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  • Leila E. Cole

Dissecting the Perception of Dark Skin

(Dark Girls, 2011, Duke Media and Urban Winter Entertainment)

Before even watching it, I was pretty certain “Dark Girls”, a documentary directed by D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke, would be triggering for me, solely by the way it’s titled. The opening scene takes me back to a younger me — who heard “you’re really pretty for a dark skin girl.” Like PTSD, it’s as though my brain, as a means of self preservation, pushed this deep down in my memory. Desperate to forget because of how real and raw the pain caused by words such as those were.

Interviewer: How do you feel when somebody says, "Oh, she's a pretty Black girl? What do you think? Do you like that word?"
Little girl: *shakes head* No.
Interviewer: Why?
Little girl: Because I don't like to be called black.
Interviewer: But why? Tell me why.
Little girl: Ummm (visibly uncomfortable). Because I'm not black.

(The first 46 seconds of the documentary, "Dark Girls.")

The little girl’s words at the beginning of the documentary hit me because I remember how much being called “black” hurt. And I don’t mean from a race perspective — I mean in terms of the color of my skin. How do you escape your very skin tone being weaponized against you? I live in my body, clothed by my own skin, before any t-shirt or pants.

I was born in Freetown, West Africa, and came to the U.S. from England, when I was 4 years old. I started the American school system from kindergarten, and had the absolute best experience until I changed schools ahead of the 3rd grade. I went from being blissfully unaware of race or color at a suburban school, to my first experiences with racism at an inner city, high tech elementary school in Yonkers. Similar to what Viola Davis shared in the film, the irony is that I experienced this from other Black kids; colorism, as the manifestation of racism. Colorism is a form of prejudice where lighter skin is favored over darker skin. Colorism decides your value based on your skin's proximity to whiteness; meaning, the lighter you are, the better. As Freire explains in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or “sub-oppressors” (Freire, 27). Certain groups within the race boost themselves up and make themselves feel better by putting down others. This division and lack of unity within the race is what white supremacy banks on — to see us turn on ourselves. The use of inherited physical characteristics to differentiate inner abilities and group value may be the cleverest way that a culture has ever devised to manage and maintain a caste system. “As a social and human division,” wrote the political scientist Andrew Hacker of the use of physical traits to form human categories, “it surpasses all others—even gender—in intensity and subordination” (Wilkerson, 20). I liken the ignorance of lighter skinned Black folk depicted in the film, to the mill worker Wilkerson described. With nobody else to ‘look down on,’ they regarded themselves as eminently superior to the Negro (Wilkerson, 25). Those first experiences with racism hit me like a ton of bricks, because I had never been exposed to that before. Why was the color of my skin a topic of conversation? It led to me being fixated on my skin tone — crossing my eyes so I could look down at my nose and compare the shade I saw with the people around me — to see if I was the darkest one in the room or not. Most times I was. And when I wasn’t, I felt just a little bit comforted. I had a family member tell me I was “black like tar,” and another comment about how black my joints were. I became cognizant of the fact that I was darker than my siblings; the youngest of 5. I wished I was lighter. I know colorism, I’ve looked it in the face. The throw away comments that kept being hurled at me started to fester and bred a deep insecurity that has only recently started to dissipate.

There is unlearning that has to happen. I realize that deeply. Unlearning that being dark-skinned somehow sets me apart. I had never heard of the brown paper bag test until now. It’s heartbreaking. The sense that beauty is that which is light, led me to bleach my skin from around the age of 9. My older cousin who was frequently at our apartment, had a bleach cream she would use to even her skin tone because she had discoloration on her face. When no one was looking, I would put some on my face. When I as old enough to go to the beauty supply store on my own, I’d buy my own bleaching cream. Trying all kinds of potent formulas. I’m embarrassed at the mere recollection of that, especially when I deconstruct where this all stems from societally. Colonization created a sense of superiority, and like the film explains, if you want to become more elevated in yourself, you aspire to this. The teasing in elementary school by the lighter Black kids made me feel like there was something wrong with my complexion, so I wanted to correct it. That feels so awful to say now.

Race is fluid and superficial, subject to periodic redefinition to meet the needs of the dominant case in what is now the United States. While the requirements to qualify as white have changed over the centuries, the fact of a dominant caste has remained constant from its inception— whoever fit the definition of white, at whatever point in history, was granted the legal rights and privileges of the dominant caste (Wilkerson, 19). Likewise, those within the supposed subordinate caste, who more closely resemble whites; including lighter-skinned Black people, sometimes look down on darker skinned individuals. Back in high school, I started crushing on my best friend who was in the grade ahead of me. He was Lebanese and Ghanian, but looked more Arabic. We got to a point where I thought we were going to be more than friends, only to find out that he was hanging out with another girl, from another school. She was white. Of course, my girl friends weren’t having him trying to play me, so they confronted him separately, on various occasions. He responded to one of them by saying, “I don’t date Black girls.” It felt like an absolute gut punch.

This periodic redefinition and fluidity is further exemplified in the way contemporary culture attempted to shift the narrative in years past, with expressions like, the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice or say it loud, “I’m Black and I’m proud.” The first saying is pretty cringe, given its pretty explicit sexual connotation. I’ve heard them both — used towards me and around me, respectively. I even used the latter with my younger cousin whose complexion is darker than mine, in an effort to empower him when we were kids. Its debatable who needed the affirmation more.



  1. Freire, Paulo. 2017. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Penguin Modern Classics. London, England: Penguin Classics, pg. 27.

  2. Wilkerson, Isabel. 2020. Caste. New Delhi, India: Allen Lane, pg. 20.

  3. Wilkerson, pg 25.

  4. Wilkerson, pg 19.


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