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.
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