I grew up “dark-skinned.” I have two sisters who, by all other standards, are close to identical to me -- except when it comes to our skin tones. My older sister is similar to someone of Hispanic descent in color, while the baby girl with coal jet, black hair could also easily be mistaken for someone of an exotic origin, as well. But not me. While I wouldn’t have admitted this insecurity in my adolescence, there were many days that I wondered why I always sensed the reason that my sisters were prettier than me. Although for me, my insecurities came mostly from my smile not my skin. I remember one day specifically around junior high, I was out shopping with my sisters at Hollidays (yes, with 2 L's) in Pine Bluff. We were there with my older sister who was in high school. One of her friends stopped to talk to her as we looked around the store. She introduced me, then our younger sister. Her friend asked, "Which one?" After Desirhea acknowledged me, then our baby sister, her friend replied, "Dang, she pretty." I've always remembered that. I remember it so well, because I recall looking at her the same way she looked at my sister, admiring how pretty she was.
Luckily for me, my awareness of my skin tone never came from within my household or anyone in my family. It wasn't until I dated a guy in my early twenties who referenced my "dark skin" while telling me that usually only dates "light-skinned girls." He explained to me that I was what they call in Louisiana "paper bag brown" which wasn't really considered dark. He went on to explain to me the difference between the shades of yellow(bone), red(bone) and everything in between. Fortunately, my parents never made a difference between me and my sisters. Unless you count the family joke of me being "Daddy's favorite" because I'm a "brownie" like my mother who is the contrast to my father's copper-colored complexion.
My mother, a Black goddess, told me that she dealt with the same issues growing up, being the dark-skinned sister of seven siblings. And while neighboring kids taunted her with the nickname "Blackie," my Paw-paw adopted it as a term of endearment and she came to love being his "Blackie." She's mentioned to me, however, that back in those days, she noticed different treatment than her fair-skinned sister. Relatives and ladies who would come to my grandmother's house to get their hair done would often brings treats for my aunt, but not her, she revealed.
My sisters and I often joke about it now, but if I'm honest, there was a time when I was secretly envious that I never heard those words, “What are you mixed with?” I could be absolutely wrong in this, but I’d go so far as to say that there are many other “dark-skinned” women, such as myself who would agree or at least have agreed with this, at some point. Recently, having been asked that question prefaced by the words, "You are so pretty," I was almost taken aback. It was almost as if they were insinuating that because I was "so pretty," that I couldn’t possibly be “all black.” The consensus is that regular black women are just not as beautiful. Or at best, they are a rare find. And while I am always flattered by a compliment, I had mixed feelings about this one. But in an effort to remain "pretty" and less abrasive, I simply replied with a smile, "I'm regular black." It actually took my baby sister to awaken me to this idea. This same sister who has been compared to Pocahontas is the same sister who revealed to me this idea that by society’s standards “black women aren’t pretty,” or can’t have “good hair” unless they’re mixed.
Now ordinarily, I’d have a very strong or rather aggressive response to a “light-skinned” woman taking offense to the question that was posed to me. To be honest, I was under the assumption that “light-skinned” women had typically been given a pass from the struggle of the (dark-skinned) black woman. And this is not an idea that I came up with on my own. I mean, historically speaking, they literally “passed” as white in certain situations that were to their advantage. Whether it was being excused from the plantation fields into the infamous “house ni**er” position or with them bypassing cruel and unusual punishments that were rendered on other blacks. Not saying that they haven’t endured struggles of their own and certainly not to play the “yeah, but my struggle was worse than yours” game, I’m only saying that growing up “dark-skinned”, I wished that that was my struggle instead. And if I’m wrong about the struggle, then please enlighten me @AmandlaStenberg and my fellow light-skinned sisters. I am all ears in this discussion.
Growing up dark-skinned, I developed the pressure to overachieve. It was almost as if I was conditioned to work twice as hard, because not only was I a black woman, but a dark-skin woman. #DoubleWhammy. People even within (sometimes especially within) the black community, seem to have the notion that “white is right” and that the closer you are to it, the prettier you are. No lie, I once had a guy, a brotha, say to me, "You're pretty for a dark-skinned girl." And in yet another attempt to remain "pretty," I coyly replied, "Um ... thanks?" #SideEyeEmoji
I have a (dark-skinned) girlfriend that I used to flight attend with who once said to me while talking about her cousin’s mixed baby, “I wish I was mixed. You know all of them are pretty.” As if being mixed was an automatic pretty pass. No shade (pun unintended) to the mixed race, I’m only questioning why this idea exists, prevalently amongst this group of people? This was years ago when I was a flight attendant, but I’ve never forgotten that. And I wondered why. She’s a beautiful woman and she would be in any shade. I only wondered what led her to believe that “all mixed people are pretty” and why the same isn't said of any singular race of people. And was it simply defined by pigmentation? Not only did it puzzle me, it troubled me. It unsettled me. Although, I can’t say that I don’t understand.
