Coffee Rhetoric: 'Light Girls' - The Good, The Bad, & The Cringeworthy

January 23, 2015

'Light Girls' - The Good, The Bad, & The Cringeworthy

Curious, but skeptical, I decided to turn to the OWN network on Monday night and watch the premiere of Bill Duke’s second documentary on colorism Light Girls, a follow up to Dark Girls—which explored the marginalization and ridicule darker complexioned Black women face. 
Light Girls continued the ongoing discussion about intraracial discrimination and presented personal anecdotes from more than 200 people on the opposite (most preferred) end of the complexion panorama; interviews with lighter- skinned Black and biracial (half-Black) women, including TV journalist Soledad O’Brien, actress Raven-SymonĂ©, glamour model Amber Rose, and “image activist” Michaela Angela Davis, among others.
Since intraracial discussions about colorism—much like discussions between Black and white people about racism—seem to breed denial, cognitive dissonance and sow the seeds of discontent, I was reluctant about tuning in. Alas, curiosity got the upper hand and I had already watched Dark Girls, so I thought it only fitting that I check it out. I decided to table Sleepy Hollow until later and dove in, not knowing what to expect. Needless to say, there were several moments during the course of watching Light Girls that made me heavy-sigh in frustration.
Much like the first installment, Light Girls mostly grazed the surface of a very multilayered and often contentious issue, and focused on the more superficial arguments surrounding colorism; which is often the case with documentaries--often produced and directed by men--exploring Black female body and beauty politics (see: Chris Rock's Good Hair). 

Light Girls started off okay, presented noteworthy opinions from some of the more informed interviewees, and offered a bit of historical context (than was offered in Dark Girls) into how violently oppressive plantation politics and anti-Black Jim Crow laws cultivated colorism; but without explicitly saying the words: white supremacy; as was the case in Duke's first exploration into the topic. 
As Iyanla Vanzant noted, generations of Black folks have had their value placed on them based on skin tone and hair texture, and it has left scars... the wounds so gaping, that it prompted some Black people to pass and assimilate into whiteness; so gaping, that it informs the way the criminal justice system prosecutes light-skinned female offenders vs. the way darker-skinned female offenders are treated; and so gaping, that it also factors into how young girls are disciplined in school.
Not to mention, mass media and the entertainment industry reminds Black women every day that we won't pass muster if we're inhabiting skin or "less classically beautiful" features darker and more African-looking than level Halle Berry.

I also found it a bit perplexing that a few of the interviewees who bemoaned the tribulations of having a lighter hue (such as actress Tatyana Ali), were not visibly light-skinned and were as brown as I am. So those narratives left me feeling a bit lost... until I finally chalked it up to them, perhaps, associating their more angular features and softer hair textures with attributes most commonly associated with Black and/or biracial women with lighter-complexions.
While Light Girls meant well, and touched on some crucial points about history and the havoc white supremacy has wreaked on Black people; the more problematic and awkward moments engulfed the documentary. There’s much to parse, but these were some of the things that stuck under my craw the most…
  • How often the burden of possessing light skin/biracial privilege was projected onto monoracial and darker skinned Black women via statements like: “I always felt the need to overcompensate by acting ‘stereotypically’ Black.’” Apparently dialing up the volume on the Black-o-meter is meant to quiet the perceived insecurities dark-skinned people allegedly have while in the company of light-skinned folks, lest dark-skinned people fly into a violent and jealous rage. I have more to say about this indictment, but will just leave it at this.

  • I found the cursory inclusion of an albino Black woman’s narrative—without any profundity to her story—to be extremely misplaced. Not because I think Black people with albinism aren't ostracized or worthy enough to be heard, but because it had little to do with the dismantling of light skin privilege; and light-skinned and biracial Black people don’t suffer the same type of persecution those with albinism do. Including this woman’s story in a documentary about colorism seemed disingenuous and random, and it trivialized her lived experience.

