Of all the documentaries I have ever watched in my lifetime, Bill Duke’s work of “Light Girls” and “Dark Girls” has had the most profound effect on me. After just recently watching both of them
I felt compelled to share my story. I think that I am writing this for my own therapeutic reasons and yet I hope it will encourage someone else who has not watched the documentary to do so and to share their story.
In both documentaries, the “Paper Bag Test” was mentioned. I chuckled at first because I remember as a kid (maybe around the pre-teen age) I was in the grocery store with a relative and I was carrying a bag to the car. Once I put the bag down they grabbed my arm in held it next to the bag to compare my tone to the color of the bag. This relative then remarked with a laugh, “you’re just barely.” “just barely what I asked?” Well you ain’t dark skinned-ed and you ain’t light either.” This part of my story is only relevent because I finally understand what this family member was doing. I had no idea this was a common practice in other African American families.
As a little girl I remember one day I was asked “what color are you” and I distinctly remember answering “yellow” because it was often how elders in my family referred to me. This was the beginning of my experience with “color-ism.”
On my paternal side of the family there was a distaste for my skin tone by my great-grandmother who felt I was pale in comparison to my other cousins and questioned my father’s paternity with comments such as “you sure that’s your baby, she’s to light.” As I got older she would refer to me as that yella child and showed favoritism for my cousins. On the maternal side of my family, I think my skin toned worked in my favor as I was considered to be of an acceptable light-skinned tone. My maternal great-grandmother was very comfortable in distinguishing those tones as well.
I remember a Christmas in which there were several family members (on my maternal side) gathered in a room together. In this gathering there was my self and two other younger cousins.. One of my cousins is of a darker complexion. I remember there being two dolls, one black and one white. Now these were presumably Christmas gifts. When one of the older family members handed me the white doll and handed my cousin the black doll I remember a distinct feel of confusion, followed by anger and then by sympathy. I first I thought I had been given the doll as an insult but the snickering and laughing by the older family members as my young cousin stared with disappointment at the black doll told a different story. You see various hues on dolls had not emerged yet, so you either got a white doll which was received as a good gift but the black doll with a tone that did not properly represent any black person I had ever seen was perceived as an insult. It was a sympathy that I carried for my cousin for many years.
By the time I reached high school I fell into a place of neutrality. I was just black enough to be acknowledged by the handful of black students in my predominantly white high school and just light enough where I was not perceived as a threat to the white students. The funny thing is that neutrality can find you knee-deep in mediocrity. A place where you don’t want to stand out you just want to blend in which is sometimes easier said then done.
There is certain level of being mediocre that places you in a position of under achieving. It’s almost like you don’t want to cause in waves in the water. I was never and will never be ashamed of my blackness but I did find at one point that I seemed to justify my tone for acceptance by saying that I was other races. I then found malice in what I was doing and longed for higher level of acceptance from my own race. I went to extreme measures and still it was a struggle.
I am often the only black women amongst my friends. In my household we joke that I am always that one black friend amongst my white peers. Amongst my black friends it is often hard to define where I stand. Don’t get me wrong though I have some very good friends of various races that connect with me because of who I am as an individual and are not concerned by the tone of my skin.
This is my Facebook post after watching #DarkGirls,
I have waited for something for so long to help me understand this stigma of skin tones that women of color have to deal with. I was grateful after seeing this and being able to empathize with their experiences. I just wanted to share my story. Even if it was just a form of self therapy. I could never go into details about all of my experiences.
But encourage all women of color who have been exposed to and/or affected by color-ism to see both of these very informative and touching documentaries.