than likely co-star her newly-minted fiancée: none other than  Ochocinco, another reality TV star.    Apparently, ho-dum has its benefits because she is sporting one hell of a rock.  The extent to which the engagement is spectacle or a publicity stunt is anyones guess, but I can appreciate a woman who goes after what she wants.  As  she so rawly put it: who I f**ked and how I f**ked him is none of your motherf**king business.”

I mean even considering that she has exposed her life to the cameras of a national reality show, she still has a point.  It amazes me that a American’s still maintain highfalutin airs around this sort of artificial puritanical sexuality, which is ironically set against the back drop of a culture driven by an orgie of sex, commerce, and power. For all intensive purposes, Evelyn is operating within a culture that values and rewards beauty, and in which  sex can be more than marketed.

Sex has become entrepreneurial.

I’ll miss Basketball Wives until next season, but I’m waiting with bated breath for Evelyn and Ochocinco: Married to the Green.  It will be as artificial as Astroturf but it will be entertaining.   Sports, sex, and entertainment; it’s the American way.

So what do you think?  Anyone else out there willing to admit they are on #teamevelyn? Is Shani O’neal wrong for promoting these characterizations of black and minority women to enrich herself?  Does anyone view Evelyn’s moves as empowering rather than classless?

I’m a Black Girl and I am not Broken


I am many things.   Among them—I am a daughter, a sister, a friend, a poet, a writer, and  a lover of love and admirer of creation. I am a person of deep faith, a survivor, and a brave bird.  But for all the things that I  am—both good and bad—there is one thing I am not:

I am in no way and by no measure broken.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve been all up and through some hurt, but I am increasingly more intentional about emerging from those experiences stronger and more definite in my purpose.  I am grateful to the universe for every door that opens for me and even more gratified for the wisdom to know which one to walk through.

I guess this is why I am troubled by a representation I see in the larger culture: Black women as “inherently broken”.  These representations are adopted wholesale and perhaps more damaging internalized, when they should be interrogated, and even outrightly refuted.  Hence, this post emerged after a misguided attempt to garner my affections. The unrelenting pursuant diagnosed my disinterest, as follows:

“I’m saying bay [urban colloquialism for the term of endearment baby] I’m perceptive but even a simpleton could see you’re going though an internal struggle based on previous trauma…..[it continued] Bay don’t be scared to take assistance while moving on…Those chains aren’t  going to protect u nor make u whole…”

Delivery aside, the notion put forth in this ghetto soliloquy shook me to my core.  Nothing about our interactions up and until this point had communicated either directly or indirectly anything about my past or any pain that was a part of it.  I can say this with confidence because our conversations had been limited to text messaging—clearly not a communication medium optimal for real human connections.  I can also tell you as a matter of fact that this person was by no means perceptive or intuitive.  He was not even smart. We had spoken maybe three times in life.  What I see is that he had clearly ingested a narrative of what Black woman are as a collective, and projected this myth on to me—a practical stranger. For this he was unceremoniously dismissed.

Honestly, I did not need to be healed; dinner and a movie would have been enough.

The Broken Black Girl archetype—not unlike the lonely Black girl narrative— is ubiquitous throughout pop-culture.  Our struggle for identity, voice, and healing from the historical remnants of our storied collective experience is one the should emerge from the margins. Yet, I am convinced that the redemptive power of such stories is often lost.  In particular, this plays out in film:   The Color Purple, Waiting To Exhale, Precious, and  For Colored Girls are immediate examples. Each of the creative works tell the story of a Black woman or multiple Black woman in the throes of pain, hurt, anger and general brokenness.  In fact, Tyler Perry has made an empire on capitalizing from the well-worn tales of damaged Black women.  In his work, they are often redeemed by faith, however, the message of redemption is never the dominant narrative in the story arc.  It is the hurt experience of the “damaged” Black woman that is the focus.

It is time we started telling the stories of not only survival, but emergence and optimization.  I want to hear about Black women doing amazing things and living amazing lives on their own terms.  I want to wrap myself in the stories of yes strong black women, another archetype that is getting a bit stale, but more so fully developed women who are vulnerable, talented, smart, funny, and dynamic as the Black women I know.

I’ve lived a lot of life in these near thirty years, but more than bearing the scars of past hurts—I am embodying the power of resilience that manifest  from the downturns in life. I’ve emerged from each hurt experience more wise, and grateful to the universe for trusting me to be a teller of my story and our stories.

I am intentional.  I am courageous.  I am beautiful. I am smart. I am multi-dimensional. I am witty.  I am connected to nature and one with creation.  I am strong and weak.  I am prone to mistakes, but eternally evolving. I am at once grounded, but flying high in the skies.

