The discussion didn’t start with “Dark Girls,” which recently aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). But the documentary has brought talk about “colorism,” discrimination on the basis of skin color, into the open, something that co-director-producer Bill Duke noted in an interview Thursday morning. He remembered an African American woman in New York, who asked him why he was, in her words, “airing our dirty laundry.” Duke’s answer: “With all due respect, because it’s stinking up the house.”
Duke, an activist and actor who paved the way for African Americans behind the camera, said the fact that members of his family have experienced color stereotypes was an inspiration for the documentary, which he made with co-director-producer D. Channsin Berry.
While most debates about difference focus on the disconnect between races, “Dark Girls” gives a voice to the women harmed by prejudice and discrimination both inside and outside the African American community. A telephone interview with Duke on “Shake It Up” on WGIV radio in Charlotte preceded a panel discussion of black women representing a range of ages and shades – and one black man.
Their stories were as varied as the women, and while many had worked through moments of hurt and pain, all are living lives of pride and meaning. One recalled an administrator at Princeton who couldn’t quite believe that the stellar resume matched the dark-skinned woman in front of her. Another said a grandmother’s supportive words deflected all the taunts thrown her way and helped her survive, self esteem intact.
“You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” is one refrain heard so often it could be played on a loop.
A light-skinned woman on the panel – who had felt the sting of a different set of stereotypes — said that she had had to win over the darker-skinned girls who became her best buddies, overcoming assumptions that she thought she was “better than” them. Repeating a point Duke made, she said she was asked “what are you,” not “who are you,” by strangers trying to categorize and set her apart before they got to know her.
The lone man on the panel got lots of love when he shared lessons he teaches his brown-skinned daughter: She is beautiful, smart and can achieve any dream.
America and African Americans don’t have a monopoly on harmful attitudes that are more than skin deep. When he traveled to Ghana, Duke said, the No. 1 selling cosmetic was skin-bleaching cream. Colorism is a global phenomenon in countries and cultures around the world – from India to Latin America — with lighter skin judged more beautiful and capable. In America’s slave system, the powerful divided the powerless into “house” and “field” workers according to color, with small bits of privilege awarded one over the other; it solidified divisions that persist.
Today, it’s not just a matter of television, movie and video images that seem to render dark-skinned women — with a few exceptions — invisible as role models or symbols of beauty and achievement. Research has shown discrimination based on color affects housing opportunities, employment chances and treatment in the criminal justice system. In 2011, the Root reported that Villanova University researchers studied more than 12,000 cases of African-American women imprisoned in North Carolina and found that women with lighter skin tones received more-lenient sentences and served less time than women with darker skin tones.
In the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case, witness Rachel Jeantel was judged on her weight and skin color as much as her testimony, robbed of the pain and humanity any 19-year-old girl would feel on finding out she was the last to speak to her friend — the only one, she is said to have told her attorney, who never made fun of her “about the way I talked, about my hair, about my complexion… about my weight.” Lolo Jones, the Olympic track and field athlete who was close to tears while reacting to criticism that her own looks gave her an advantage in endorsements and press, had no empathy when piling on Jeantel with a cruel Tweet comparing her to a Tyler Perry character – some would say caricature – the tough and hefty “Madea.” Jones did not escape the wrath of social media.
Will the public “airing” bring understanding and healing? It’s easy to say yes when you’re surrounded by reminders of the achievement of confident African American women at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture, where the radio broadcast took place.
The women and Bill Duke also pointed to Michelle Obama, one of the most admired women in the world, whose style is followed and copied. Insults to her strength and beauty – and by extension, to that of African American women – just bounce off. But it doesn’t stop them from coming. The irony, Duke said, is that some white women are heading to the tanning salon or getting “butt lifts” to look more “ethnic.”
Oprah being Oprah, she includes on her Web site “11 things you can do for your dark-skinned daughter to boost her self-esteem” and “6 things you should never say to your dark-skinned daughter.” Since little black girls still pick white dolls as the pretty ones and the hurt of “colorism” lingers, why not search for solutions?
Though categorizing my skin color on a chart is something I would never do and my family would never stand for, I still remember fourth grade, when my pipes earned a gushing compliment from the teacher casting the Christmas musical.
I missed out on the lead, though, because, as the African American nun put it, the girl with light skin and waist-length waves “just looked more like a princess.”
I settled for the consolation prize of second female lead. As luck had it, that character, “The Little Blue Angel” of the show’s title, sang her single solo at the top of the Christmas tree in a climax that brought down the house.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3