“When did you learn to be okay with being a brown skinned woman?”
This question appeared in my Ask.fm mailbox and kind of took me aback, mostly because it’s premised on the idea that at some point I wasn’t okay with it. Or that perhaps hating your skintone is part of what you go through when you’re brown or dark-skinned. It was weird because someone, somewhere on the internet, has managed to identify me as a confident person, and someone who apparently has had a personal reconciliation with a feature they (or others) perceive to be a deficit. I can tell you now, on the list of things I’ve ever thought about concerning my physical appearance, the deepness of my skintone has never been one of them.
But that’s not to say that I’m not keenly aware of my skintone, either. And when it does it’s a reminder that even among people who look like me, someone who looks like me can be an acquired taste. I’ve been on the receiving end of that "You’re really pretty for a dark skinned girl" “compliment” quite a few times. My great-aunt used to admonish me as a kid for “being out in the sun too long” in the summer because my already-super brown self was going to be super Black by day’s end, as it happened every summer.
“Look how Black you are,” somebody would say. Depending on the inflection on their voice, I’d know whether or not I was being insulted.
I’ve been the kid you can’t see in the newspaper pics because pixilation and black and white photos with shitty lighting and dark backgrounds means I disappear, and for some reason, that used to hurt my feelings a lot as a kid. To just be eyeballs and teeth in a photo. The jokes sometimes came after that. Especially from boys.
I’ve gotten really bizarre questions about my ethnicity at times because allegedly, dark skinned girls don’t have “nice” or “pretty” hair; in other cases I’ve heard someone refuse to admit that a woman is dark skinned based on her grade of hair alone. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that as some point growing up that I wasn’t oddly thankful to have longer hair. As recently as a few months ago I was told that someone wouldn’t be into me because he “doesn’t like dark chicks.” And I’m an AKA, too, so I’ve also caught a few jokes in the vein of, “I thought they didn’t like y’all.”
These things don’t come up often, but they do come up. And that’s very different from what I knew at home. My family is mostly women. And these women are a bunch of brown and dark people with a few peanut butter colored folks (like my mom and sister) thrown in the mix. I was insulated in a family full of Black-at-a-distance folks, so much so that at around age 6, my precocious self once abruptly asked my friend’s light-skinned mother if she were white in the middle of dinner at their house.
But by the time I got to choose fest known as high school, I wasn’t the first round pick. (This probably has everything to do with the fact that I didn’t fill out until like two years ago.) But it was always clear that the light-skinned curly wavy jawns always got chose first. In a conversation with one of my best friends one day, she told me about life on the other side of the color spectrum and how growing up, she never felt sure if boys liked her for her, or because she was light skinned, which was something I’d never considered before she said it. I’ve always had a thing for the chocolate brown boys, some of whom seemed to gravitate to lighter women as trophies or for the promise of “pretty babies” with “good hair.” And in watching Light Girls last night, there was something really dishonest about how the women who spoke on camera refused to acknowledge that – I don’t discount the experiences that the women did share, I’ve heard people indiscriminately bash light skinned girls – that lighter skin is capital among women, social and economic. There’s power in being chosen. And in the ability to choose.
While the documentary did not really do a great job of creating a linear narrative or honing in on any point well or saliently, I walked away from it feeling like while the Dark Girls documentary centered on the idea that darker women are undesirable, Light Girls honed in on how dark girls are mean to light women. And here, friends, is the jig, delicately wrapped in the tragic mulatto trope, we were supposed to empathize with Light Girls, and pity Dark Girls. Light Girls danced around the notion that darker women are jealous of light-skinned women, mean to light-skinned women, and through the magic of skin bleaching, are trying to be light-skinned. That’s simply not true. Not all brown girls are broken. Not all dark girls are depressed. We’re not all out here threatening light-skinned girls on the schoolyard because we hate some part of ourselves. We’re not longing to be someone else, struggling to make sense of why other people don’t like us. I don’t want what some light-skinned woman has, especially if it’s a color-struck man. This is not to say that the things people have said to me over the years haven’t been hurtful. That’s not even to say that sometimes those things haven’t managed to stick a bit (as I transitioned to wear my hair naturally, I had to check myself about why my hair had come to matter to me so much, and admittedly I think a bit of it had to do with latent effects of colorism) but I didn’t have to learn to be okay with being dark. My color has never been something for me to overcome.
Maya K. Francis is a culture writer and communications strategy consultant. When not holding down the Black Girl Beat for VSB, she is a weekly columnist for Philadelphia Magazine's 'The Philly Post' and contributes to other digital publications including xoJane, Esquire, and EBONY.com. Sometimes TV and radio producers are crazy enough to let her talk on-air, and she helped write a book once. She cites her mother and Whitley Gilbert as inspirations.