Seeing the title felt like a bee’s sting. It was the posting of a preview of Bill Duke’s upcoming documentary discussing the issue of ‘intra-racism’ within the black community.
Immediately, I was 5 years old, then 10, then 15, and so on, as the visions played in my mind. My childhood and young adulthood is littered with memories of being taunted and teased, dissed and dismissed because of my dark brown skin. “She’s pretty, for a dark skinned girl”. “I think you’re beautiful, but I can’t bring a dark skinned girl home to my mother”. “Why can’t you be a nice cinnamon color like me?” “Don’t stay out in the sun too long, you can’t afford to get any blacker”. “You’re cute to be dark”. “You’re too dark, but at least you got good hair”. I have heard them all.
Inside myself, as well as in my outward demeanor, I carried the shame of feeling almost good enough, but just less than, for longer than I’d like to admit. I understand now that almost everyone has some physical trait that they were particularly self conscious about during their youth. Mine happened to be reinforced through movies, TV shows, and magazines that rarely showed and almost never glamorized, dark skinned women.
I found respite in my college years. Howard University for me was like an oasis celebrating black beauty. Among the group of friends I found myself attached to, my melanin was a gift. To chemically straighten our naturally coarse hair, was equivalent to spitting in Mother Nature’s eyes. Africa and the physical features inherited from her were a divine inheritance. I began to accept, then appreciate, then love my skin color. My graduation and release from my comfortable college sanctuary, saw me thrust into the dating scene of a young, brown, twenty-something in the city, and I was quickly reminded that there were plenty of black men who considered me un-dateable or, rather, un-sport-able in public or to their color-stricken friends and families.
Then, as I came closer to adulthood and my social circles expanded even more, my alliances came to be formed not just by blood or geography, but also by shared fields of interest or just plain old vibes. I discovered that my dark skin was almost envied by many of my “melanin challenged” friends. In their eyes, it was a form of beauty they could only dream of having. Most were completely baffled by the thought that it was once a source of so much pain and ridicule.
Most (but not all) of the racism I’ve encountered from white people and other groups has been that covert, undercover kind of ugliness. However, some of most blatantly hurtful, racist things that have ever been said to my face came from people who look a lot like me. Intra-racial bias is one of the hardest forms of racism to comprehend, as well as one of the most difficult forms to explain. I will probably be vilified by some for what a lot of black people consider “airing our dirty laundry”, but as I learn to stand in my own truth I feel strongly that if sharing my experience can help someone else feel like they are not alone, then it’s my duty to discuss it.
For black Americans, this whole issue stems from the separatism that was fostered, encouraged, and rewarded during slavery. Slaves who worked inside the home, who were often the biracial children of the masters’ themselves, received slightly better treatment and living conditions than those who toiled outdoors in the field. Most often being the product of forced breeding between masters and black slave women, many had lighter skin and straighter hair than the other slaves. The “us against them” mentality was born and it was beneficial, if not crucial to maintaining the slavery status quo. The supposed inferiority of black people was a necessary component in rationalizing the paradigm. The closer one was to being white, the better off they were believed to be.
Fast forward about 150 years and here we are.
So, thank you, Mr. Bill Duke for making this documentary. Let’s put it out there, start the dialogue, and let the healing begin.