Tag Archives: skin color

For the Love of Brown Girls: Colorism and the Harm It Does

Debbie says:

every-month-is-black-history-month-button-in-3-sizes-8The only good thing about cramming Black History Month into February is that a great many good articles on black history and culture show up during this month. Before the end of the month, I’ll put up at least one history-specific piece.

Meanwhile, Liz Dwyer at TakePart has an excellent feature on three black teens in Philadelphia who have taken a cold hard look at skin color in the black community. Barbara and Karen Fields have convinced me about the insidious meaninglessness of the concept of “race”; skin color is another matter.

Dwyer starts with a bit of her own history:

I grew up being called “white sugar” by my grandmother, while my darker, 11-day-older cousin was called “brown sugar.” My grandma loved us both, but she would sometimes kiss me on the forehead in front of my cousin and say, “White sugar always tastes sweeter.”

Moving into her current topic, Dwyer says:

Joie Nearn, Imani Weeks, and Sydne Hopkins, three 17-year-old seniors at Science Leadership Academy, a public magnet high school in Philadelphia, are turning the spotlight on the effect of bias against darker-skinned black girls.

The teens spent three months working on “For the Love of Brown Girls,” a project that explores the perspectives and experiences of black teens at the racially and economically diverse school. Along with creating a website and blog, Nearn, Weeks, and Hopkins scripted, filmed, and edited a mini-documentary about colorism….

“Some of the things I heard in some of the interviews I took to heart and found disheartening,” said Nearn. “It’s crazy how people don’t understand or realize that the things they say about skin color are horrible.”

It’s gut-wrenching to watch a teen boy stare into the camera and say, “I’ma keep it 100. I only like light-skinned girls.” It’s equally heartbreaking to see a girl describe a summer camp counselor who lined campers up light to dark, with darker kids in the back.

As a white person, what I have to say about colorism is “Watch the video. Read and listen to what these women are saying.”

As a body image activist, I can add that anything that divides us into more and less attractive beyond the purely individual is arbitrary, harmful, and inappropriate. What’s more, a huge percentage of what feels like purely individual takes on attractiveness is culturally based and mediated. How often do you hear someone say, “I just like the way fatter people look,” or “I think wrinkles are sexy”?

Also, never forget that someone is making money, lots of money, reinforcing these arbitrary divides. Dwyer addresses this in her feature: “Black people around the world spend $10 billion a year on toxic skin lighteners—and for good reason: Studies show that darker-skinned black people are less likely than their lighter-skinned peers to be hired for the same job [and] get tougher prison sentences …”

Thanks to Joie Nearn, Imani Weeks, and Sydne Hopkins for fighting back!

Skin Color, Beauty, and Competition

Laurie and Debbie say:

The Crunk Feminist Collective (new to us, and extremely interesting) takes on this “Battle of the Complexions” contest which pits light-skinned, caramel (brown) and dark-skinned women against each other for a prize:

There seems to be a not-so-invisible scale that insinuates that black beauty is either light or dark, always one or the other, never both/and. Binary thinking is always problematic and especially in this instance because these evaluations are inextricably linked to issues of self-esteem and self-worth. In a society that has been obsessed with black women’s single/sex/personal lives, this feels like another opportunity to pinpoint the pitfalls of being a black woman and tell her why she is not wanted (could it be you are the wrong complexion too?).

Being judged and rated in society is an unfortunate plight that black girls learn how to negotiate with the help, love, and reassurance from other girls and women, of various shades, throughout our lives. These women are our red-boned mothers, our high-yellow aunties, our mahogany brown best friends and other brown blood and soul sisters whose beauty we immediately recognize. We learn, from our relationships with these black women, that there is no such thing as one kinda (black) beauty. … But then the outside (influences) makes its way on the inside (mind).

Just when this was all happening in St. Louis, the Philippine edition of FHM posted an advance edition of this cover to Facebook, and withdrew it after receiving “a slew of complaints”:

light-skinned Filipina Bela Padilla well-lit in center with dark-skinned women around her. Caption

In some ways, the two stories are very different. The first is about pitting three (at least it’s not two!) skin colors against each other, simultaneously making the assumptions that one of them is sexier than the other two and that which one is sexier is not a foregone conclusion.

The second draws simplistically on the ancient and time-dishonored sense that “dark” and “shadowy” are bad and “light” is good, that stepping away from dark into light is always a good thing.

So, the FHM cover illustrates why the Crunk Mama post is so important.

I am offended. And despite the attempt to clean up the mess they made, it is not just a matter of semantics. It is not only the words that are problematic but the theme itself, because evidently it does matter what skin tone you have if the purpose of the event is to choose the most sexy complexion. The ways in which this perpetuates and promotes colorism and division makes it far more than misguided and unfortunate word choice.

I can’t help but wonder what the tone of a venue that pits black women against each other must be like? Do they call each other names? Do they call each other ugly? Do they create color-coded cliques and demean the women not “qualified” to be on their team? How do they prove their worth/beauty/desirability? What must they sacrifice to win? And what would it mean to win a contest that, if only for a moment, puts you at the top of the black girl hierarchy? Is this the kind of victory you celebrate? In these moments black girls turned women forget about the beauty and diversity of skin tones in the family, they dismiss their light or dark skinned sister or best friend, and find themselves needing to prove their worth—their beauty—on a stage where only one can win, and in fact everyone loses. Why does one person’s beauty have to be at the expense of someone else’s?

(Bela Padilla underscores Crunk Mama’s points when she tells an interviewer, “Honestly, some of those girls were actually Filipinas painted black not to represent Africans. We were really doing that to portray shadows because like I said, it’s my coming of age so they wanted a symbolization of me coming out of my old shadows.”)

The Crunk Mama post ends with some information about National Pretty Brown Girl Day, a new project which started on February 25. We support everything that helps women of color feel better about themselves and appreciate the glory of their skin tones. But still, we wish it wasn’t needed–every day should be National Pretty Brown Girl Day.