I hesitated to write this. I really did. I wrote about this topic a decade ago and it inspired me to create a short documentary (Colour Me Bad: Third Coast Hip Hop) for my senior thesis in college. At the time, I thought my passionate guerilla film had the power to really change the hip hop game. It, after all, followed what I perceived to be a life altering conversation one night in Miami, between me and a man who was the color of an unlit sky.

It was during spring break. My skin shimmered as I shimmied out of a very popular night club. My friend and I were attempting to catch a cab back home, but I caught the eye of a complex man instead. He drove up speaking in a southern accent that was as thick as Florida moss. He flirted and offered to give us a ride. I agreed only because his eyes were honest. After we reached our destination, he and I stayed in the car talking for hours. As a Texan, attending college in New York, I told him the story of how I’d arrived at school almost exactly two weeks before September 11th. He told me about his experiences growing up with a Dominican mother and a Haitian father. We talked about hip hop, Malcolm X, and my beauty.

He seemed to be enamored by little ol’ me.  His eyebrows danced every time I smiled and he wrapped me with compliments. “Damn you pretty. I mean, you’re real pretty.” I blushed purple. After all, he was handsome and charismatic. I thought about our future and visualized us having beautiful brown babies, until the ghost of Jack Johnson, and the spirit of Uncle Ruckus, Kanye, ASAP Rocky, and Lil Wayne, slid into the driver’s seat and proclaimed, 

“I am not usually attracted to dark skin girls, but you’re different.”

Now before I go into what happened next, I want to clarify something. I don’t feel overwhelmed by the number of people who tell me I am pretty for a dark skin girl, because frankly, those numbers are very low. I have been fortunate to not receive too many half compliments, so I asked him to repeat himself.  

He tried to explain, “I don’t see that many dark skin women who are attractive here. You’re different.” I objected. “This is Miami! The sun kisses island girls differently. I see gorgeous dark skin women everywhere.”

He looked confused. Why couldn’t my black ass just take the compliment?  I could tell that he was growing annoyed, but I refused to sit back and just be pretty. I challenged him to tell the truth and stop criticizing dark girls because he wasn’t ready to acknowledge his own insecurities.

I continued to investigate. “Why can’t you recognize the full range of beauty here? How is it possible for you to not see them when they’re all around you?” He took one soulful breath and mumbled, “I’m not attracted to dark skin women like that because…I mean…I guess because I’m so Black.”  I didn’t want to give him an opportunity to take those words back, so I made the sound of a ringing bell and thanked him for keeping it real. Afterwards, we sat in an uncomfortable silence, until the desire for deep sleep moved me out of his car.

The Color Complex is defined as “a psychological fixation about color and features that leads Blacks to discriminate against each other.” (The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color among African Americans/ Russell, Wilson, Hall 1992.) I become exhausted just thinking about the ways in which it continues to be discussed in our society and framed in the media. Based on what you read on popular blogs, one would think colorism is a dark skin woman’s disease.  

Because we live in a racist and patriarchal society, some of our black men have become experts at masking their pain by buying the biggest house, the most expensive car, and the lightest woman.  Bless their broken hearts.

The notion of white supremacy continues to haunt all of us centuries after slavery was “abolished” and unfortunately, many American classrooms are the perfect breeding ground for self hate. As a performing and teaching artist, I’ve witnessed numerous dark boys being teased because of their skin tone. If their parents couldn’t afford to get them a fresh haircut, then they got it even worse. Being “too black and nappy headed” was downright shameful! Light skin boys with a softer curl pattern, had the power to turn little girls into mush. Unfortunately, my culturally affirming curriculum which emphasized the brilliance, beauty, and gifts of all my students, was only a band aid for most of them.

Boys who grow up to personify the pulp fiction trope of “tall, dark and handsome” are often desired and even considered “eye candy” , but this does not always erase childhood wounds or insecurities. Many move through the world feeling like their blackness is an ugly stain.

I am reminded of a man who once asked me out on a date in Brooklyn. He had features similar to Tupac and I playfully called him a “pretty boy.” He looked defeated and spent several minutes trying to convince me that dark skin guys couldn’t be “pretty.” He wasn’t hyper masculine and this wasn’t an attack on his ego, he simply didn’t understand how I could find him that beautiful.

Or the time I went to see the legendary Bill Duke give a talk about his film Dark Girls.  The energy in the room was suffocating. How could this very dark man talk extensively about the insecurities of dark girls without acknowledging his own trauma and self-esteem issues? I raised my hand and asked him about this. Mr. Bill Duke stared blankly at me and promptly took the next question.

