“Black Is Black”: Thoughts on “Dark Girls”

DarkGirlsPeople think they diss my person/By stating I’m darkly packed/ I know this, so I point at Q-Tip/ And he states ‘black is black’ ~ “Me Myself and I” by De La Soul

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.

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I See Black People: Thoughts on Children and Colorblindness

BNYHands

Not quite the contrast from that day, but you get my meaning.

Have you ever heard someone say that “children don’t see color” or “children are colorblind”? I don’t think those people give children enough credit because they are quite observant. Perhaps what they mean is that children are innocent, and racism is not inherent; it has to be taught. Children do notice differences. And sometimes when this happens, it’s quite funny.

Several years ago, my husband and “Zachary” and I were in Cincinnati when we had an experience that we found absolutely hilarious. We had visited the aquarium and were on our way back to the car when we met up with a little white girl and her mother. We were all waiting for the elevator.

Right away I could see the little girl staring at Zachary. She was cute, with a head full of long, red, curly hair and a smattering of freckles. She was about four of five years old and very fair-skinned, about as light as my husband is dark. When the elevator came, we all got in. I pushed the button for our floor and looked around. The girl was still fixated on Zachary, who was standing in the back of the elevator with one hand on the railing. She put her hand on the railing and inched closer. When her little hand was almost touching his, she said, “Your hand is black,” as if she were telling Zachary something he didn’t know. Just then, her mother turned around looking horrified. She grabbed her daughter’s arm, pulled her closer and admonished her, “Stop it! It’s supposed to be like that! It’s supposed to be black!” When the elevator door opened, the duo made a hasty getaway. Meanwhile, I was doubled over with laughter, but Zachary was oblivious to the whole thing. (Maybe he was thinking about the drive home.) When I explained it, he had a good chuckle too.

We weren’t angry that the little girl noticed that Zachary’s hand (as well as the rest of him) was black. It seemed to us that she probably had not seen many black people in her lifetime. The girl did in fact notice race and difference, much to her mother’s embarrassment. People can’t help but see differences because we’re not all the same. Pretending that we are is disingenuous. The problem is not that we notice differences, but in ascribing value based on those differences and using those value judgments as a basis for discrimination.

As for the little girl, I hope she wasn’t traumatized by that event because we sure weren’t. She provided us with an inside joke for life.

“Black Is Black”: Thoughts on “Dark Girls”

DarkGirlsPeople think they diss my person/By stating I’m darkly packed/ I know this, so I point at Q-Tip/ And he states ‘black is black’ ~ “Me Myself and I” by De La Soul

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.

To Love and Cherish: Thoughts on Black Women and Breast Cancer

Image courtesy of scottchan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Image courtesy of scottchan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Ten years ago, I lost a very close friend and colleague to breast cancer. I met her in graduate school, and like so many of the women I met there, she became like family to me. My friend, C.W., had worked as a nurse for many years while raising her family. She went back to school and got another degree in history. She then decided she wanted to attend graduate school and have a second career as a professor.

She told very few people about her diagnosis. I guess she didn’t want people to feel pity for her. In spite of treatment, the cancer spread to other parts of her body. However, she kept right on attending classes and teaching until she went into the hospital for the last time. I often think of how caring she was, calling to check on my husband after he had minor surgery, when she must have been in so much pain herself.

C.W.’s death made me more aware of breast cancer and the devastating impact it has on African American women. Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women. (Skin cancer is the first.) Statistically, one in eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer. While white women generally have higher rates of breast cancer for all age groups (except under 40), black women are 50% more likely to die within three years. Certainly, that is, at least in part, due to disparities in access to health care. Hopefully, the Affordable Care Act’s provisions that health insurance plans cover preventive care (like mammograms) will lead to a reduction in mortality from this disease.

I became vigilant about encouraging those around me–my mother, my aunts, my friends–to do their monthly self-breast exams. I had a part-time job, and I asked a group of my co-workers if they were doing monthly exams. It was not surprising that they all said no, but they also seemed a bit offended by my question. It was as if I had asked them to engage in a lewd act. One of the women asked rhetorically, “Why would I want to do that when I’ve got a boyfriend?” It seemed ridiculous until I remembered that C.W. did not find the lump in her breast; her partner did.

I am not trying to imply that C.W. would have survived if she had been doing monthly exams herself. I am saying that C.W.–like my co-workers, like many black women I know and love–take care of everyone and everything but themselves. Let’s start to change that beginning today. Let’s love and cherish ourselves as we do our families. Let’s agree to do monthly self-breast exams. October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is a great time to start! Who’s with me?

Related Articles and Links to Information on Breast Cancer

I See Black People: Thoughts on Children and Colorblindness

BNYHands

Not quite the contrast from that day, but you get my meaning.

Have you ever heard someone say that “children don’t see color” or “children are colorblind”? I don’t think those people give children enough credit because they are quite observant. Perhaps what they mean is that children are innocent, and racism is not inherent; it has to be taught. Children do notice differences. And sometimes when this happens, it’s quite funny.

