I had the recent displeasure of watching Dark Girls, a documentary debuting on the OWN network which discussed colorism within the black community, specifically as it relates to dark-skinned women.
I did, however, want to add a few other things I found problematic about the film and the general reaction to it.
1.) Dark Girls talked extensively about how growing one’s self-esteem can heal the effects of colorism, but failed to see how self-esteem (self-assurance and self-confidence) are largely accessed through privilege. In the context of beauty, our society uses shame as a form of control to perpetuate feelings of inadequacy among marginalized people and maintain the status quo. Shaming certain bodies draws implicit boundaries around appropriate behavior; specifically, who is (or is not) allowed outward displays of confidence. I’ve said before that women are not generally afforded arrogance, cockiness, or self-promotion in a patriarchal femininity that demands humility and “niceness”. When that woman is also deemed “ugly” by societal standards, we use additional shaming tactics to articulate her inability to feel or appear self-confident. We also want shame to be tangible; to visibly identify one’s insecurities, to see slumped shoulders and averted eyes that ensure they know Their Place.
Many dark-skinned women do have healthy self-esteems but the documentary’s unwillingness to show that is partly evident in our comfort with marginal beauty fitting self-loathing narratives, because it is consistent with the status quo. Dark Girls preached self-acceptance and self-love but did not acknowledge how attempts at such are counteracted with shaming techniques. For instance, when fat women exude confidence by wearing clothes typically allotted for thin women and are immediately berated. Or black women who accept their kinky hair texture but are continuously encouraged by others to return to chemical straightening. Self-esteem does not exist in a vacuum; it’s a largely reflective concept that requires some form of reciprocation outside of one’s self.
The distance of black women, especially dark-skinned women, from whiteness places us at the bottom of the beauty hierarchy. It’s short-sighted to demand we feel pride in the very features that fuel our oppression without any structural resistance. Black womens self-image is shaped by Eurocentrism (both white and male gazes) from birth, and what we will feel about ourselves has largely been determined for us. By current standards, we are supposed to feel ugly and desperately feed the capitalist beauty industry in order to fix it. When we refuse to see our bodies as inherently defective, social backlash immediately follows, trying to convince us otherwise. The film failed to critically examine how healthy self-esteem is afforded only to those society sees as “deserving”, which is contingent on their ability to inhabit beauty norms. We can’t control the distorted ways in which we see ourselves without also combating the distorted ways in which the rest of the world sees us.
2.) The limitations of the Self in the context of oppression also failed to be acknowledged in the film’s framing of black compliance within colorism. Individual exercise of oppressive behavior is usually blamed for social ills or intraracial conflicts without connection to the structural inequalities at work. But even when structure is recognized (as the film occasionally does) our supposed compliance within oppressive strictures is still primarily the problem. Even if we bracket the historical inaccuracies of the “slave narrative” typically used to explain black subservience (seeing as slaves were extremely rebellious) it still manages to oversimplify racial compliance in and of itself.
Compliance in oppressed people and those with power and privilege is inherently unequal. Black people (especially black women) don’t move through the world as autonomous beings with full rights, choices, and options. Our “choices” usually aren’t choices at all, but an avoidance of a more unfavorable consequence. We usually have two options–comply with the dominant system or suffer greater oppression at the hands of said system—and the choice is essentially made for us. Marginalized people do not perpetuate their own oppression as an exercise of free will, but out of the need to socially or systematically survive. We do what we have to do.
Compliance is also not an ahistorical concept; it is lived experiences, not inexplicable “self-hate” that encourage colorism, that teach us one’s quality of life is assessed by color-coded criteria. I don’t mean to suggest that no agency exists, or that rebellion is futile, but rather that rebellion is limited by dominant powers. Modern colorblind racism operates on the premise that black people are now “free” to do anything we want, while strategically devising social and systematic obstacles to ensure that we are not. We can’t frame black compliance as blind submissiveness without also recognizing the limited circumstances that make it possible.
3.) Dark Girls also brought up a problematic connection between black women and Eurocentric beauty. While not explicitly stated, the notion that black women—especially those with dark-skin—seek to imitate white women, was embedded in the film. While white supremacist patriarchy (may) cause black women to see Eurocentric features as more desirable, simply saying black women want to “look white” is a gross oversimplification. Black people have a complicated relationship with whiteness. It is one of both fearless resistance and necessary compliance. As much as white supremacy has dictated our lives, we remain skeptical and averse to it at the same time that we look to it for social leverage. Being “white” remains an insult within our community. Very few of us want to literally inhabit whiteness. Just as whites don’t want to be black (and forfeit racial privilege) but co-opt “exotic” elements of blackness; black women only want to borrow white features to align themselves with white supremacist patriarchal standards.
Light skin, straight hair, and keen facial features are often desired, but the curvy bodies (“thick” hips, thighs, and butt) typically lacking in white women, remain extremely important to black women. The way that gender complicates racism puts black women in a unique position: halfway between the white male gaze and the black male gaze, trying to simultaneously appease both. It requires the strategic cherry-picking of physical elements that balance both patriarchal entities, and leaving the ones that don’t. The tendency to believe that black women desire a total erasure of the black female self erroneously frames our adaption of Eurocentric beauty as inherent “envy” of white women, while ignoring the ways in which we pridefully reject white femininity.
While Dark Girls did succeed in articulating the emotional and psychological pain of colorism through the stories of black women; I just wish it hadn’t missed so much truth in between.