Lack of confidence doesn’t just fall on dark shoulders; there are light skin men who suffer in silence too. My first love was an Afro Cubano from the dirty south, who straightened his naturally curly hair and got it braided because he didn’t want to look “pretty” or soft. He was a “yella nigga” who tattooed his face blue and black to further prove that point.

There has been a weird phenomenon happening since the illustrious Obamas entered the White House. Code words like “ethnically ambiguous” dominate television and film “casting calls” and there seems to be fewer representations of obviously black families in the media. Whenever you do see a dark skin man on tv, film, or in print, he’s most often paired with a lighter, non-black woman. If you need more examples of this, look at hip hop. There’s an influx of mediocre rappers who boast about not dating or procreating with black women.

It’s like having a family that doesn’t look like you is a badge of honor. Black man, is it that painful to see your reflection? The answer might be yes, when you take into consideration that dark skin men and women face more discrimination on the job, while looking for housing, and even receive harsher prison sentences.

Still, I wish more dark skin girls and women would recognize the poison and stop drinking the kool-aid. There are so many black men who absolutely love and value us, but you can’t expect a man who doesn’t like what he sees in the mirror, to be your own. It’s time to re-write our narratives, shift the conversation, and love ourselves and each other a little bit harder.


queen-ashley

Ashley Wilkerson is an actress, poet, teaching artist, and fly girl from Dallas, Texas. She’s currently living and loving in Los Angeles. IG: Loveashleywilkerson www.DawnofAshley.com

 

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2 Comments

T.Graham

Ms. Wilkerson, thank you for writing your essay. It has inspired thought within me, a milk-chocolate brother from a Funky little hotspot thirty miles west of what I understand is your home town. As a result of being so inspired, I was compelled to respond.

I confess mild apprehension as I desire these words be received constructively. I appreciate your sharing and encourage you to continue to share in the future. Sharing and constructive dialogue is how we grow. That said, let’s get to it.

Not that it was meant to be over analyzed – or analyzed at all – I would suggest that your viewpoint on the encounter with the handsome and charismatic man in Miami might have gone deeper than was practical. First, a man does often have a preference in women. It is not unlikely that this man preferred women similar to his Dominican mother, considering also that Dominicans tend to be of lighter complexions. Add in the complicated history of Dominican and Haitian culture and one would consider his statement of his darkness to be not all that surprising.
Second, it’s not exactly fair to charge a man for his preference. Not attracted to dark-skinned girls? Fine, if dark-skinned girls aren’t your preference. I have never been too attracted to Pacific-islander girls. If I had the same experience with a Pacific-islander girl, would she have cause to consider that I have not told the truth and am criticizing island girls for not admitting my own insecurities? Probably not seeing as I am not Pacific-islander.

I agree with you, the continuing controversy of colorism is exhausting. I find myself thinking increasingly less about the topic as I get older. I also agree that the matter does seem like a “dark skin woman’s disease.” As a father of two girls who are every bit as dark as me, I find the idea of it preposterous. Since when do MY daughters feel inferior because they are dark? The answer is, they don’t. Don’t get me wrong, I have not somehow proofed my children against insecurity. I don’t know if that’s possible. I am saying that of all the coming of age crises they have and will endure, thinking that they are less because of their blackness will not be on that list.

But I digress. We are not discussing women and girls, we are discussing men and boys.

Regarding how men relate to their blackness, I am going to have to disagree with you in the most polite and extreme way possible. Maybe I live in a box, which I don’t. Maybe I don’t get out much…which, I don’t. I have met many men – friends, homeboys, associates, and otherwise – who’ve had various arrays of insecurity, various levels of self-hate, and various styles of covetousness. But I have not met a single individual for whom his darkness was a source of contention.

You are right. Black men (and men in general) are excellent at silent suffering and masking pain. We’re men, we can take the heat unlike little boys. We do experience pain. We do have broken hearts. It is a part of life and it is often unavoidable. It comes with the territory. It is what it is. For Black men, the white superiority / white privilege thing is a reality of the waters we swim in. We do what we can to live successful for today while also putting forth effort change things for tomorrow. We’re faced with decisions. We make choices. We’re partly praised when we choose rightly. We’re fully criticized when we choose wrongly.

You are right again, insecurities that were developed from childhood aren’t easily erased away. Even being 20 years beyond high school I still find myself having to occasionally subdue flare ups of insecurities I’ve battled since junior high school. It is the sin that croucheth at the door and we master it, but it doesn’t just go away. It remains and thus we remain on guard. We’re men, it’s what we do.

As a general rule, referring to a man as a “Pretty Boy” is a pointed insult in many traditions despite any polite intent. A younger man who is still in the process of constructing himself into a fully realized adult would naturally have a problem with that label. Why? Because while he is a man and an adult, he is still not yet fully realized. That part takes a little more time…and all of the self confidence in the world doesn’t change that.

