Dark Girls

I remember when I was a child, I saw Muhammad Ali denouncing the idea that there was something inherently physically unattractive about Black people. He said not to be misled by the caricature of Black appearance. He insisted that there were plenty of “sisters” with beautiful light complexions, small features, etc.

And I remember, even as a child, thinking there was something flawed about what he was saying. For in his way he was accepting the notion that being of a very dark complexion, having a wide nose, having big lips, etc. were unattractive; he was just pointing out that not all Black people look like that. But shouldn’t he, I thought to myself, have been disputing the very notion that stereotypical Black looks are inherently unattractive? Shouldn’t he be contending that the darkest people with the biggest facial features can be beautiful too?

Dark Girls is a documentary about prejudice against darker complexioned Black people, including and especially within the Black community itself.

Multiple interviewees talk about how it has actually been white people who have complimented them on their dark skin, when other Black people have thought less of them or shunned them due to their complexion. For many such people, the hurtful attitudes about their dark skin color that they have encountered have almost all come from other Black people.

Not that that excuses white people for the origin of the problem. But I don’t know that white people care much anymore about one’s specific shade of complexion. Leaving aside people who are so light that not everyone would know to identify them as Black, I think even most white racists don’t split hairs about someone being this dark or only that dark. Once they’ve identified someone as Black, they probably oppose them equally strongly regardless of such details. Whereas the distinction seems to still matter quite a lot to many Black people, or so I gathered from this film.

It’s interesting also that a preference for lighter skin doesn’t just apply about or among Black people. The film points out that in general lighter complexions tend to be preferred—in Africa, Korea, Thailand, etc.

Ironically, I’d say there’s a lot less evidence that there’s such a “lighter is always better” preference in the white community. Granted, Swedish blondes are sometimes held out as the ideal of female beauty and sexiness, but aren’t darker, Mediterranean types also thought of the same way? Aren’t Latina women and Italian women and the like regarded very favorably like that?

We’re shown footage from a study in which Black children were questioned about complexion. For example, a very young girl, maybe 5 or 6 years old and dark complexioned herself, is asked which of two figures, two drawings—identical except that one of them is visibly darker than the other—is more beautiful, more intelligent, nicer, etc., and she consistently chooses the lighter figure as having those positive attributes.

It’s heartbreaking in its way, obviously, but it’s also anecdotal. I’d like to know more about the study, and related evidence. Even if Black children tend to attribute more positive characteristics to lighter figures, how prevalent is that tendency? Do 95% of Black children pick the lighter figure, 3% pick the darker, and 2% express puzzlement because no reason has been provided to prefer either of them? Is it instead 54%, 44%, and 2%?

And how much does that factor matter, in their reactions? Is it only a tie-breaker when two figures are otherwise exactly the same? Do they also prefer tall over short, skinny over fat, male over female, smiling over not smiling, dressed this way over dressed that way, etc., and do they prefer those things even more? Like if they’re shown a tall dark figure and a short lighter figure, will they pick the tall dark figure because height matters most to them? Or does complexion trump everything else?

Insofar as you can determine such a thing, are they responding according to their own beliefs and attitudes, or trying to anticipate what the “right” answer is that’s expected? That is, I could see someone who doesn’t have a preference one way or the other about skin color believing that people in general, or at least the authority figures asking these questions, regard lighter as better and so answering that way.

By the way, it wasn’t always obvious to me which people in the film count as dark Black people and which count as light Black people. Like, someone might be interviewed and talk about how being dark has adversely affected their self-esteem and made their life worse (e.g., it’s been harder for them to date because even other Black people prefer to be with someone lighter, or they overheard as a child someone telling their parents that it was too bad their kid came out so dark, etc.), and I wouldn’t have been surprised if they instead had been remarking about how being a lighter Black person has been advantageous for them. That is, some of the people who self-identify as particularly dark, and evidently are treated as such by other Black people, don’t look all that dark to me.

There’s an intersection here with gender issues too, in that in general women are judged by their looks more than men are. It’s not absolute by a long shot; obviously it’s an advantage for a male to be considered attractive rather than unattractive. But I think looks are still a bigger factor for women. So if complexion somehow plays into how attractive or unattractive a person is deemed, I would think complexion affects women’s lives more than men’s lives.

Another thing to think about is whether “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” applies in this case. When whites alter their appearance to what is more conventionally associated with Black people (intentionally get a sun tan to look darker, wear their hair in African-style braids, etc.), should this be denounced as “cultural appropriation,” or should it be welcomed as implicitly sending a message the opposite of “Black is not beautiful” or “the darker the worse”?

What is beauty in the end, at least as it applies to human appearance? I doubt you can make much of a case that it’s objective, so does it just come down to convention? A person is beautiful if they are generally regarded as beautiful by people, and they are not beautiful if they are not so regarded? And if we tell someone who does not fit such conventional standards of beauty that she is in fact beautiful—for reasons of political correctness or out of a desire to make her feel better—are we basically lying to her (albeit from benevolent motives)?

Surely in the long run it would be better if people were trained to think of things like skin color as irrelevant. The film closes with various of the interviewees embracing their darkness, declaring that having a dark complexion makes them particularly beautiful, and in its way there’s something genuinely heartwarming and inspiring about that. But at another level there seems something off about such declarations.

Actually, I think it’s dubious to take pride in most cultural or group designations, like being proud to be African American, proud to be gay, proud to be Jewish, etc. Granted, I’d rather people feel good about such things than feel shame or self-loathing about them, but for the most part they’re just neutral facts, like being right-handed or left-handed, not something to feel good or bad about.

So a part of me says, “Yeah! Let’s encourage these folks to see their darkness as beautiful!” but probably a bigger part of me says, “This is just one of those exceedingly silly things that people pick out to judge each other—and themselves—by, where really they ought to just ignore such things as irrelevant.”

Dark Girls didn’t stand out to me as an unusually well done documentary. It’s mostly anecdotal—Black people being interviewed about their experiences being of a darker complexion, or other Black people being interviewed about what they think of people of a darker complexion—and as such I don’t know that it really is all that informative. But I found the topic at least modestly interesting, and it inspired me to think more about certain issues. I think on the whole it’s worth seeing.

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