She’s Pretty for a Black Girl: ‘Dark Girls’ and Colorism in America

Written by Jenny Lapekas.

I can remember an episode of Chappelle’s Show (a sketch series that offered some valuable commentary on race and race relations in America) where Paul Mooney says, “Everybody wanna be a nigga, but nobody wanna be a nigga.”  How does this seemingly crude sentiment translate to reality? to a social framework? To color?  What he means is this:  being Black is still considered “cool” and trendy by some, and it can be a mark of power and subversion.  On the other hand, those who find race to be an accessory are more than happy to avoid the consequences and negative stereotypes associated with blackness, such as prejudice and discrimination.  Dark Girls investigates what causes colorism, how it’s begun to poison Black women, and how Black communities can heal from it.

A 2011 documentary, Dark Girls details colorism in America, particularly amongst the Black female population.  Since learning about this phenomenon in college, I’ve been fascinated by this idea that the darker your skin, the more poorly you’re potentially treated not only in America, but across the globe.  Dark Girls touches on stereotypes such as dark-skinned girls coming from impoverished communities, or even simply having too much “attitude.”  The film is a touching and inspiring examination of blackness, with layers of social and psychological insight, culminating in a poignant conclusion that urges dark girls to “rise,” to reclaim what’s been forgotten, oppressed, or effaced.

Before I evaluate or scrutinize anything:  I don’t know the Black experience firsthand.  I’m not Black, so I always approach the subject of race with caution.  Watching this film won’t make me “get” the Black experience, and neither will reading Malcolm X or watching a Tyler Perry film.  It’s insulting and reductive to assume that we can absorb the struggles of an entire people simply by exposing ourselves to a piece of art or media, such as a dramatic performance or a book of poetry–these things must be lived.  To reduce a whole race to a 70-minute film like Dark Girls is to limit ourselves.  In short, I admire Black women and the strength they embody, I find “ethnic” hair aesthetically pleasing, and I’ve dated Black and Hispanic men who were absolutely guilty of practicing colorism.

In the opening scene, a little girl tells us that she doesn’t like to be called “Black” because she’s not:  a nice preface for the negative connotations we can attribute to that one word.  Several people interviewed, most of them psychologists, explain the “paper bag test,” which dictates that if your skin is lighter than a brown paper bag, you’re considered beautiful, but if you find yourself darker than the bag, you’re dark and unattractive, and thus undesirable.  This seems an unnecessary exercise in masochism, but hey, women also have the “pencil test,” which lets us know if our boobs are too saggy to be considered sexually attractive (see Breasts, another great documentary where women are interviewed topless).  How very queer to think of mundane items like pencils and paper bags as tools to assess we all are or what we’re worth.

[caption id="attachment_13812" align="aligncenter" width="300"]A drawing that reflects such tragic self-doubt at a surprisingly young age. A drawing that reflects such tragic self-doubt at a surprisingly young age.[/caption]


One psychologist explains that Black women who experience insecurity about their color cannot count on Black men to “liberate” them from this “slave mentality”:  that lighter-skinned Black women are more desirable than dark Black women.  Those of us who saw Django will recall that Broomhilda is light-skinned, which meant that she was a house slave (or a “house nigger”); darker slaves worked largely in the fields since they were considered less valuable or unpleasant to look at.  This observation brings to mind the popular idea that “good” black men are difficult to find; one participant even explains that she knows black men must exist who are capable of giving her a family and a pleasant life, but she fears they all must be in prison.

[caption id="attachment_13813" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Black women are generally insulted when Black men declare their romantic and sexual preference for white women. Black women are generally insulted when Black men declare their romantic and sexual preference for white women.[/caption]


To help offset some of the negative commentary in this short film, we meet many articulate and upfront men who explain that they actually prefer dark women for a variety of reasons:  Black women are sexier or have nicer skin, dark-skinned men want dark babies with other dark women, and even “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice.”  Whether or not we agree with any of the men interviewed, we have to appreciate their honesty and willingness to share their feelings about race, color, and Black women on camera.  Some Black women we meet speak to the sexualization of their bodies and their refusal to allow men of any racial background exoticize their skin color.  Some of these women also report that while Black men reject them, white men revere them and their blackness.  While much of this film focuses on racial issues in the United States, it discusses the global prevalence of colorism in countries where we wouldn’t expect such behavior, such as Thailand or the Gambia.

Actor/Comedian Michael Colyar says, “I really believe everybody wants to be Black except Black folks,” a thought that echoes Paul Mooney’s.  The Black experience seems to be coveted and glamorized, despite the knowledge that racism runs rampant.  “They call us colored–but–but–but we always our color, whatever color we are, if we come out, we brown, we always brown, we end up brown.  White people, when they’re born, they’re pink, when they’re mad, they’re red, when they’re cold, they’re blue, when they die, they’re gray.  Them the colored people!”  Clearly, Colyar offers some much needed humor to an otherwise sober look at colorism and what it means to be a dark woman.  Just as Chappelle’s Show utilized humor to diffuse the racial tension it unveiled, comedy seems to be the most effective antidote (besides education!) when combating everything from racism and misogyny to political strife.

Dark Girls also references the absence of dark-skinned people on television; it’s this invisibility that suggests that these people don’t exist for the rest of us.  Colyar goes on to say, “Usually when you see Black people on TV, we’re on our way to jail or we’re rapping or we’re in sports.  You don’t get to see us in a positive light continuously.”  Colyar’s astuteness here demonstrates just how both racism and colorism are perpetuated quietly via our seemingly innocuous television sets.

[caption id="attachment_13814" align="aligncenter" width="300"]This woman used to worry that her children would be too dark, but tearfully says that she now loves her beautiful “chocolate baby.” This woman used to worry that her children would be too dark, but tearfully says that she now loves her beautiful “chocolate baby.”[/caption]


We come full circle as the documentary ends with the same little girl from the opening scene, the beautiful little girl who already struggles with her skin color, believing that Black equates to “bad” and “ugly” while white equals “good” and “pretty.”  This girl represents future generations of dark girls who will hopefully embrace their color and challenge Western beauty ideals.

[caption id="attachment_13815" align="aligncenter" width="300"]“My mommy and daddy say I’m beautiful.” “My mommy and daddy say I’m beautiful.”[/caption]


Colorism seems to be a misguided attempt to better understand your own self-appointed rank of blackness while belittling others in the process.  This practice is maybe prevalent amongst the Black population due to a lack of self-esteem, one’s own self-loathing, or misdirected anger that is perhaps meant for hegemonic masculinity or non-Black cultures.  Because women and Black people are still oppressed, it’s especially problematic when Black women become oppressors of one another; solidarity, at times, can be an illusion if colorism continues within Black communities.  While the little girl we meet–perhaps unnamed because she represents every dark girl everywhere–relies on her family to encourage her, we should all be cognizant of our own inclination to attach negative stereotypes to something as superficial as color.  I was glad to see that Dark Girls concludes on a hopeful note:  that you are not beautiful in spite of your color, but beautiful because of it.

Recommended reading:  2013 Oscar Week: Race and the Academy: Black Characters, Stories and the Danger of Django, Women of Color in Film and TV: A Celebration of Black Women on Film in 2012, Light Skin Vs. Dark Skin: Breaking the Mental Chains 


Jenny holds a Master of Arts degree in English, and she is a part-time instructor at a community college in Pennsylvania.  Her areas of scholarship include women’s literature, menstrual literacy, and rape-revenge cinema.  She lives with two naughty chihuahuas.  You can find her on WordPress and Pinterest.

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