A How-To Guide to Having Dark Skin and Trying (but Failing) to Love It
What’s dark and skin-y and disconsolate all over? A dark-skinned girl’s shame as she tries to make sense of her covering in a world that just won’t let her breathe.
When Lupita Nyong’o hit the big screen in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in August of 2013, the universe, save me, went wild. She was graceful, she was stunning, she was radiant, a dark-skinned beauty with the world at her feet and a crown of approval atop her well-sheared fade. While America loved Lupita and admired her at every step of the way, I did not. To me, the media’s coos of “radiant beauty Lupita Nyong’o wowed crowds at the awards ceremony tonight in a pale blue gown that contrasted so perfectly with her ebony body” and “Nubian starlet, Lupita Nyong’o, captivated audiences in bright red lips that boldly stood out against her Starbucks Dark Roast® skin at the semi-annual gala” seemed disingenuous at best, dehumanizing at worst. These Stevia-coated claims shrouded bitter tongues and insincere hearts, like saccharine over-compensations of history’s continual and constant shaming of the dark-skinned woman delivered in the forms of commendation, white-stamped approval into the graces of our current society. But from Saartjie ‘Sarah’ Baartman, to ‘Mammy,’ to Lupita Nyong’o, to me, there has been nothing graceful about being a dark-skinned woman and being brewed into a society that undeniably, irrevocably praises whiteness and lightness and good. And there’s certainly nothing graceful about having kind white strangers applauding you for having “such deep and gorgeous skin, oh my!” and being forced to wearily accept these Janus-faced compliments without fuss because you are a dark-skinned black girl and that’s just what you do.
I was about “8 and ¾” years of age and starting the 4th grade when I first realized that it was possible to be too black. This was when I began to hear jokes about myself that just weren’t funny. And hurtful names that just didn’t seem to fit me. And jeers like “Why are you so dark?” and “It’s nighttime...girl, you blend in!” and “You’re so black, you look like tar!” and various other iterations of the same principle. And it doesn’t take a genius (it’s elementary, really) to know that tar isn’t beauty. Regrettably, my parents, being the wonderful supporters and self-esteem boosters that they were, failed to prepare me for the inevitable indignity and embarrassment that bearing dark skin as a young black girl would soon entail. As fresh immigrants from Ghana and her coasts, my parents were well-aware of the impacts of colorism and the general shaming of dark skin in their West-African society; embers of British colonialism and its Eurocentric beauty-turned-class-turned-economic standards still burned in the countryside long after the Ghanaian people declared their country’s independence. Adam Elliot-Cooper, associate editor of the online magazine Ceasefire, recognizes that:
Ideas about beauty have been constructed, packaged, renegotiated and now in collusion with capitalism have been sold to us as readily consumable products, lifestyles and ideas. Concepts of beauty, let alone Eurocentric ones, dictate and determine a gender politics for all women dependent on desirability, notions of femininity and ideas of what or who a woman should be (Elliot-Cooper 1).
Like Stockholm, like syndrome, years after gaining “freedom” from her oppressors, Ghana and her people still sought to lighten their skin and chemically straighten their (deemed) unmanageable hair. They couldn’t stand for being disenfranchised, ultimately disqualified from the irreversibly lightened and straightened society that had reared them…and so they erased themselves. Fortunately, I was able to fix (read: molecularly damage) my hair; correct it so that it no longer bred resistance or fight, no longer appeared “nappy” or “coarse” to the outsider’s gawk and prod. Unfortunately, my skin color was never so lucky. Colorism, self-hate, and a skewed sense of nyctophobia (read: fear of the dark [skinned]) swiftly became engrained facets of the Ghanaian culture, norms that, today, don’t ring far from the foundations of America and her perennial upholding of whiteness.
In Ghana, people were upfront about how they felt about the tuntum (too dark) people. Mothers would advise their daughters to “brighten” their bodies with alata sɛmina (black soap) so that future suitors wouldn’t be repulsed by their dark elbows or swarthy necks, so that they could be ɛye fɛ, beautiful. If euphemisms weren’t enough, fathers would tell their sons that society would reject them if they became too dark, too sun-stained and too earth-baked for the GH₵-exhanging capitalist world to understand. So they bleached. They stayed inside. And they were honest about their self-erasing intentions; they were real with understanding the implications of blackness in a world that has claimed to be “enlightened” (sɔ kanɛa) for so long. This isn’t to say that this “realness” was in any way healthy, as Columbia University affiliate Obiora Anekwe asserts:
One of the most recent examples of coercive means to brainwash Africans throughout the West African Diaspora is most visible in the phenomenon of bleaching one’s skin in order for it to be lighter. This phenomenon has been described as medically risky and psychologically dangerous. Recent news reports throughout West and South Africa’s media have reported about black women who buy skin whitening products in order bleach their skin tone to look whiter and, in their opinion, more beautiful (Anekwe 1).
