Mighty Life List
Sep 7 2011

Our Skin

I’ve been following the comments on my link to the Dark Girls documentary over the last few days, and it has been an education for me. Excerpts from a few comments that I thought deserved more attention.

“…When I came to college, I was able to learn more about the history of Africa and learn about where my family comes from. I didn’t meet black guys who were interested in me which I thought came from me not being involved in a black sorority or in the Black Student Union. When I started to interact with other black students through work and volunteering, I still felt very separated from the “traditionally black” groups. Save for black girls with real (meaning really close) roots in Africa or the Caribbean (a girl whose parents are from Senegal and another whose roots are Native American and Haitian have been two friends I’ve made in the past four years) I’m dismissed by other black girls, too.

I feel guilty saying that it’s because of my dark skin color, because that discounts the fact that maybe I’m an awful person (and maybe I am!) or maybe our personalities don’t sync up. But, I’ve seen girls and boys who have ignored me in African American and African Studies classes excitedly interact with groups of friends I have who run the gambit in personalities but who represent the whitest end of the color spectrum. So, in four years, I’ve learned to draw conclusions.

It’s complicated and it’s a big deal, as evidenced by the little girl in the video who sees race as an indicator of intelligence and beauty, so it’s really hard for me to draw conclusions outside of the ones that I’ve made for myself.

It sounds so trite and Dove campaign-y but I love my skin. In my skin I see my grandmother, a woman I’ve only known in pictures; I see the skin of my ancestors, whom I’ve never seen but who I know looked like me. I see history and I am so lucky to be able to carry that around with me.” -Beatrice

“[On my camera,] I use the ‘lighter skin tone’ setting and flash, sickened by my preference for a lighter me…

The girl I babysit, a sweet, Caucasian girl of age seven, asked the other day, “Do you like having brown skin?”

I stuttered and said something along the lines of, “I guess,” ashamed that I was ashamed of something so natural and uncontrollable as the color of my skin, hating myself for hating myself.” From “Let us be colorful, darling” a post by Lamisa

“…I am Indian. My mother was light/fair skinned and my father was dark skinned. I inherited my father’s darker tones. My mother would scold me constantly for being in the sun and hated when I looked dark. She had stupid creams on me when I was little that would blister and burn my skin.” -Calypso

“You know what’s crazy? That a lot of white girls spend a ton of time and money trying to make their skin darker… Understand: I am in no way trying to say that it’s the same thing as the experience of dark-skinned women… But it just struck me, why are we all programmed to want to be different from how we are?” -Amy

“Wow…unfortunately, this brings back sad memories for me. As a dark skinned African American woman I too heard these comments throughout my life. My saving grace was my beloved grandfather who told me every day that I was beautiful and special and a gift from God. Because of his counter attack on all the negative comments, I grew to love my brown skin. Just goes to show that love can wipe away a multitude of sins.” -Dar

14 Responses to “Our Skin”

  • Melissa Says:

    Goodness. I am completely befuddled over here. Stupidly, I had no idea that this was even a problem and now I’m so surprised at reading some of the comments. Maybe for me this is a “grass is always greener” kind of thing because I’m white (very pale) and I’ve always thought that dark skin was beautiful. As a kid I would look at my friends with dark skin or at my one camp counselor in particular who was very dark and I would think that they were so beautiful. I just loved the color of their skin. It was so different from my own. I’m an adult now but this thought never changed…

  • Yatima Says:

    There’s a fantastic article in The Stranger about white anti-racism in Seattle:

    http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/deeply-embarrassed-white-people-talk-awkwardly-about-race/Content?oid=9747101

    I especially loved this line:

    “So one answer to the question What can I do? is simple: Listen. Believe.”

  • famousamy Says:

    My heart truly breaks for anyone made to feel lesser than anyone else because of their skin tone.

