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?
BD: The book will hopefully display the beauty of our women—particularly and specifically our dark-skinned women. Young boys and men will see a book that portrays dark-skinned women that are successful, have power, have given back to the community and are leaders. Hopefully that will impact their vision, understanding and respect for dark-skinned women.
I also think that the book is attempting to be a tool for young people so that they understand that whatever is said negative about women of dark complexions is a lie.
It is meant to encourage. Young black girls can show it to those people that describe them as anything less than beautiful.
TR: It seems brown-complected men and women have similar insecurities about their complexions, but gender can play a significant role in people’s experiences. There’s the idea that dark men have an easier time than women. How might each of their journeys to self-acceptance and self-love differ?
BD: Women are sold these standards of beauty that are established by the beauty business. They try to live up to those standards, but they can never meet them because every time they meet a standard, the beauty business changes the standard in order to sell more product.
But pain is pain. You can’t compare pain. Black women go through horrific things because of the shade of their skin, but how can I compare their pain to my pain?
I didn’t go to my prom because when I was growing up, the pretty boys got the dates. They had light skin, “good hair” and light eyes. I couldn’t get a date to my senior prom because I was 6 feet, very dark-complected and … not considered handsome at that time. To compare pain, I think, is a useless effort.
TR: In the book, you wrote a preface describing your own experiences as a dark black man, but that sort of revelation is rare among men. Why do you think chocolate-complexioned men don’t seem to carry the same burdens about their skin tones that their female counterparts do? Or maybe men do, but they’re not as vocal about their insecurities?
BD: Men are not vocal about their insecurities because we are taught to hide our pain. If you show your feelings or pain, you’re considered weak or, as they used to call it in the old days, a sissy.
This is why we die of cancer and ulcers and those kinds of diseases because we are not encouraged to show our pain. Unless you have a woman in your life that understands that you’re a human being also.
TR: You directed Sister Act 2, and I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the film’s two leading ladies—Whoopi Goldberg and, at that point, a newcomer to the big screen, Lauryn Hill, both chocolate-complexioned women—were cast in those roles. When thinking about your career, do you think you had an ulterior motive to give opportunities to dark-brown actresses who were perhaps being overlooked by Hollywood casting agents?
BD: Yes. I wanted to be able to—well, I’m not choosing people based on their color. But if they’re equally talented, I definitely wanted to make sure that they were not denied the opportunity because of the color of their skin.
I wanted to let people know that these people are beautiful also.
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features expert advice for TV and film’s most complex characters. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.