Of course it was dangerous, as self-denying measures always tend to be. But it was not shrouded in political correctness and not frilled with the naïveté we are so used to in our westernized world. While they damaged their families’ skin cells and psyches, they were genuine with the world and acknowledging of her damaging realities. They had to prepare their offspring for this Earth’s colorist clout, dutifully erasing their children’s darkness and turning them towards the light.
Today, in America, some people (mainly YouTube commenters) also favor the direct approach in addressing “the dark skin problem,” dedicating every dying moment of their lives to being blatantly awful. These people often refer to dark-skinned blacks as “porch monkeys” and “pickaninny Sambos,” constantly wishing for the extinction of “the negroid race” and hoping, and praying, that more and more black boys things find themselves 6-inches under (recently buried, recently slaughtered) as the next Mike Browns, Eric Garners, and Tamir Rices. Acclaimed feminist Angela Davis elucidates that people of color are criminalized for their non-whiteness, postulating that:
Black, Latino, Native American, and many Asian youth are portrayed as the purveyors of violence, traffickers of drugs, and as envious of commodities that they have no right to possess. Young black and Latina women are represented as sexually promiscuous and as indiscriminately propagating babies and poverty. Criminality and deviance are racialized (Davis 1).
As Davis suggests, while not considered direct targets for this country’s so-beloved prison-industrial-complex, black women are socially slaughtered through phenomena like “#jadapose” or misappropriations of “twerking” (Stewart 1). We are both marginalized and sexualized in our racist and misogynistic society—there’s no room for our distinct narrative in this white-washed world of woe. But many Americans (even feminists!) like to pretend that differences in skin color don’t exist anymore because we have a (half) black President. In this “color-blind” America, “racism is reserved for Red-necks, not for people who don’t see color…like me!” Mainstream America’s special brand of anti-black bigotry is hidden, cloaked by sweet notions of political correctness, and off-beat statements like “I’m not racist but...” and entire weeks devoted to disingenuous sessions of “Diversity-Awareness Training,” and it’s just tiring.
To be as clear as the rose-colored sunglasses that Americans wear towards “non-existent!” race relations, I don’t know which attitude I prefer. At least those who are unabashed racists can legitimately acknowledge the significance of my dark skin and how my 18 years have been shaped as a result of it. Though considerably hateful, these people are at least courageous enough to admit that in 2014 “white is still right,” and see no point in hiding behind the insidious chants of “Look at Lupita, the dark-skinned beauty!” or “I wish my skin were as deep and as bold as your skin is!” Horribleness aside, these racists are not subtly patronizing like the rest of the world. They do not seek to save the dark-skinned people from themselves; they do not seek to pity the poor dark-skinned girls into submission. As Purdue University sociologist Sandra L. Burnes contextualizes, this dilemma is:
…The presentation of a conflicted, dichotomized identity [sic] – being Black and American – where the former identity labeled one a “problem” to be ignored, pitied, or stigmatized and the latter identity served as a constant reminder of a legacy of oppression and station to be esteemed but never reached (Burnes 1).
Grappling with both white supremacy and institutionalized patriarchal norms, the American black woman has lived a particularly unique struggle in both the silencing of her ancestral voice and the stifling of her feminine sway. It follows then that black women, through their full embodiments in the United States, have continuously experienced oppression and shame in every “new and totally open-minded!” generation that they’ve been “a part of.” Somewhere between the corners of “horrendous” and “atrocious” lie the forgotten stories of the black mothers, sisters, and daughters whose histories have been abused and erased.
