*In “Dark Girls” Director Bill Duke and Co-Director D. Channsin Berry provide a social silhouette of the deeply entrenched internalized racial stereotypes with which African Americans have grappled since Antebellum times.
The apex of the film is that “Dark Girls” teaches viewers to recognize the subconscious attitudes, language and behaviors that injure dark women and set them up for potential failure in life. Its shortcoming is the inadequate portrayal of the progress Black women have made in the millennium.
The groundbreaking work aired on the OWN Network on June 23, 2013.
Journalist Mona Austin was compelled to offer gratitude and critical observations to Mr. Duke in the following letter:
Dear Mr. Duke:
I grew up in a Southern community where people whose skin was a deep shade of brown were referred to as “black,” those who were light brown to tan were called “red” and the lightest among us were described as “yellow,” “bright,” “high yellow,” or “fair.” In a logical sense, if light skin was “fair” then dark skin was considered “unfair.” We said as much in rhymes:
If you are light everything is all right, If you are black step back, If you are brown stick around.
(Surely if there were a fourth line to this chant, it would say “If you are red you’ll get ahead.”)
“Dark Girls” exposes the unfair treatment dark skin women endure and I am fully vested in supporting the goal of facilitating healthy dialogue on the subject.
As a Multimedia Journalist, mother of two young daughters and a self-loving dark skinned girl, I am writing to applaud you for addressing colorism in both its broad and narrow contexts and to share constructive critiques.
When I watched your documentary on OWN for the second time, a new set of feelings welled up inside of me as I witnessed the cathartic reaction of long-suffering deeply hued women. My heart ached for the little girls in the film who seemed to dread being dark. Many women on social networks wrote they cried as they saw pieces of themselves in the film. Hopefully those tears are the beginning of healing for the women and little girls who were taught to mask their pain with witty comebacks (you know, “the darker the berry. . .” ) or to just tough it out as they endure subjugation based on the skin tone with which they were born.
I could relate to the women who talked about encountering hurdles in the work place due to colorism. Preference for lighter complexions and light skin privilege has played out in my real world quest for advancement as a reporter.
In a recent conversation with a veteran journalist, I was told my dark skin was a limitation to working in television news. Her words were piercing, while there is no denying the presence of color preference in the media. But, this knowledge never deterred me. (Nor did it deter Oprah; by her example I knew I too could work in front of the camera.) As we continued to converse, for every chocolate coated TV news reporter I named, my fellow reporter rolled off two who looked like her – light-skinned with shoulder length hair or longer and racially neutral features. “Talk to Gwen Ifill,” she finally advised, ending the conversation.
Another media colleague, a brown skinned television producer, once reminded me that I was not “safe brown.” Thereby, I was not getting hired because I was unable to pass the modern “paper bag test” intrinsically practiced in both mainstream and Black media.
I firmly believe that neither of these women intended to hurt me, nor were they trying to help me. The pragmatic part of me knew they were simply talking “business” and addressing the harsh reality that darker women are rejected systematically. But at the same time, the little girl on the inside of me wondered if they have dark girls’ backs in the face of workplace discrimination and if they, women who I’ve admired, thought they were better than me. In the same way the Black girl associated the White doll with all things good and rejected the Black doll in the experiment you reference at the start of the film, my colleagues subconsciously rejecting their race. (Oddly, whether in childhood rhymes of the real adult conversations, dark skin people are expected to tolerate/accept the “off color” prejudicial remarks rooted in the mental color caste system.)
With these experiences fresh on my mind, “Dark Girls” helped me confirm my suspicions about why I have faced certain obstacles in the employment process that may have little or nothing to do with the presumption that White males predominately make hiring decisions. I recognized some of my challenges may have come from the subconscious patterns of thinking within our race that breed mentalities of inferiority/superiority while placing the darkest among us on the lowest rungs of society.
Yes, as your film illustrates, the color complexities intrinsic to our nation’s historic past have cured oppressive attitudes and behaviors that have traumatized some Black women. However, clouded by a general tone of despair and shame, the story was incomplete. Replacing the segment where men affirmed the attractiveness of dark girls with more testimonials of proud, exuberant mahogany ladies would have had a better effect. The absence of more positive testimonies can foster a victim mentality. Our daughters need to hear powerful voices of women who look like them more than they need men to validate their beauty, value or worth. The prevailing message must be that healthy identity must be birthed from within.
My solace rests in the part of the story that was under-told in “Dark Girls,” as I am surrounded by self assured, victorious dark skin women. Many of us have long embraced our skin tone and phenotypical features (i.e., hair, noses, lips, hips) and are fully satisfied living in the skin we are in. Deeply hued Black women have made undeniable strides in media. Gwen Ifill is NABJ Hall of Famer, Oprah is the the undisputed “Queen of Media” who happens to top the Forbes Magazine wealthiest list again (yes!), the gorgeous “Sparkle” actress Tika Sumpter steadily works, as a revered supermodel Naomi Campbell is still high stepping around the globe etc., etc., etc. While, the representation of dark women in mass media is still few and far between, we can celebrate our progress.
As the dialogue you have started continues in public discourse, we must augment the discussion. We must address the need to collectively break the color barrier in the media and general workforce. We should also take a closer look at why we are even talking about colorism in 2013 when America has a multi-shade Black First Family in the White House. Most especially, issues around the color complex can’t just be the problem of dark skin girls as if we are “tragic darkies” any more than we should feed into the idea of the “tragic mulatto.”
I don’t know that there is a cure for the disease of self-loathing, but I’m cautiously optimistic that tensions stemming from color prejudice among Black women will gradually dissipate when we show up for each other in the greater African American experience. Black women and men of all shades must detest the mistreatment and negative attitudes toward the ebony epidermis even if they can’t relate to it, so that we penetrate our current internal culture until our young feel they belong.
More than anything else, as a mother I appreciate that “Dark Girls” demonstrates that young girls should never let the color of their skin hold them back and offers enough positive information to compel them to choose the Black doll.
All the Best,
Mona Austin is a Washington, DC area based journalist who blogs secular and non-secular items for EURweb, Essence and other media outlets. Contact her via [email protected].