Time To Rise: Dark-Skinned Women, Self-Esteem and Media Images

Azealia Banks on the set of the video for her song "Luxury".
Azealia Banks on the set of the video for her song “Luxury”.

Yesterday the eclectic and controversial MC Azealia Banks took to Twitter and vented her frustrations on Colorism, stating that she feels men hate dark-skinned Black women.

Unlike others I will not dismiss her anger and pain outright. For too long the experiences of dark-skinned African-American women have been erased. When we speak of how we are harassed and maligned-not by non-Blacks, but by the people who look like us-we are simply brushed off as “bitter”, “paranoid” and “crazy” women who just hate on the ‘pretty’ light-skinned and mixed girls and have no legitimate grievance. So to me it is very, very important that the words of women like Banks and myself are actually listened to. 

Banks, however, isn’t just a dark-skinned woman. She is dark-skinned woman in an industry that has played a major role in assassinating the image of African-American women, an industry that is especially hostile to dark-skinned women. It is an industry in which African-American male rappers can shamelessly diss dark-skinned women while elevating non-Black and light-skinned African-American women. So I think it’s safe to say that Banks may experience Colorism on a level that is deeper and more intense than those of us outside of the industry have.

Colorism continues to be the dirty secret that African-Americans have issues truly facing. I don’t want to deal with the long history of Colorism in detail in this post. From the days of the Quadroon balls in Louisiana to the portraits used by abolitionists to pull the heartstrings of sympathetic Northerners to the AA churches and civic organizations which excluded dark-skinned AAs during Jim Crow, AAs with light skin have been thought of differently.

A common cry among AAs when this topic is raised is that it doesn’t matter, that we are all the same and no one is treated differently. But Azealia Banks knows better. I know better. And the host of AA writers and scholars who have given us literature and research on the subject know better as well.  My own path and witnessing history repeat itself with some of the younger sisters has been on my mind all day.

This is for the dark girls and women, for those who are chocolate to charcoal-skinned. This is for the sisters whose look is persona non grata in both mainstream and AA media. For the sisters who are the favored target of derogatory jokes by AA male comedians. For the sisters who are the butt of the ‘yo Mama so black’ jokes that are still heard today. For the sisters who are told ‘to be so BLACK you’re actually pretty’-and expected to take it as a compliment.

We’ve shared our testimonies on the convergence point of race, gender and color(you can begin reading mine here). The question in my mind is this though: what do we do with ourselves now?What is the next step in moving past the pain? Azealia Banks said that the hatred makes her want to lay down and die. I’m sympathetic. But allowing these ignorant people to make us feel that way? I’m not with it. Lay down and die? No, we stand up and rise. And when you get that dirt off your  shoulder and rise the next thing you do is get on your Millie Jackson(that woman is deliciously raunchy) and say this to anyone who would shade you over your skin color:

Fuck anyone who would attempt to degrade you because of your color. Fuck anyone who would try to convince you that you are inferior, ugly and worthless due to the amount of melanin you have.Fuck anyone who would attempt to project their internalized oppression onto you.

Now I fully understand that doing so may bring you into conflict with those whom you are told to think of as your ‘people’ at times. I’ve been down that road with my own family. But as the saying goes: all skin folk ain’t kinfolk. In my mind your emotional health and self-esteem should never be sacrificed to maintain a fake sense of racial solidarity. Self-preservation comes first, and if you need to draw lines to protect yourself you are entitled. Few of us would accept such treatment from non-Blacks. Those who look like us don’t get a pass to talk recklessly and clown us.

Now I need to address the men and dating issue. Unlike Banks I do not think men of all backgrounds, as  whole, have it out for dark-skinned Black women. So I’m going to narrow it down a bit. I’ve lived and seen enough to know that, among African-Americans, there most certainly are males who are repulsed by dark-skinned women(oddly enough they tend to be dark themselves). I’ll let others debate the size of this group and whether or not they represent the views of  the average African-American male. But there is one thing about these men that cannot be debated: they are incredibly vocal about their hostility for dark women. When Colorism and its’ impact on African-American women is brought up, the opinions and preferences of African-American are often at the center of the discussion. They were even featured in the ‘Dark Girls’ documentary. Frankly I am tired of that.

I think that African-American women give these men too much power over their identity and self-image. To tie our self-esteem to how these men address and treat us is a  mistake. My identity as an AA woman is mine alone. I do not require or  seek validation from the men within my ethnic group in order to love and value myself. On the contrary  accepting and loving myself apart from these men was an essential part of my journey from insecurity to confidence.

If some entertainer wants to take to Twitter to engage in  Colorism, or if some AA male  celebrity expresses his desire for non-Black women I’m not concerned because he is not the boss of me. I determine my  self-image. To paraphrase a line from Drake they ain’t in my world; I can take them off my  atlas.

CelebrationAnd take them off my atlas I did, many years ago. As a teenager, the messiness of the internalized oppression I experienced was compounded because of my social circle. My world was small. Sure, we would say ‘black is beautiful’ but what was practiced was very different. But once my clique expanded and I moved beyond the insular, urban,  African-American environment that I knew things began to change. I met and formed bonds with Blacks from throughout the African Diaspora, no longer limited to those who shared my culture.When I attained my first full-time job at eighteen that provided access to a new environment as well. My interaction with an increasingly diverse crowd helped ease the defensiveness that I’d picked up over the years, and I was able to relax.

No longer fearful of  rejection, I left behind the assumption that I’d be looked down upon for who I was. So while I understand the defensiveness that some dark girls and women develop, I know that holding onto it can  impair us. There are people who will appreciate you and see your humanity, but if you don’t let them in you will never know that.

In theory I believe that Colorism can be eradicated. In reality, I don’t see it happening anytime soon. The seeds have already been planted among the youth, ensuring that it will be with us for at least another generation. Ridding ourselves of it would require addressing it on a deeper level, and as I stated in the beginnng that is still a challenge. That is why I refrained from discussing what I think needs to be done as a collective. While such work is necessary, it is bound to be long and frustrating.

However, I am of the mind that, on an individual level, dark-skinned African-American women don’t have to wait patiently for that change to come. We can make change for ourselves right now. We have more power than we realize. And though online spaces can be rife with misogynoir, they also give sisters options that were not available when I was growing up in the 1990s.

We don’t have to hope and wish to see ourselves depicted positively in media; we create our own. I can see myself reflected in the Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl online. I can see breathtaking images of beauty that mirror mine at Dr. Yaba Blay’s Pretty.Period.  Indeed,throughout the Diaspora there are dark-skinned women rejecting the old narrative, instead working to promote one that includes and affirms us. British singer Laura Mvula embodies this in “That’s Alright”, and I think her words are a fitting way to close this out:

I will never be what you want and that’s alright,
‘Cause my skin ain’t light and my body ain’t tight.
And that’s alright.
But if I might, I must stand and fight.





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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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