Now, I wish we could assume that best advocates for liberating black women from the damning intersection of race and gender would be black men and white women themselves. But this neat little Venn-Diagram’d solution to society’s continual oppression of black womanhood proved to be futile in practice as white women have actively excluded their black sisters, and men have paid no mind to their women’s strength and seasoning throughout many of the woes of life. Women’s Liberation, defined as the effort to gain political, social, and sexual liberation from the society that unendingly dehumanizes and belittles women to nothing more than docile, fragile maidens who are not learned enough to make decisions for themselves, has been an ongoing fight throughout the last several decades…a fight that has only included women of color in the most recent of years. Black men, as hard as they fought for acceptance and freedom for themselves in the post-war period, actively forgot to help unlock the double-crossed chains of their sisters of color. Kimberlé Crenshaw, renowned black legal scholar and feminist, unpacks this critical phenomenon in solidifying what intersectional oppression really is:
Consider an analogy to traffic in an intersection, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in an intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination. . . . But it is not always easy to reconstruct an accident: Sometimes the skid marks and the injuries simply indicate that they occurred simultaneously, frustrating efforts to determine which driver caused the harm (Crenshaw 12).
In a world that upholds the construct of darkness (of skin) being inversely proportional with femininity, this intersectionality hits at full force, splitting people like me apart at the soul’s core and the heart’s beat. I wish that people like me weren’t societally “othered” for wholly being our excellent black women selves— I wish that I didn’t have to choose between my womanhood and my blackness.
Last year, for my senior prom, I decided that it would be a fabulous idea to have my makeup done by professionals. When I got to the salon, the makeup artist gazed at me with wonder (like the ogle that children do when they see the lion exhibit at the zoo) and slowly calculated sentences like, “Unfortunately, this salon doesn’t really carry foundations that would match your…radiant and dazzling skin tone…You see, your type of…mocha skin is just so special and brilliant that it would just be so hard to find a shade that would be as…flawless as the color that you truly are.” When I appeared to be visibly unsettled by the entire situation and everything about the way she formulated her “compliment,” she quickly consoled me in a very White Savior-y, Sandra Bullock in 2009’s The Blind Side type of way. “Even though we don’t carry your shade, you should still definitely love the skin that you’re in! It’s… uh, unique!” She smiled as if she had lost the Nobel Peace Prize and was only smiling so that she did not have to look like a sore loser in front of the watching world.
I wanted to laugh because her chagrin was ridiculous and because misplaced comments like that definitively make me averse to loving “the skin that I’m in.” Comments like that, no matter how painstakingly verbalized or awkwardly uttered, make me feel small. They shrink me into nothing more than an expectation of “a strong black woman who don’t need no whiteness,” nothing more than a fad to obsess over (this just in: black is the new black!), and nothing more than a skin color that doesn’t fit the shades of foundation that the white salon in the white suburb of the white state of Arizona says are white right. I’m a simple girl and for me to truly be comfortable in this world, I think that sometimes, I do yearn for some whiteness in my skin (or at least less blackness). I would like to be told that I’m a beautiful woman without my “ethnic and exotic” skin shade or “voluptuous curves” being showcased as the focal point that these back-handed compliments are wrapped (read: choked) around. And I actually need for Lupita Nyong’o to be praised for her remarkable acting merit and overall excellence, not for her dark skin that contrasts “ever so beautifully” against the lily-white backdrop of “post-racial” America.
But, alas, due to the many complexities of polygenic inheritance and the DNA of parents who sing the song of Africa and her bitter histories, my skin is the way that it is. I am dark-skinned black girl and I carry the ghosts of black womanhood with me wherever I go. And if I want to be honest ‘til my soul’s break, I know that I would love and appreciate my dark-skinned femininity if my world would like (or at least tolerate) my not-white, not-pure, and not-blameless self without pity or without shame. But it doesn’t.
So I don’t.
Anekwe, Obiora N. “The Global Phenomenon of Skin Bleaching: A Crisis in Public Health (Part 1).” Voices in Bioethics. Columbia University, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014
Blay, Yaba. “Lupita Is Beautiful, but Black BEEN Beautiful.” #PrettyPeriod. N.p., Feb. 2014. Web. 24 Nov. 2014.
Burnes, Sandra L. “A Sociological Examination of W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk.” The North Star: A Journal of African American Religious History Spring 2005, 7th ed., sec. 2: 1-6. Print.
Crenshaw, Kimberle Williams. ““Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” The Feminist Philosophy Reader (2008): n. pag. Print.
Davis, Angela. “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex.” Color Lines (1998): n. pag. Color Lines. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
Elliot-Cooper, Adam. “The Anti-Imperialist: The Whitewash of Black Beauty.” Ceasefire Magazine RSS. N.p., 11 June 2011. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.
Jones, Charisse, and Kumea Shorter-Gooden. Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.
Stewart, Alicia W. “#IamJada: When Abuse Becomes a Teen Meme.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Jan. 1970. Web. 30 Nov. 2014.