I was unable to see the documentary “Dark Girls” when it appeared on the OWN Network in June, but I immediately put it on my Netflix list in anticipation of the DVD release. Last night I was able to watch it on Amazon Instant Video, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well it dealt with a difficult issue.
“Dark Girls” explores the issue of colorism, primarily as it relates to dark-skinned African-American women, using history, personal narratives, educators, and psychologists. Not surprisingly, the media images in American culture often emphasize beauty as “white,” or at least as “light.” In addition, however, the intra-racial messages that dark-skinned women receive are also damaging. Historically and in contemporary society, some African Americans have internalized negative images about blackness and projected them onto other black people.
Much of what “Dark Girls” shows is what astute observers of social history and culture already know through study and the lived experience of being black in America. As recent events have illustrated, disparaging practices, policies and remarks regarding African American women’s beauty, hair, and skin color come from whites as well as blacks. “Dark Girls” asserts that these experiences have resulted in trauma. And the first step toward dealing with this trauma is to acknowledge it, so that we can start a dialogue to overcome it.
As I listened to stories from the girls and women in the documentary, I began to think about my own experiences with colorism. I, too, have been told that I was “awful pretty for a colored girl” by a young white man when I was in college. (I didn’t know whether to be offended because he called me “a colored girl” or because he said I was “awful pretty” for one.) But I can’t imagine the impact of hearing statements like that all the time.
Maybe I never developed any issues of colorism because my family, like many black families, has every color–from the so-called “light, bright, and damn near white” to “jet black.” (No kidding. When my mother was young, children called her “Jet Black.”) Just because I thought to myself “black is black,” that doesn’t mean that everyone in my family was unaffected. I discovered this when I overheard my little cousin, who was about five at the time, and one of her playmates arguing a few years ago. My cousin who is kinda light brown called her friend “black and ugly.” I snatched cuz up (not physically) right away and asked who was she calling “black and ugly.” I said, “Your Aunt J is dark-skinned; she’s black. Is she ugly?” “No,” she replied, and I hope she meant that. Anger probably wasn’t quite the way to handle the issue, but I needed her to know that we were all black. And that if she thought her friend was ugly, she was also saying my mother, her Aunt J–who raised her, incidentally–was also ugly. I had to make a point that was far beyond my usual admonishment, “That’s not the proper way for young ladies to behave.”
So, “Dark Girls” made me think, and that’s a good thing. It’s a compelling and interesting documentary. It’s a film that could help start a conversation about discrimination based on skin color.