Several years ago, my husband “Zachary” and I were in Cincinnati when we had an experience that we found absolutely hilarious. We had visited the aquarium and were on our way back to the car when we met up with a little white girl and her mother. We were all waiting for the elevator.

Right away I could see the little girl staring at Zachary. She was cute, with a head full of long, red, curly hair and a smattering of freckles. She was about four of five years old and very fair-skinned, about as light as my husband is dark. When the elevator came, we all got in. I pushed the button for our floor and looked around. The girl was still fixated on Zachary, who was standing in the back of the elevator with one hand on the railing. She put her hand on the railing and inched closer. When her little hand was almost touching his, she said, “Your hand is black,” as if she were telling Zachary something he didn’t know. Just then, her mother turned around looking horrified. She grabbed her daughter’s arm, pulled her closer and admonished her, “Stop it! It’s supposed to be like that! It’s supposed to be black!” When the elevator door opened, the duo made a hasty getaway. Meanwhile, I was doubled over with laughter, but Zachary was oblivious to the whole thing. (Maybe he was thinking about the drive home.) When I explained it, he had a good chuckle too.

We weren’t angry that the little girl noticed that Zachary’s hand (as well as the rest of him) was black. It seemed to us that she probably had not seen many black people in her lifetime. The girl did in fact notice race and difference, much to her mother’s embarrassment. People can’t help but see differences because we’re not all the same. Pretending that we are is disingenuous. The problem is not that we notice differences, but in ascribing value based on those differences and using those value judgments as a basis for discrimination.

As for the little girl, I hope she wasn’t traumatized by that event because we sure weren’t. She provided us with an inside joke for life.

To Love and Cherish: Thoughts on Black Women and Breast Cancer

Image courtesy of scottchan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Image courtesy of scottchan/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Ten years ago, I lost a very close friend and colleague to breast cancer. I met her in graduate school, and like so many of the women I met there, she became like family to me. My friend, C.W., had worked as a nurse for many years while raising her family. She went back to school and got another degree in history. She then decided she wanted to attend graduate school and have a second career as a professor.

She told very few people about her diagnosis. I guess she didn’t want people to feel pity for her. In spite of treatment, the cancer spread to other parts of her body. However, she kept right on attending classes and teaching until she went into the hospital for the last time. I often think of how caring she was, calling to check on my husband after he had minor surgery, when she must have been in so much pain herself.

C.W.’s death made me more aware of breast cancer and the devastating impact it has on African American women. Breast cancer is the second most common type of cancer in women. (Skin cancer is the first.) Statistically, one in eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer. While white women generally have higher rates of breast cancer for all age groups (except under 40), black women are 50% more likely to die within three years. Certainly, that is, at least in part, due to disparities in access to health care. Hopefully, the Affordable Care Act’s provisions that health insurance plans cover preventive care (like mammograms) will lead to a reduction in mortality from this disease.

I became vigilant about encouraging those around me–my mother, my aunts, my friends–to do their monthly self-breast exams. I had a part-time job, and I asked a group of my co-workers if they were doing monthly exams. It was not surprising that they all said no, but they also seemed a bit offended by my question. It was as if I had asked them to engage in a lewd act. One of the women asked rhetorically, “Why would I want to do that when I’ve got a boyfriend?” It seemed ridiculous until I remembered that C.W. did not find the lump in her breast; her partner did.

I am not trying to imply that C.W. would have survived if she had been doing monthly exams herself. I am saying that C.W.–like my co-workers, like many black women I know and love–take care of everyone and everything but themselves. Let’s start to change that beginning today. Let’s love and cherish ourselves as we do our families. Let’s agree to do monthly self-breast exams. October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is a great time to start! Who’s with me?

Related Articles and Links to Information on Breast Cancer

The Name Game

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.–William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Image courtesy of antpkr/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of antpkr/
FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, Nikisia Drayton shared her fears about saddling her unborn son with a “black name” on the Motherlode blog in the New York Times. Her friends worried that the name “Keion” would be “too ethnic” or “too ghetto.” (Analyzing the use of the term “ghetto” as if it is synonymous with blackness will have to wait for another blog.) She found that when googling the name, the images that were associated with it were African American men in mug shots. Would this name, suggested by her son’s father, limit his opportunities, or worse, doom her child to appear in one of the aforementioned mug shots?

When I googled “Keion” I found no mug shots, yet I can understand Drayton’s anxiety. Everything African Americans do in this country is scrutinized, including the way we talk; the way we eat; the way we look; and, yes, the way we name children. As the owner of a name, whose non-traditional spelling has caused me a whole host of problems in my time on this earth, I feel you. Why, oh why, couldn’t my mother have spelled “Yolanda” the traditional way? Certainly, I too, have wondered whether my name is some sort of tip-off.

