I knew very early on that my strand of black wasn’t exactly preferred or exalted. I’m chocolate-complexioned—or, to use the term that is most frequently used to describe my hue (much to my chagrin), dark-skinned.
Colorism. It’s arguably one of the most painful vestiges of slavery: society’s disproportionate preference for caramel-complexioned black women, and the insecurities that it has bestowed on women with dark-brown hues as a result.
But contrary to popular belief, it’s not a “black American thing.” There’s a global fascination and preference for fairer complexions. During a phone interview with The Root, film director and actor Bill Duke spoke about the research he did while preparing for his documentary Dark Girls, which he has now turned into a brilliant and powerful book. It was released this week, and Lupita Nyong’o is on the cover. Duke described how dark-brown men in India bleach their skin because they don’t want to be mistaken for a low-income Indian man who works in the fields.
The Dark Girls book features dozens of interviews with high-profile black women who share similar accounts of how they’ve had to contend with their chocolate complexions at some point in their lives. Author Sheila Moses interviewed the women and found that those who were under the age of 50 “did not have the same level of comfort” as older women like Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine. The Root spoke with Duke about the book and how colorism might affect people differently; the edited exchange is below:
The Root: As you raised money for the Dark Girls documentary and then developed the concept into a book, were there people who found the entire discussion and premise to be divisive and incendiary?
Bill Duke: Yes—a lot of people felt like this is something that we shouldn’t be exposing because it was our business—as they called it—and they wanted to know why was I exposing it to the general public.
The most poignant moment was during a screening of the documentary at the Apollo Theater, and an elderly black lady stood up during the Q&A portion and said, “Mr. Duke, thank you for making the film. I enjoyed it but I have to ask you this question: Why are you exposing our dirty laundry?”
And I said to her, “Ma’am, with all due respect, because it’s stinking up the house.” The fact of the matter is, there are young little girls that are suffering because of the color of their skin, and that has to be addressed.
TR: Did you ever think that we should stop using the term “dark skin” to describe chocolate complexions, since it seems to imply that white skin is the standard and the base complexion with which all other skin tones should be compared?
BD: The thing that I was addressing is not how we would like to be referred to but how we are actually perceived and how that perception is impacting beautiful girls that are brown-complected.
You either have a choice of titling it what you would prefer it to be, or titling it in terms of how it’s perceived in the world. I chose the latter.
TR: Is it your hope that Dark Girls will be given to and read by black boys and black men, too? What do you think that impact might be?