I am a dark girl. And I don’t remember when I first realized this but I do remember being made to feel ugly for most of my childhood because of it. I have been called just about every name in the book that you can think of, and in several languages too. Even when you manage to decolonize your mind and let go of the pains of the past, it is a defining aspect of your childhood. It leaves you with scars and painful memories of a time that you were made to feel less than because of something as ordinary as skin color. But this isn’t about racism as we generally know it, this is about colorism – the internalization of racism within communities of color.
This past weekend, the documentary Light Girls came out. And I watched it, not knowing exactly what to expect. When the documentary Dark Girls came out, I was quite relieved and grateful more than anything else. We were finally having the difficult conversations about experiences of internalizing racism that particularly Black women face. Of course colorism isn’t just a Black issue, it is the consequence to communities of color everywhere that Whiteness and the West has dominated and hegemonized. Which is pretty much everywhere on the planet. And just like the Dark Girls documentary that I identified with strongly, I shed a tear or two while watching Light Girls.
Now the theory of colorism is that within communities of color, the lighter you are, the closer you are to White, the better you are. Of course people don’t say it so explicitly, but that is essentially at the heart of colorism. From interpersonal relationships to beauty to encounters with the law, there is a very real consequence to colorism that is observable. Often, however, it is implied that only people who have darker complexions have negative experiences of colorism. But as Light Girls revealed, it is not quite so simple. People with lighter complexions often have to “prove” their culture and color to their community. And often do so by overcompensating in attitude and interests.
In either case, racism has been internalized to the detriment of all of us. The focus on girls in particular is because of the focus on beauty, and the way in which that affects a girl’s psyche. As a child, because of colorism, I knew what it was like to carry around this feeling that you could be everything that mattered. But if you weren’t considered pretty and if you weren’t considered pretty because of your skin, you weren’t enough. For light girls, I imagine that they felt they could never be dark enough for their community or light enough for what the global media tells them is desirable. Both experiences are an injustice.
It takes a deliberate effort of mental and emotional reflection, and spiritual resolution to overcome colorism, I think. As a dark girl, you already know that you are far from the expectations of what is good and beautiful and normal, in a global culture where Whiteness dominates. But you also experience a negligence by people who look like you, who make you feel just as unworthy. It’s hard to know what’s worse – feeling excluded by the world or feeling excluded by your own community. As a light girl, those feelings of exclusion, although manifested differently, still exist.
The experience too can be ironic and multidimensional. Because even when Whiteness and the privilege it assumes, is the fundamental root cause of colorism, I certainly have found as a dark girl, that White spaces can sometimes appreciate your presence, especially in terms of beauty, more than spaces within your community. And it is easy to then view your community with some resentment. But I think it is important to recognize too that all people who act upon, or are on the receiving end of colorism’s interactions, are victims. That is not to say one should have a victim mentality, but the default position we are all in is to be at the mercy of the social constructions we are afflicted with from birth.
There is no other solution to racism or colorism than ultimately removing Whiteness from privilege; removing its power. In some ways we see that whenever we can point to rare examples like Lupita Nyong’o, but we know that much of the time, these individuals are rare. And what we need is for these individuals to be more common. What we need as both documentaries, Light Girls, and Dark Girls alluded to, is an individual and societal spiritual revolution. As one woman in the former documentary said, “You can’t love each other when you are at war with each other.” And when we are not at war with each other (emotionally, mentally), we are at war with the person in the mirror.
It has been a positive journey for me as I work to heal colorism in my own life and those around me. The journey of course is not over. Because I can understand and relate to the pains of many little dark girls around the world. And through that, I can have compassion for the many light girls in the world too, even when privilege of the latter does exist. Ultimately, like I’ve repeated so often, I believe that color is not a bad thing, but a good thing. I believe that it is testament to the great diversity of our Creator; it is us who have made this diversity bad. It is us who can make this diversity beautiful. And in both documentaries, the most beautiful thing I heard that each of us can think of every time we look in the mirror is this, “God doesn’t make mistakes.”