It’s Hard Out Here for a ‘Redbone’: What Light Girls Gets Wrong … and Right

The documentary from Bill Duke, which premiered Monday on OWN, has some powerful representations of how colorism affects light-skinned women, but it misses some opportunities, too.

OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network
OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network

Listening to light-skinned black women talk about colorism is, for some people, comparable to listening to white people talk about racism: like nails on a chalkboard, or Charlie Brown’s teacher.

Unfortunately, some aspects of Light Girlsthe problematic Bill Duke-produced documentary that premiered Monday night on OWN—probably did nothing to disabuse them of that notion.

Without question, Light Girls had some extraordinarily powerful segments. From classifying the Jim Crow era as “homeland terrorism” to explaining that “black women have been cultured to compare, not connect,” Michaela Angela Davis broke it down so that it will forever and consistently be broke. I was surprised at how much some of the painful, personal narratives, such as that of Essence Atkins, mirrored my own, and I appreciate and respect these sisters for bravely telling their stories—no doubt well aware of the pushback they would receive.

But despite its best intentions, it didn’t take long for the documentary to go left.

Though Soledad O’Brien clearly acknowledged that her color privilege has benefited her professionally, that kind of self-interrogation was rare in Light Girls. Dark-skinned black women experience systemic oppression in ways that light-skinned black women never will, and opting not to take an honest look at that was arguably a glaring omission. A 2007 Harvard study, “The Skin Color Paradox and the American Racial Order,” presented statistics that prove the point: “Dark-skinned Blacks in the United States have lower socioeconomic status, more punitive relationships with the criminal justice system, diminished prestige, and less likelihood of holding elective office compared with their lighter counterparts.”

Further, by virtue of skin color alone, light-skinned black women have access to better health care outcomes than dark-skinned black women.

Light Girls wasn’t that conversation, though it could have been; many will say that it should have been. But it wasn’t. This was supposed to be a two-hour safety zone for light-skinned black women to talk about how they are often ostracized and bullied because of their skin color—yes, by some dark-skinned women. It was supposed to be a space of understanding, healing and reconciliation. But instead we got a documentary that too often was guilty of perpetuating the same dangerous stereotypes it was supposed to combat.

There was Aida Rodriguez, who said that she was “Marilyn McCoo on the outside and Florida Evans on the inside,” reinforcing the trope of the angry, loud black woman via a dark-skinned character who is the antithesis of all those things.

There was Onyxx Monopoly, who said she believes that light-skinned black women are sexually assaulted at higher rates. In fact, studies have shown that injuries dark-skinned black women receive during rape are less likely to be recognized as such by medical professionals—thus, they are least likely to receive justice in a court of law.

There were some clearly brown-skinned black women, including Tatyana Ali and Andromeda Turre, who identified as light-skinned, which made me question the underlying racial politics of self-identification. The embodiment of European beauty standards—straight nose, thin lips, smooth hair, light eyes or a combination of those features-—is what was really meant by “light girls,” and that’s telling in and of itself.