I am a Black Girl and I am Not Broken.

What It Feels Like for a Girl: Poem and Polemic in For Colored Girls


Tyler Perry’s film adaption of Ntozake Shange’s theatrical masterpiece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf is a commentary on the boundlessness of black genius, as much as it is a polemic against patriarchy.  The genius is found in the performances of the all-star cast and Shange’s poetry.  A self-proclaimed Black Feminist, the polemic is Shange’s—yes—but as retold here becomes largely Perry’s.

Last weekend I had the privilege of seeing the film with a group of sister friends and it is an experience that I will not soon forget.  The film is Perry’s best work yet and this is a testament to the genius of Shange’s material and the film’s brilliant cast, as much as it is to Perry’s artistic vision. For Colored Girls is examines how black female identity is negotiated, subjugated, represented, co-opted, and often times negated. Told through the interwoven narratives of nine women, the film uses the plays poetic voice to its advantage. Shange’s words drip of the tongues of Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Anika Noni Rose, Kerry Washington, Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Kimberly Elise, and Phylicia Rashad, with as much potency and relevancy today as when the stage play debuted in 1975.  Look for Oscar nominations  Newton and Elise.

Based on the narrative thread of his films thus far, Perry is clearly negotiating some issues around black male identity, as much as he is black female identity.  The narrative arc of Perry’s films usually finds a female protagonist bound by an addiction to a man, to a drug, to a lifestyle that finds her losing herself.  The films usually end with the Black woman finding redemption through an act of spiritual transformation—a divine intervention.  With this transformation, she is fully formed and in touch with the God with her.  She is then able to access worldly love with a deserving man.  Tyler has a prototype for his ideal man, he is hard working—and often blue-collar,  he is spiritually in touch, and essentially neutered—void of any overt sexual aggression.

Tyler’s critique of Black men is perhaps even more powerful than his edification of Black women. In this film, they are misogynist, rapist, philanderers, liars, cheats, and decidedly weak.  There is no growth for the men and  no redemption  Accordingly, the films powerful performances are at times subjugated to Perry’s penchant for melodrama—at times it’s not clear if this is Perry’s moment of artistic maturity or a dressed up version of his usual wound picking.  For Colored Girls continues a narrative thread in black dramatic works like “The Color Purple” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God” that explore the strange dyad that is black men and black women—a relationship historically plagued by forced separation, gender role reversal, and plainly said pain.

This is not Madea.  It is a film with an artistic voice and cultural merit; it is well-positioned  among other classics in its exploration of the black women’s relationship with each other and the men in their lives. Perry is not Spike Lee (the one who makes good films), Spielberg, or Scorsese. Yet with this film, he addresses issues and concerns that will resonate with colored girls everywhere: a need to find their voice in a world that so often seeks to negate it; the desire to love and be love; and the innate resiliency that makes Black women the survivors we are.

Swagaholics Anonymous: Addicted to the Cool Factor


At best, I’m a glutton for punishment.  At worst, I’m a masochist, but when it comes to affairs of  the heart—I must admit—I am an unabashed swagaholic.  I know many of you will argue the semantics of the now soccer mom appropriated term “swag“.  Others of you are simply turned off by it all together.  Even though “swag” is a relative term, and is likely going the way of bling bling very soon, for me it describes a ridiculously cool, quiet confidence that I suspect many woman find irresistible.

Swag is of course a slang for personal style appearance or attitude.   An abbreviation of  “swagger”, the term was popularized by hip-hop artists  several year ago, but it really entered the mainstream cultural moment with the hilarious Toyota Sienna Mini Van commercials.  Soulja Boy had a hit this year with “Pretty Boy Swag, you can argue the artistic relevance of his unique genius.  You can even like the Swagaholics Anonymous Facebook group, a page for people with so much swag they need group therapy;  it only has 43 members.  Suffice it to say, swag has been with us for a while and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.  The terminology may change, but cool is cool.

Who does or doesn’t have swag is certainly relative, but it’s all about the image one presents to the world.  Yet my  penchant for cool  describes my addiction and it usually finds me head over heels for the  classic ladies man.  You know the heart breaker; the superstar.  He may or not be classically handsome, but he definitely has sex appeal. He  is  put together.  He has  his own sense of style, which usually includes a good shoe and a good watch.  While he won’t have too many words for you—when he does speak—he commands attention.  He is smart, but not pompous about it.  His cologne will always be on point.  He walks like a ball player or a rapper, but is gainfully employed; who says you can’t have corporate swag? He can match wits with the best of them, and always leaves you wanting more.  You want to lock him down because he seems so unattainable, and yet in the back of your mind you know if he gets the best of you; you’re in trouble.

