The 2013 documentary Dark Girls, directed by African-American filmmaker Bill Duke brought the conversation on colourism — discrimination based on complexion — within the black community to the fore.
In the film, dark-skinned girls candidly shared struggles with cultural beauty standards, which regard light skin more favourably than darker skin, and the effect on self-esteem.
The documentary started a world-wide movement that saw dark-skinned girls begin to assert themselves and challenge deep-seated white supremacist ideas within the black community that created social hierarchies based on skin colour, where the lighter you were, the prettier and more intelligent you were perceived to be and the darker you were, the ugly and more stupid you apparently were.
While the film was lauded for opening honest conversations about internalised racism among black people, it was also criticised for marginalising or negating the experience of light-skinned girls who felt that even if the black community still puts a high value on being light-skinned, things aren’t necessarily rosier higher up on the colour bar.
The film Light Girls aims to bring that conversation to that fore as well. Premiering on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network in the US on Monday night, the documentary featured ordinary light-skinned women and celebrities sharing their experiences.
The central narrative is that light-skinned women were also teased about their complexion. The interviewees shared how they were called snobbish, stuck-up or bourgeois, and accused of thinking they were white or better than everyone else and told, “Yellow-girl, you’re not black enough.”
As a dark-skinned woman, it’s easy to look at the other side and say, ‘Oh she’s light-skinned so she can’t possibly relate to my life experience because she can’t possibly have it as bad as I do
“At a young age, I was made to believe that something about how I looked like was somehow both special and yet disliked. Something to be embraced and/or feared,” says actress Cynthia McWilliams.
In another interview, singer Chanté Moore recalls kids throwing rocks at her or threatening to cut off one of ponytails because they thought she believed she was better than them.
Meanwhile, former The Cosby Show actress Raven-Symoné confessed how she used to go to a tanning salon three times a week during the filming of her series, That’s So Raven, in order to appear darker and to escape the jibes that she wasn’t black enough to claim a black identity.
Light-skinned girls in South Africa, colloquially called Yellowbones, echo the same narratives. . . Beauty assistant Lindi Mnintshana (30) says while her complexion was praised and she was told she resembled uboya be mbuzi (sheep skin), she was also teased.
When she spurned the advances of boys, they would say cruelly: “You think [you] ugeza ngo bisi (bath with milk)”. Lindi said she was also teased by girls in higher grades, so much so, that she would sit in the sun with foil trying to get a tan so as to be accepted. “I would burn my skin so badly that I couldn’t even bathe myself. My mother had to do it.”
Light-skinned 35-year-old journalist, Nomzamo* says while she was praised for her beautiful complexion, many would ask — most of the time, indelicately — why she was the only light-skinned one in a dark family. “There was also more than one derogatory comment, mostly in whispers, about my paternity.”
Public Relations Officer Tsholofelo Segage-Modise (28) says the attention she gets for her light skin also turns ugly at times. Once after rejecting the advances of a guy at a taxi rank, she was rewarded with the retort: “Sies, ha nkebe o le montsho, o kebe o le mobe” (If you were darker, you’d actually be ugly!)”
In the documentary, inspirational speaker Iyanla Vazant aknowledges that colourism has had a debilitating effect on both light-and dark-skinned women.
“I think the impact that colourism has had on young dark- and light-skinned girls leaves scars on the soul that live well into womanhood,” she says.
In a previous interview with DESTINY, ethnographer Yaba Blay said there are certainly disadvantages to being light-skinned that dark-skinned women don’t often want to deal with.
“When I did (1)ne drop: Shifting the Lens on Race (a multi-platform project which explored the potential disadvantages related with having light skin, particularly among people of African descent, such as racial ambiguity and contested racial authenticity) I had to look at the other side and acknowledge that there are people who are having a particular experience with their light skin that we can’t always reject because we assume that light-skin always comes with privilege,” Blay says.
“As a dark-skinned woman, it’s easy to look at the other side and say, ‘Oh she’s light-skinned so she can’t possibly relate to my life experience because she can’t possibly have it as bad as I do.”
Light Girls was met with praise, but also fierce criticism on social media with Twitter users saying it tried to turn light-skinned girls into victims, while they largely enjoyed advantages in society as a result of their complexion. Other users tweeted the documentary portrayed dark-skinned women as jealous, exacting revenge on light-skinned girls by taunting them.
— Toya M. Jones (@MsToya1913) January 20, 2015
Forgive me but I cannot have empathy for privileged #lightgirls. I’ll reserve my empathy for the people who suffer from your privilege.
— Bougie Black Girl (@BougieBlackGurl) January 20, 2015
— Angela Shortt (@angelfly72) January 20, 2015
so lets see. dark skin women are jealous bullies who hate on lightskin women and bleach their skin?? please. this doc was trash #LightGirls
— GOTH LORD (@WlZKHALlFA) January 20, 2015
We’ve come to the end of this #LightGirls documentary and the words “White Supremacy” have not been uttered. Everything invalidated.
— Jermaine Spradley (@MrSpradley) January 20, 2015
Can we stop pretending that light skinned people don’t have a privilege over dark skinned people. #LightGirls
— Black Power (@AfroQueen1993) January 20, 2015
#LightGirls Was yet another conversation where black people blame black people instead of the white patriotic system designed to oppress!
— DanielleMoodie-Mills (@DeeTwoCents) January 20, 2015
See a clip of documentary below, and share your thoughts with DESTINY.