Being a descendant of slaves and a historian, I know that the power to name is extremely important. Our enslaved ancestors could have their names changed as often as their masters. As Olaudah Equiano writes in his slave narrative, he was assigned three different names by different masters–Jacob, Michael, and Gustavas Vassa. After achieving their freedom, former slaves often celebrated and illustrated their new status by choosing new names, different from the ones that they had as slaves. Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth was known as Isabella when she was a slave.

As this “name game,” is being discussed on social media, I find myself thinking of The Souls of Black Folks (again). Du Bois writes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Some parents are indeed looking at how a child’s name will be viewed through “white eyes,” as if being less ethnically identifiable (on paper) will decrease the amount of discrimination one faces in life. In doing this, we normalize both whiteness and racism. So, instead of seeing discriminatory acts or racism as the problem, we are the problem. We are engaging in internalized “otherness.”

I hate–no despise–no loathe the insidious nature of racism. It can actually cause its victims to contemplate what they can do to neutralize the racists’ behavior. But we can not become so hypercritical of ourselves that we lose ourselves in the balance.

Related Articles

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The Name Game

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.–William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

Image courtesy of antpkr/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of antpkr/
FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, Nikisia Drayton shared her fears about saddling her unborn son with a “black name” on the Motherlode blog in the New York Times. Her friends worried that the name “Keion” would be “too ethnic” or “too ghetto.” (Analyzing the use of the term “ghetto” as if it is synonymous with blackness will have to wait for another blog.) She found that when googling the name, the images that were associated with it were African American men in mug shots. Would this name, suggested by her son’s father, limit his opportunities, or worse, doom her child to appear in one of the aforementioned mug shots?

When I googled “Keion” I found no mug shots, yet I can understand Drayton’s anxiety. Everything African Americans do in this country is scrutinized, including the way we talk; the way we eat; the way we look; and, yes, the way we name children. As the owner of a name, whose non-traditional spelling has caused me a whole host of problems in my time on this earth, I feel you. Why, oh why, couldn’t my mother have spelled “Yolanda” the traditional way? Certainly, I too, have wondered whether my name is some sort of tip-off.

Being a descendant of slaves and a historian, I know that the power to name is extremely important. Our enslaved ancestors could have their names changed as often as their masters. As Olaudah Equiano writes in his slave narrative, he was assigned three different names by different masters–Jacob, Michael, and Gustavas Vassa. After achieving their freedom, former slaves often celebrated and illustrated their new status by choosing new names, different from the ones that they had as slaves. Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth was known as Isabella when she was a slave.

As this “name game,” is being discussed on social medial, I find myself thinking of The Souls of Black Folks (again). Du Bois writes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Some parents are indeed looking at how a child’s name will be viewed through “white eyes,” as if being less ethnically identifiable (on paper) will decrease the amount of discrimination one faces in life. In doing this, we normalize both whiteness and racism. So, instead of seeing discriminatory acts or racism as the problem, we are the problem. We are engaging in internalized “otherness.”

I hate–no despise–no loathe the insidious nature of racism. It can actually cause its victims to contemplate what they can do to neutralize the racists’ behavior. But we can not become so hypercritical of ourselves that we lose ourselves in the balance.

Related Articles

Don Lemon: Fixing Black America since 2013

“And yet, being a problem is a strange experience,—peculiar even for one who has never been anything else.” W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

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Over 100 years after W. E. B. Du Bois published The Souls of Black Folk, there is still “a strange meaning of being black,” this notion of being a problem. But have you heard the good news? CNN news anchor Don Lemon has a plan to fix Black America. Last weekend on a segment called “No Talking Points,” he outlined five steps to address the “ills that seem to be plaguing the community,” that is, “if you really want to fix the problem.” He listed them in reverse order:

5. Stop sagging. Young black men must pull their pants up because showing underwear in public is disrespectful. It’s also an indication of how prison culture has seeped into the larger society.

4. Stop using the word “nigger.” Those who think they have taken the power from the word and use it liberally are deluding themselves.

3. Stop littering and start respecting the neighborhood where you live.

2. Stop dropping out of school. Finishing high school will help to end “the cycle of poverty.”

1. Stop having children out of wedlock. Children without male role models may wind up in prison or repeating the cycle of poverty.

And, if these issues don’t apply to you, then he’s not talking to you. Ya heard?

For the record, I am not a fan of sagging pants, the so-called “n-word,” or litterbugs. I understand that absentee fathers are a problem, and that it’s better for students to complete high school than to drop out. But, I have to wonder why Lemon’s critique positions African Americans outside the culture and reinforces “otherness.” For example: Problem #3, Littering. The Harlem resident asserts that children and adults are constantly dropping their trash on the ground. While living in predominantly white neighborhoods, he “rarely, if ever” saw this kind of behavior. Thus, whites care more about their communities than black people. This is opinion stated as fact.

I have neither the time nor the inclination to discuss each of Lemon’s points; “Black Twitter” and writers like Goldie Taylor have already taken care of this and excoriated him thoroughly. Blaming the alleged inferiority or pathology of blacks for various societal ills was done in the 20th century. It’s time for a new approach.