For every guy I’ve fallen for like this, I can see the danger sign flashing above their heads from miles out.  Yet, I am like a moth to a flame.  The cost benefits analysis in my mind always comes out in favor of playing the odds that this time will be different.  It’s not just me.   I have met many women like this—swagaholics.  We all know the nice guy is the safer route.  Dating the one who is crazy about you is the healthier choice in the long run, but the passion and excitement of the bad boy or the ladies man can be very seductive.  I would  certainly never advocate compromising your dignity for this kind of guy; the first law of nature is self-preservation.   Yet, I’m convinced there is no shame in craving a hot boy.  What you do once you get him presents a whole other series of issues, but I digress.

It really comes down to the extent to which one embraces the nice guys finish last aphorism.  In Niceness and Dating Success: A Further Test of the Nice Guy Stereotype, Urbaniak & Kilmann (2003) write that:

“Although women often portray themselves as wanting to date kind, sensitive, and emotionally expressive men, the nice guy stereotype contends that, when actually presented with a choice between such a ‘nice guy’ and an unkind, insensitive, emotionally-closed, ‘macho man’ or ‘jerk,’ they invariably reject the nice guy in favor of his ‘so-called’ macho competitor.”

I suspect that any preference among women for the bad boy is probably a combination of one’s upbringing—a lot of us have daddy issues, what society and the cultural moment values as masculinity, a bit of evolution—the whole survival of the fittest thing, and the fact that many of us girls like a challenge.  A lot of us will say we want a sensitive guy because  its the right thing to say, but in reality we crave Mr. Swag.  Technically what we really want is a hybrid between the two archetypes, the sensitive and cool guy. Yet, it typically doesn’t work like that.  At least in my experience.

But you tell me you swagaholics out there.  Is there any hope for us or are we destined for 808’s and Heartbreaks?  Who has swag to you?  Pharrell? Kanye? Jay-z?  Idris?  For the non-swagaholics why do you prefer the nice guy?  Are these characteristics mutually exclusive, can a sensitive guy be swagged-out?

Media Culpa: Shirley Sherrod and the Politics of the Public Apology


It seems everyone and their momma is serving up a healthy slice of humble pie to Ms. Shirley Sherrod.  The apologies are coming  fast, frequently, and from on high—as even The POTUS expressed regret for what had to be a demoralizing experience for Ms. Sherrod. In the wake of the initial firestorm and then subsequent reframing, Sherrod has gone from private citizen, to public figure, to vilified public figure, finally arriving at redeemed public servant—all in less than 48 hours.

What is remarkable about this story—outside of the real questions it raises about the progress of race relations in our country—is the speed in which it took hold in the common conscience, garnered largely uniform opinion in the press and then in a matter of media moments was squarely redefined. It is also reframed the notion of the public apology, something we certainly associate with political and public officials—but is so often tied to expressions of regret about personal transgressions, such as infidelity or misuse of campaign funds.

I had not even understood the original narrative in its entirety, before its authenticity was largely being refuted. A conservative activist posts a  video to YouTube of an official with the Department of Agriculture seemingly suggesting blatant racial bias against whites in her handling of farm aid cases.  Within a day the public and the media got a chance to see the speech in context and the narrative is reframed.

We learn the remarks were taken from a speech in which Sherrod shows how she battled feelings of intolerance to arrive at a social justice oriented understanding of how poverty adversely effects quality of life and productivity of all persons, regardless of race. She took this believe to form the guiding mission of her life: helping those regardless of race survive.  Accordingly. the once thought bigot becomes an exemplar of racial transcendence for the nation—all within a matter of a few days.

When The President apologizes to a more or less private citizen for the rush to judgment of an entire nation; one cannot deny that these are new and different times.  Viral videos, social networking, the blogosphere, and really the entire world of new media has changed the game for the conventions of traditional journalism to be practiced.  The trust then verify journalistic model has been replaced by the the trust, publish react, and perhaps verify model.

It is important we try to negotiate the wild, wild west of web journalism in ways that incentivize fact checking, verification, and neutrality. It is equally important that we do not hide the motivations of those forming public opinion, but encourage transparency among thought leaders and political taste makers.

So what do we think? Does Ms. Sherrod deserve the full-court press and  public apology tour that the administration is encouraging or should she should simply retire from public life, after this insane incident and in the interim allow her evolved feelings about intolerance and injustice to become a teachable moment for the entire nation?

  • Calendar

    • June 2017
      M T W T F S S
      « Jul    
       1234
      567891011
      12131415161718
      19202122232425
      2627282930  
  • Search