I don’t know when it happened exactly, but one day, I was looking at television and it hit me: “Where are all the dark-skinned women?”
Even images of darker women that I grew up with such as Janet Hubert-Whitten, Lark Voorhies, Whitney Houston, Dawnn Lewis, etc., did not get as dark as I know the spectrum of black skin can reach. Such appearances of women the color of the woman I linked are extremely rare in my memory. But soon, even women qualifying as dark became so rare, its absence shook me. I was filled with the compulsive urge to look for them. On my one hand, I counted Gabrielle Union, whose age defying beauty has allowed her a wider range of roles. And then I drew a blank. And then I started to panic.
There seems to be a very conscious “color bar”, the new-age “paper bag test” that is applied to black women in the media. It is used to decide (1) if she gets to be visible at all (2) if she is visible, what her role is (a respected and sexually-appealing love interest or the side-kick/stereotype).
The truth is, you have women who are very lovely but are by no means dark-skinned, being paraded as the standard of black beauty. The irony of this is being lost on a lot of people: Why can’t truly dark-skinned African American women be held up to represent a skin tone that touches the word “black” much more closely and more realistically than many of the celebrated black beauties throughout history?
Has it ever bothered anyone else that you have to go through hell and high water to compile a list of truly dark-skinned women who were beloved as beautiful, fashionable, and desirable and widely known? The “trifecta” as I call Halle Berry, Beyonce, Rihanna, is readily thrown in the faces of persons who question the lack of consideration of black female beauty. And this hurts. It really does. I don’t think the persons who do this mean any harm. After all, these are all lovely women. But I feel like throwing the “trifecta” in the faces of persons who desire appreciation of black female beauty misses the point of the request.
Unlike the “color bar” applied in the media, where lighter and more “mixed” gets all the authentification, black girls come into the world all shades.
I try and imagine the pain and confusion of coming into a world a beautiful, nearly obsidian little girl and not seeing your image on television. You exist, so surely someone else who looks like you exists…right? The doll you play with isn’t even as dark as you are. You have no way of knowing that once upon a time, yes she was. You go to school and are bullied by children who call you everything from “blackie” to “tar baby” to whatever cruel colorist thing they can think of. You cry and wonder what’s wrong with you?
After all, there’s no one being held up for you to say, “She is dark and pretty like me, so it’s okay to be dark like I am”. This thinking is practically alien. Instead, every proud example in the media is lighter with “good hair”. Meanwhile you grow up being told time and time again that you are too dark to be loved, to be considered pretty, to date, to marry, to be seen in public with. And from people who proudly call themselves black. I try, but simply cannot imagine being a girl whose tone speaks the truth of this word and yet is ostracized and hidden away from appreciation and adoration. I cannot because I don’t have to: the ugliness of what I speak actually exists. It is a cancer that has yet to be purged, and for so long as persons deny its existence and how deeply rooted it is, the cycle of omission and colorist exclusion will remain. Meaning unknowing little black girls will continue to come into the world and pay the price.
From what I’ve seen, the truth is that black beauty, the darkest and most uncompromising kind of blackness in black women, has never been held to the standard as that of lighter-skinned women among African Americans. This absence should anguish all women who consider themselves black women, because it’s as if a piece of our souls have been ripped out. For so long as such women, such beauty is denied, we cannot be complete. The miracle of varying hues that make up our unique beauty cannot be whole. To cooperate with the “color bar” is to cooperate with one’s own incompletion as a black woman. You see, black beauty touches all shades. No matter how light, and no matter how dark. And yes, in the darkest shades of human color, there is a beauty that takes my breath away. I do not want to distance myself from it. I do not want to beg it to be lighter or more “Eurocentric” or “multi-ethnic” so that I can not be ashamed of it. I do not want to erase it from the Earth because of the false fear of inadequacy.
Instead, I want for black women of all shades to benefit from knowing that it is a blessing to have the darkest of dark women as part of your ethnic group. I want black women to not be encouraged to cling solely to the other end of the spectrum for validation. And to recognize that the urge to do so is wrong.
We must acknowledge and defend dark-skinned beauty, because when we collaborate with its omission, I feel we are hurting ourselves, no matter what our individual skin tone. You can blame white racism and white racists until you turn blue in the face. I choose to blame the conscious and unconscious cooperation with this racial hatred that have allowed so many black people to turn on these dark-skinned women and act as if their existence is a crime. You can only put so much ugly, intra-racial hatred on other people before you need to go to the mirror and take stock of who you are and what you have done to others.
In my mind, the appreciation of and acknowledgement (as natural, not exotic) of dark-skinned beauty is necessary. And I will not turn from it. I will do what I can in my mind and heart to embrace it. To fight and pray for the day when black women stop cooperating with its omission and start fighting tooth and nail for EVERYONE to be welcome under the banner of “Black is Beautiful”. Because until such day as this happens, that statement remains a hypocritical lie.