I recently watched the documentary Dark Girls by Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry. The documentary discusses the issues of complexion or colorism in the Black community, especially as it applies to Black women. The documentary is thoughtful and emotional. There are so many moments when watching these women share their secret pain and shame behind their complexions, that I found myself holding my breath.
The documentary is very worthwhile and I would think it mean a lot for any dark skinned woman to watch. However, the film doesn’t focus on how to combat the issue of complexion and colorism. It depicts several people giving the standard ‘Love yourself’ get your self-steem together words of motivation. After watching the movie it became clear to me that we have been giving dark skinned people this advice for so long and yet, silently, there is still something there. That tells me that what we have been trying, is not working. We need another plan.
The History of Black Colorism
The aesthetic preference of lighter skin in the Black community is a direct result of white supremacist thinking that values that which is most like it. Due to the rape of Black women by White men that produced mixed-race children whose skin color and facial features differed from the Black norm, a color caste aesthetic was created. This aesthetic placed higher value and regard for Black people whose skin was lighter and had more european looking features because Black people found that those possessing these qualities were treated differently and afforded more possibilities.
As a strategy of colonization, encouraging enslaved blacks to embrace and uphold white supremacist aesthetics was a masterstroke.
– Bell Hooks, Salvation
As a community we internalized the notion of lighter skin being more desirable. We quantified that thought because of the higher social standing or social opportunities that we was lighter skinned people obtaining. We began to see light skin as our way into the mainstream of society and we wanted that at all costs. That’s where the stories about passing like the movie Imitation of Life. Then later it wasn’t so much about passing for White as it was being having White-like features even though you were Black.
The Power of the Media
Identity begins externally. Psychologically we come to know ourselves through the world around us and we fit into it. That is why the first things we learn about the world come from the environment in which we are raised. We learn who we are by our connection to our family members. We learn how to interact with the world from our family. Then we go out into the world and we gauge those experiences against what we learn at home. As we get older we find some contradictions and we work to reconcile them by shunning what we have learned home, assimilating them into what we have learned at home, or shunning that which is in opposition to what we have learned at home. The thing to remember is that all of these things that are influencing the identity we create come from outside of us. It is a lifelong lesson that only barely get to understand after we have been on this planet several decades. In the beginning, it’s all external.
When I think about where these issues come from. How it is that we came to detest dark skin. I think about the psychological bombardment from external forces. Colonialism was not about the chains and whips, that was just the slavery part. The colonialism was what happened inside the minds of Black people from decades of having our skin hated and being told that because of our skin we were inferior, stupid, savage, and uncivilized. The messages were verbalized, visualized, and institutionalized. We internalized those messages. Therein, I believe, lies the keys to our liberty.
This clip from the documentary stood out to me the most because of the point that Douglas Kearney makes about the power of the media. The media tries to pretend that it is powerless in terms of affecting and changing the lives and minds of people when it comes to the negative impacts that the media has, but they will take al the credit when the impact is positive. We cannot be fooled. Psychologists have studied the impact of images (even without sound) on the human brain. Images are powerful. In social cognitive theory it is stated that when viewers pay attention to attractive or similar characters performing positively reinforced relevant behaviors they are affected. These behaviors can instill a sense of hope or direct the desires and behaviors of the viewers. This goes to prove the psychological affects that images can have on the human psyche.
While we often think of the detest of dark skin as a personal thing that dark skinned people must combat through developing their self-esteem and loving themselves, we have ignored the greater truth. It is not simply a personal subjective change that needs to take place. In fact, the internal personal part is the easiest part of it.
I submit to you that the majority of dark skinned people do not (or did not begin out having) a low sense of self-worth. Most of the began their lives not realizing that there was anything wrong with them — that there was anything to hate
about themselves. That was something they were taught later when they encountered media images, the internalized notions of white-supremacy that have corrupted our institutions, and the ignorance of people in their own community who perpetuate those ideals.
To suggest that the answer to the psychic pain dark skinned people have felt and endured because of their complexion is to trivialize a major psychological dilemma. It is like suggesting to a person who has been shot by another individual that if they just stop bleeding they won’t die — what about the motherfucker who’s shooting them?? Even if they stop bleeding, that person will just keep shooting them. So how do they not, at some point, bleed to death. That is what is happening to dark skinned people who are plagued by the pain of Black colorism. The answer is bigger than that.
The answer to defeating Black colorism is to combat the external forces that teach our children to hate themselves. We need to infiltrate media messages with images that combat the ideology that lighter skin and European features places a person in a more desirable station in life. One thing that has changed in the past few decades is our access to mainstream media. We have to take the images and representations that we create. It is one thing for a White person to present a stereotypical image of a Black person in the ignorance of the affect it may have, we do not have such a luxury. We have to think critically about the counterproductive images that we create when we have the power to do otherwise. Those who oppress know all to well the power of media and they invest time, money, and opinion into the images they present and those images influence us for generations (whether they admit it or not). In turn we have to be mindful of the power of media images and use it to our advantage instead of choosing to be culturally destructive in our attempts to keep it “real.” There is a stark difference between representation and reality…but that’s another post.
I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,
An Angry Black Man