The difference between black and biracial is exotic. You're complemented if you're Black and Filipino, or Black and Hispanic, but not when you're just black, not without a contingency, anyways. Don't believe me, just go any Instagram account and check those receipts.
Society has long perpetuated this idea. We see it on billboards, magazine ads, sitcoms and movies. In the black community, specifically, we’ve seen it glorified in music videos, reality TV, and social media. But to say this is a new trend, unfortunately, is untrue. As early as the 1930s, when blacks first appeared on television, their roles were stereotypically charged. Dark-skinned women and men were commonly casted as “mammies” and “coons” with assets that were limited to a lowly maid or an uneducated handyman. When blacks were not used on screen, whites in “blackface” were hired in their place. Since that time, there has certainly been progression, but there is still room for improvement.
While I'm on the subject of television, I’ll go ahead and admit something. I may have gotten caught up in the latest season of "Real Housewives," primarily because the latest season took place in Maryland, close to the city where I used to live. Throughout the season, an issue that the ladies seemed to be dealing with in the show was one of race. The cast of this particular franchise was a group of distinguished, upper class, wealthy women. In the black community, other words to describe them may include sadity, stuck up and bougie, but I’m not here to judge. The feud was fueled primarily by two biracial ladies and two black women, who appear to be biracial. Giselle, the adamant sista with green eyes and skin as light as Evelyn Lozada and Robin Dixon, also with naturally curly hair, light eyes and skin to match. Each of these women, almost aggressive, to validate their blackness. Now both of these women are equally gorgeous, as are their “opponents” Katie Rost (“straight outta Africa”) and Ashley Darby, both of which are proud bi-racial women. And it’s all fine and well to be the progressive voice of change when you look like these women. But would you still be so vocal if your skin was compared to motor oil?
What further irritates me is when (sometimes) light people and white people go above and beyond to praise women like Lupita Nyongo for her “flawless complexion.” And this is no diss to Lupita, I agree that she is stunning. But please, tell me how you really feel. Why does it seem to me that “dark skin” is only beautiful when it’s trending on social media or made fetch by detached light skinned individuals? Am I the only one who feels this way? When since the beginning of time, black skin has been equated with evil and vile connotations, justified by slave owners using the words in Bible, such as Genesis 4:15, “And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him” to perpetuate the idea that our skin was cursed.
There have been several beauty trends in the history of our nation that have emerged over the decades. In the era of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, the curves of a woman were commended by some (not all). Then it progressed to big boobs and small waists. Then there was the era of thin, frail, Kate Moss-like figures that were celebrated to a fault. And then there was the thigh gap for a quick second. Now it’s the trend of the butt. A feature that has not always been celebrated by white women, in particular. Now, it seems that with the aid of Kim Kardashian and company, butts are the big thing, now. Pun absolutely intended. I dare you to answer this question, honestly. Since when have white women embraced this body part? Now you have starlets such as Blake Lively who want in on the trend, when just a few years ago, the question if answered incorrectly would yield your significant other a night on the couch when asked “does this make my butt look big?” And now, this is probably one of the highest compliments that your partner can pay you.
At this point, I’m not sure which trend is more disturbing. White women altering their appearances to embody the features of black women, or vice versa. Recently, stars like Lil’ Kim, Tamar Braxton & Vivica A. Fox have come under fire for the extreme measures they have taken to change their features. What’s worse is that when you put their names in the same sentence, they’re often better known for their altered appearances than their talent. Sad, but true. Even K. Michelle and Michael Jackson. If you ask any number of people what they all have in common, most would probably reference plastic surgery, skin and makeup lightening, European styled/ treated hair or body enhancements.
My hope in publishing this article is that it will spark a constructive conversation within our community and within ourselves to realize that we were all created and hand-crafted by the Most High, in His very image. We are all equally beautiful in our own skin. In every color and every complexion. And this should be celebrated, not calumniated. The misconception was and still is for some people, that a relationship between the color of your skin and your self-worth are in close proximity and that needs to change. However, before this progress can happen on the outside world, it must first occur within.
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