    I am one of the palest people I know and the views of Sal from the “Already Pretty” blog mimick how I feel about tanning. It’s an interesting read and can be found here: http://www.alreadypretty.com/2011/05/on-paleness.html

    I think it’s not as political and hurtful as what the dark girls video presents, but I have felt the same kind of shame when people have told me I need to get some color on my skin. And I’m working hard to show my kids that it’s not shameful to be who you are. It’s beautiful. And so are they. And so am I.

  • heather Says:

    As a white mother of an adopted black daughter I’ve spent the last (almost) four years getting a sped up education of African American issues. I’ve learned how to do her hair – which can sometimes be a challenge, but one that I enjoy. I also hear comments from my black friends about how lucky she is to have beautiful skin, and how I should not let her be out in the sun, so she won’t get darker, etc. When I was a child I was constantly teased for my very pale skin. It seems that no matter who you are, you’re never good enough.

    Every day I tell my daughter how much I love her beautiful brown skin, how smart and funny and caring she is. I know I cannot protect her from what the rest of the world thinks, but I can do my part to make sure she knows how wonderful she is.

  • poptart Says:

    In response to ‘You know what’s crazy’: My grandmother grew up in the 30′s and it was embarrassing for her was to have a tan, it meant you were a farmer and had to be in the sun. We as women are never happy with what we have been given and we need to learn to be.

  • Zooey Says:

    I’m really learning from all the comments and stories people are telling over the last two posts; thanks everyone for sharing. Thought I’d throw in my story to the “it happens in all cultures” pool:

    I grew up in a mixed race family and was teased through primary school (I was in the British system) because I wasn’t the right colour, in this case milky brown. I am very fair for Asian standards, and all through school the kids would call me anything that was a variation on white — flour, sugar, etc. It doesn’t sound jeery in English, but trust me in the local language it was. Plus, kids have the special ability to make even the most normal words sound annoying if they want to.

    Anyway, because of this I have always been aware of race along the lines of skin colour since I was very little. People would befriend me or otherwise, or let me go on the slides at the playground or otherwise, depending on the colour of our skin. I was perceived as ethnically different and always felt like an outsider even though I spoke the language and grew up in the culture.

    When I got older people would jokingly call me white girl because I could never tan and just turned lobster red. Boys now saw me as a fair exotic fruit, special from the other darker girls. When I visit relatives in Indonesia, I am perceived to be upper class because I’m so fair (darker-skinned people were presumably darker because they’re out toiling in the sun all day), and get preferential treatment. It’s all very frustrating and ridiculous how perception changes everything.

    The heart-breaking thing about that video with the little girl is that it’s true — we learn racial codes and patterns of thinking very early on. In my experience, skin colour not only made me aware of race and racism, but issues of social class as well. Who was smarter, more beautiful, richer, or came from a better family — these all had bearing on how dark or fair you are. I am glad to say that my experience with racism made me stronger; it hurt and was/is bewildering, but it taught me valuable lessons about what really mattered.

  • Karin Says:

    The last paragraph in Beatrice’s comment gave me chills : “In my skin I see my grandmother, a woman I’ve only known in pictures; I see the skin of my ancestors, whom I’ve never seen but who I know looked like me. I see history and I am so lucky to be able to carry that around with me.”

    Reading it made me think about the history I carry in my skin, of Viking women conditioned to the brutalities of the climate and their culture.
    This then made me think of our shared histories as women — of our phenomenal abilities and the continued discrimination towards us, whether sickeningly overt or subtle and paralyzing.

    It makes me sad that we are not better able to celebrate _each other_, at the very least, regardless of color, and instead perpetuate the myths of “beauty” and “goodness”.
    I think we need to learn how to be nicer to ourselves, as individuals and as a gender.

  • Kate S. Says:

    I watched the documentary clip the other day and read all the comments that were posted then. I, and my husband, were both surprised to learn that dark skin is a stigma in the black community. We knew it was prevalent in Indian and Asian communities and, in retrospect, perhaps that should have clued us in that it was just as common among blacks. I find it disheartening. I’ve always thought truly dark-skinned women are the most beautiful.