  • Comments about colorism being ‘even more damaging’ than racism, without acknowledging how white supremacy/colonialism inculcates the way Black folks— particularly Black and brown men—internalize the message when they’re spouting off about their dating “preferences.” And the men guzzling the most Kool-Aid tend to be dark-skinned themselves.

  • I noted, and groaned, at how often light skin was equated to automatic prettiness courtesy of frivolous testimonies: "I went to a really bad elementary school,’ recounted comedienne Hope Flood, “and this Black girl… she was Blaaack and had real short hair, and I was beautiful, and light skinned, and had long, pretty sandy-colored hair…” 

  • Most egregious and irresponsible was when a woman named Onyxx Monopoly said (without shame or regard for other survivors) that light-skinned women and girls are more susceptible to being preyed on by sexual predators and street harassment than dark-skinned women and girls. Just... no.
While Bill Duke’s examination of colorism professes to be about the experiences of Black women, both documentaries relied too heavily on the opinions of the very segment of Black men who are complicit in pedastling lighter-skinned and white women, and who often ridicule and gas-light dark-skinned Black women about this issue. And, of course, they were in top form, reciting pages from The Book of Ash to the letter; a veritable round-table of Black men using the ubiquitous car analogy to describe women and mmm-mmm-mmm about why light-skinned women ‘stand out.'
  • An actor named Gary “G-Thang” Johnson and a Black comedian named James “Talent” Harris said they found dark-skinned women were more tolerable because of their willingness to “get their hands dirty” and be overly accommodating mules ... presumably in service to undeserving, sexist, and opportunistic Black men too lazy to get their own theater snacks: A lot is handed to, and given to, and expected by the pretty light-skinned woman, as opposed to dark-skinned women. …When I’m hanging out with them or we’re doing dinner or we’re doing the movies, I see a light-skinned woman ain’t getting up to go get me no popcorn…”, said Harris. 

    • Lastly, and most interesting, was when light-skinned/biracial actresses purported that they'd been overlooked for jobs by casting directors in favor of darker-skinned actresses; which is news to me since that's not typically the norm in Hollywood and there only seems to be room for one dark-skinned It Girl at a time; while lighter-skinned and racially ambiguous looking Black actresses not only serve as the standard for Black beauty, but continue to be in demand for plum roles talented dark-skinned actresses are ideal for, but are often shut out from. So this particular whinge sounded like light-skinned entitlement.
    I mean... Light Girls tried, but despite intermittent moments of earnestness and self-awareness—particularly from Soledad O’Brien —it just didn't contribute anything profound to the discourse save for the light-skinned/biracial tears of women who didn't want to admit that, despite some hardships, they essentially benefited from color privilege; and who seemed more interested in vilifying dark-skinned women as violent, irrational,  jealous and ugly. And I say this while not meaning to sound like I’m being indifferent to these women’s lived experiences. 

    And as far as some of the male experts who thought they were offering substantive feedback go, there are a slew of experts—namely Black women —who've put in work researching the effects of colorism on diasporic communities, who could have offered their scholarship and contributed something of substance to the conversation. Dr. Yaba Blay has written and spoken extensively on the topic, and could have offered a more nuanced analysis; not to mention her ‘Pretty Period’ campaign. I would have much rather seen her weigh in than Iyanla Vanzant or Farrah Gray, to be quite honest.
    Needless to say, I didn't go into Light Girls with any grandiose expectations. But it definitely further illustrates the need for Black women to be at the helm of relaying our own stories. It also reiterates how we’ll never be able to have an honest discussion about the trauma of colorism and the privileges of those who're at the top of the color hierarchy, if most Black folks aren't even comfortable enough to name the very impetus to colorism and how some of us emphatically uphold the division ... and I mean an honest discussion without referencing a mythological letter or resorting to trite platitudes. 

    Bill Duke tried but, much like Dark Girls, this was a resounding ‘not really’ for me. Both played out like the "Good and Bad Hair" song and dance scene from School Daze... B
    ut maybe I'm just a jaded brown-skinned woman waiting for part 3... Brown Girls: Adrift at Sea