Dark Girls: Mixed Emotions

Tonight Ashuwada is hosting a movie and discussion night, presenting the critically acclaimed documentary Dark Girls to a very diverse crowd… And I can’t wait!

In this 2011 little over an hour production, filmmakers Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry try to unpack the racist hierarchy that exists within black culture and its impact on women with darker skin. A daunting task…

You see, if colourism is a trending topic nowadays, it wasn’t so in 2011. Nor was it when the documentary premiered on the OWN network two years after its original release. Needless to say, the filmmakers played a big part in opening the much needed dialogue on colourism.

However, after rewatching the documentary a couple of days ago, I was left with this feeling of wanting more, so much more. Trying to explain that while racism affects everyone, it affects each group, each person differently and that at the bottom of the ladder you have dark girls… in an hour?

To tackle the issue the documentary is divided into small parts: history, family, romantic relationships, the billion dollar skin bleaching industry, the media and colourism around the world. After a series of well-chosen images rooting colourism in slavery, black women recount their experiences while their stories are supported by explanations of experts such as psychologists, historians, social workers, actors and comedians. Yet this is done in such a way that at first glance, the film seems more like a display of dark-skinned black women and girls balling their eyes out trying to convey their reality of constant marginalization, objectification and rejection not just from white people but also directly from the black community and which understandably translates into inherent feelings of inferiority.

But still … I left with this feeling of “too little” (too late?). Do we need more of this Satoshi Kanazawa b.s. and the woe is me, please cry for me, the unattractive, can’t find a mate, rhetoric? Isn’t it time to uplift and empower as opposed to victimize?

And this is exactly the kind of backlash that the documentary received when it was first released. It had some light-skinned women crying foul for being overlooked and other black women criticizing the fact that two of the commentators were white men dating dark-skinned women.

That’s when I had to take a step back and look again at the value of the “Dark Girls” documentary. It’s not about victimizing but rather giving a voice to a part of society that more often than not no longer even needs to be told to be quiet because colourism has been so internalized.

Why it is that one group giving its perspective is seen as an attack on the other? The hardships of dark-skinned women don’t take away from the also all too real hardships of light-skinned women. Bill Duke eventually produced a second documentary called “Light Girls”, which attempted to show the flip side, colourism through the perspective of light-skinned girls. This “my pain is stronger than yours” simply further shows how deeply rooted colourism is in our community. And why has colourism been reduced to a dark vs light issue? How about all the hues in between? Do we actually think that these women are not affected by colourism? And why oh why do we keep on thinking colourism or racism for that matter is only a black issue?

How can we ask white people to understand racism but then cry foul when those that do try to do something about it? How can we understand the impact of slavery on black people so well explained and unpacked by Dr Joy DeGruy’s PTSS theory but refuse to see the impact that years of cognitive dissonance has had on white people? It’s not about excusing or justifying the behaviour, but rather understanding it. Until we are willing to honestly look at that side of slavery, we cannot expect to heal from colourism.

That is the beauty of “Dark Girls”. Though the documentary tried to back all its findings by experts, it understood that colourism is first and foremost visceral. Therefore the experts (and yes, some of them white) were there to support these women’s testimonies and not theorize them.

Although I wish a bit more emphasis had been given to unveil the historical and systemic forces that sustain colourism, I am glad the filmmakers didn’t lose their focus of giving a voice to dark girls. You can only ask so much of an independently produced and funded one hour production.

If anything I feel where “Dark Girls” missed the mark is by basing its analysis in the patriarchal paradigm. As Kimberlé Crenshaw has tried to explain time and again, you cannot understand the experience of the black woman without understanding the interactions between the concepts of black and woman reinforcing one another. So much emphasis was put in the documentary on the need of dark-skinned black women to be validated by black men yet it wasn’t seen as an issue in itself, but almost as an answer.

“Dark Girls” may not be the panacea, but bringing a subject so taboo to light to the point where colourism is nowadays a trending topic… Bravo!


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