    But as one of your posted comments suggests, this isn’t just a problem among people of color. It’s just as common among white women, who constantly strive to be darker! I long ago embraced my blue-white Irish skin and I don’t tan, at all, and you wouldn’t believe the comments people–strangers!–feel comfortable making about my skin. It doesn’t bother me in the least, I love that my skin is so pale, but clearly there is a stigma in the white community as well, suggesting we should all strive for some not-too-dark, not-too-light skin tone. It’s absurd.

  • Sheri Bheri Says:

    When I first saw the clip, my first thought was “So? We all get that in some way or another.” Meaning, not white enough, too white, too old, too freckly, not freckly enough, crooked teeth, not-white-enough teeth ect. (I was horrified when my 6 y/o looked at herself in the mirror and said “I don’t think my teeth are white enough”.)

    BUT then I thought about it more, yes we are all bombarded with these ideas by the media, but these women have been bombarded by their OWN mothers / friends / People!

    And that’s soul-shaking.

  • Yong Kim Says:

    Unfortunately, this skin-shade innerracial discrimination is also prevalent among the Asian cultures: the dark-skinned are lower class with “farming” background while the light-skinned are considered higher-class with royal courts background.

  • Donnell Says:

    I am light skinned. Very light skinned. I have the “unfortunate” skin that burns if anyone even mentions the word “sun.” I turn “beet red” if I am the tiniest bit hot or embarrassed or have had a drop of alcohol. I have always envied people with skin darker than mine. Any shade darker. I try to be accepting of my skin color but it can be very frustrating to not be able to go and do as I please whenever I please because I burn so easily.

    I am a teacher. My students do not feel any need to NOT mention how red I get when it’s hot or I get irritated about something. My skin gives me away even when I don’t say anything in redirection of a behavior that is bothersome. I just shrug it off and keep going but sometimes it bothers me later.

    I have students of so many different colors but i have noticed that sometimes those with dark skin pick on those with darker skin. Often times they will use the work “burnt.” I make a point of disciplining them and taking the insulted student aside to reassure them. I hope that it is helping.

  • Becky M. Says:

    What appalls me most is that racism still exists in this form.

    What appalls me second most is that it is perpetuated by our own mothers.

    And that it is perpetuated by people who WOULD love us for exactly who we are, except that they’re afraid to look past what their friends/community/society wants them to see.

    Please give us something to DO about it. Watching a movie and ‘being aware’ is not enough for me.

  • Amara Says:

    There’s this same problem in my African community. Very light-skinned women get called fond, joking nicknames like “ada bekee” (white daughter), while dark-skinned women are often likened to “charcoal” – jokingly, the speaker will always add defensively. This is coupled with traditional standoffish attitudes toward Western society’s cultures, which resulted in a confusing mindset for a lot of us first-generation Americans. The accepted formula seems to be African-ness tinged with “whiteness”; fairness taken past an undefined extent starts to elicit resentment or suspicion.

    Nevertheless, you see a lot of aunties with palms permanently bleached two shades lighter than the rest of their hands from constant application to their face. These same aunties push the special creams and soap bars, unsurprisingly, on the girls with dark, medium or light tones. The silent conclusion amounts to: the very dark skinned girls are beyond “help,” while the rest still have the chance to become even lighter, fairer, prettier, better.

    It’s like the dissatisfaction is itself a caustic bleach; with each application of rhetoric, we inwardly admit that we are wrong, requiring this act of correction. We burn each others’ skin until the burning and erosion of pigment becomes matter-of-fact, like a necessary medicine we all have to take until one day, maybe we get “better.”

  • Steph Says:

    Maggie, this is (perhaps only) tangentially related — a black woman posts her profile with a photo of a white woman on a dating site and compares responses to their otherwise identical profiles: http://blog.kiamatthews.com/post/331277005

    It’s very interesting and informative.