As it concerns rules, it is good to remember the Golden Rule and the rules of common courtesy. At risk of being presumptive I’ll say: never assume that a man – or anyone – is insecure or has low self esteem, even when they do. Let them prove it first. Assuming that the man in Miami wasn’t telling the truth about not favoring dark-skinned girls was rude. What cause did he have to lie? Presuming that Mr. Duke had unaddressed self esteem issues was also rude. How would you respond if a random person politely asked you about your ongoing struggle with addiction? You might have such an issue…or not. But what cause would such a stranger have to ask such an audacious question? Very rude.

You mentioned confidence. Having self confidence is something that women and older persons often preach to younger men. (It was preached to me.) Confidence is a curious mix of hope and faith and is often confused with wishful thinking. You don’t do a man any favors by criticizing his lack of confidence when he has, in reality, chosen to deny wishful thinking. And when you are not the one who bears responsibility for his decision, quickly spoken words register in his ears as belittlement and disrespect. Consider it well.

You also mentioned persons who boast about not dating Black women. I pursued the company of women I encountered as a younger man in the process of realizing myself and will be the first to admit that I was more likely to pursue white women even as I preferred Black women. As I got older still I learned within myself the reason why this was. It had nothing to do with any sensitivity of being dark-skinned.

I agree, we should rewrite the narrative. What I disagree with is that darkness is a meaningful issue with the men. Beauty is important for women. It seems understandable to consider how darkness corresponds to beauty is a meaningful concern for many Black women. Functionality, however, is more important for men (that is, having what it takes).

I’ve always considered my darkness to be a plus. Dark, muscular, tested, and proven. Clean and dapper during peacetime. Dirty and resolute during wartime. A savior to my protectorates. A threat to my adversaries. Well made and built to last. Being of darker complexion only adds to this package.

A man will have many reasons to be insecure or to lack confidence. Preoccupation with getting results often preempts efforts of understanding why the results are necessary. Because of that we’ll often tell the truth as we see it without understanding why it is true and are unable to defend it. When we are required to quickly explain or defend our truth and cannot, we experience pain and become filled with uncertainty. Eventually we arrive at a place of understanding, but it often takes time.

Black men are more slowly praised and more quickly judged. We are measured at twice the standard but rewarded with half the credit. We struggle to emerge from a tradition that indoctrinated us as sub-human and are continually feared and oppressed by those who bear the hidden legacy of that guilt on their conscience. Suffice it to say, the road gets hard sometimes.

So how do we change the narrative? Do we train our sons to understand that their darkness is beautiful? Well, yes, but we’ve been doing that since at least the 1950’s. Do we train our sons to be men? Sure, but again, we’ve been doing that since at least the 1970’s although the media narrative doesn’t seem to have yet caught up with reality. What else can we do?

Let me suggest we try understanding. I can tell you that young Black men who are committed to being the best man possible are already doing their best in this area and are perplexed out of their minds at the elusiveness of it. I can also tell you that many middle aged Black men have quit trying to be the best, settling instead for whatever keeps the peace.

But what does understanding mean? It means, question without criticism. It means allowing him the right to his truth – whatever it might be – without requiring him to defend or justify himself. Understanding means seeing things from his point of view and his priority of value.

If that seems difficult, here’s how to make it simple. Before you respond to him for a specific reason, as yourself if you’d feel good about him responding to you the same way for any reason. Basically, treat him the way you want him to treat you and think of him, not as a man, but as a human. Let him know that it’s okay for him to make mistakes in your sight, and when he makes a mistake in your sight, let your response to it be laced with love.

Is Blackness an ugly stain for us dark-skinned men? Absolutely not. Our ugly stain is the quick and common disapproval from our women. To change the narrative, let’s change it there. I believe the results will quick and evident.

Much love.

T.

Reply
Ashley Wilkerson

Hello T.,
I really appreciate you taking the time to read my essay and respond so passionately. You brought up some good points and I’d like to encourage you to keep writing. I tried to write a balanced piece, which is why I used `”some” instead of all, and I clearly stated that it was inspired by a man that I had a conversation with. We are entitled to our own opinions and preferences, and I have the right to ask questions—especially to a man who is trying to make me feel like the “exception.” Do all dark skin men view their complexion as an ugly stain? Of course not. The same applies for dark skin women. I understand that this is a very sensitive topic. As woman who loves black men and is loved by black men, my intention is never to break you down. I want those brothers suffering in silence to heal their wounds, so that they can stop trying to break us down.

Peace and Love.

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