I wrote on Sunday night about perceptions and changing the language around how we talk about “othered” people in our society: Specifically, people living in poverty.
I started that post before I went to watch Soledad O’Brian’s Black in America, a series that I love and that I have used in many a lesson plan over the years. This week’s was about Colorism, a topic that we Black folk have a hard time talking about. We can’t seem to shake the self-loathing of our color thanks to the conventions of beauty that are force-fed to us by media that we don’t control. Even artists/players/leaders of color who are idolized by young girls of color are often so dolled up, lightened, or simply running away from/not enamored with our skin that it is hard for our young girls to get a foothold on what our beautiful looks like. What it feels like to be confident, proud and Black. It also doesn’t help that other races become the Brown du jour in the media: Asian Women, Indian Women, Hispanic Women….they always get a turn. Then Blondes come back. It’s hard to be Black, Cool, Beautiful, Wanted.
Clearly, there are examples to counteract those above. I often point to this role model, this outstanding person, obviously this pillar of class and distinction, and so many others when speaking about women that we can be proud of, and woman who are proud to be among us. However, I feel like sometimes these women take a back seat to the greater narrative that is being written about who we are and what makes us beautiful and special (and, of course, their accomplishments are destroyed by the women who “star” on reality television). –just as an aside, if anyone can make Black women “cool” again, it’s Kerry Washington. I’m such a crazy huge fan!–
So that is why I was heartbroken, but not surprised, when CNN played Black in America and we saw the sweetest little dark-skinned elementary school girl tell her mother “I wish I had light skin” and “I think light skin is pretty.”
And it made me think about my boys. I was so grateful in that moment to have boys.
But then I kept thinking. My boys, bi-racial, have a complexion far fairer than mine. When they are out with their father, they look like they belong to him. Their curls and their slightly tanned coloring, which is more apparent when they are close to my husband, might make someone pause and wonder for a moment (I assume). When they are out with me, you have to really look to see the genetic connection. They got few of my features. People up here are so liberal and well-meaning that they don’t ask out of politeness, but I have often noted registration when I refer to myself as “mommy” in conversation with my eldest or I say something that only a mother way say about a child. I’ve been told by other women of color (mostly Asian and Middle Eastern) about how gorgeous they are. At least two white women have remarked about the coloring of their hair, “it’s almost blonde” one woman remarked once on the playground. Yes, they are beautiful. They are the perfect melding of me and my husband (believe me, they got his outward features but all of my rebellious fierceness and too-smart-for-your-own-good-ness). Had they been darker in complexion, would they receive the same attention? How will you label them when they are older? Will they be “white” when they are behaving “appropriately”? Will you suddenly see how”Black” when they are behaving in ways you don’t find acceptable?
What happens if I have a third child who turns out to be closer to my complexion? How will they be valued?
What happens when my boys encounter the negative narrative around “dark skin”? Will they suddenly think that I’m not beautiful? Will they think that their mother is ugly and wish that I had lighter skin like themselves? Like their father?
Nayo, one of the two young women featured in Sunday’s documentary, has had a hard time identifying herself as Black. She is bi-racial, and although she looks Black to the casual observer, her identify must come from within. Though the documentary is quick to point out, and her teacher perfectly notes, Nayo’s identity will be told to her, given to her, over and over again in her life time. “I don’t think people get to choose for me,” her friend says in the piece. Counter to that, her teacher says wisely, “[America will] remind her of her Blackness in a million different ways…” How true. It would seem that identity is a luxury only given to us who have unambiguous tones. Suddenly, I feel sorry my sons. Their adolescence will be so much more complicated than necessary.
I wish that the documentary had been two hours long instead of merely an hour: Colorism is an internal fight that has been waged for centuries. It needs more than an hour to delve into. CNN hit on all of the surface stuff: The paper bag test, the legal aspects of the One Drop Rule, the frustration and confusion about which Africans are considered African American or White. They even took a moment to see the petty war happening on twitter, where some teenagers are tweeting under the hashtags “teamlightskin” or “teamdarkskin” to talk about each other. But what they didn’t do is talk about how we treat each other, how we choose to divide each other still as a community in 2012. How some of our old-guard leaders told Barack Obama he wasn’t black enough back in the day. How there are still folk who can’t marry into certain families, join certain fraternities or sororities, can’t have their children in particular organizations because of the way that they look. And that’s Black on Black discrimination. We hate ourselves and it isn’t totally about outside impositions on our narrative (a point that I think CNN glossed over).
I think that it is good that we aired out some of our “dirty laundry”, but truth be told, this morning I got onto twitter and teams “dark skin” and “light skin” were up and poppin’ like nothing had happened. The best tweet of Sunday night was “Lord, they’re snitchin” on #blacktwitter again!” I chuckled at that, because it was true. CNN called them out. CNN called us out.
While we are reclaiming some aspects of our beautiful (I’ve been a proud Natural since 2008. Just started locking my hair this April). We have so much more to do. We have to love ourselves among ourselves before we can truly be powerful out among others.