By: Nicole Stevenson
As a child I was always called cute or pretty, and aside from my extremely awkward preteen years I had come to accept this as fact. Even though I had insecurities about my appearance, like most girls, I had truly embraced that others around me might find me attractive. It wasn’t until I reached my high school years that I questioned my physical beauty from a new perspective.
I was eating lunch at school with a few classmates who were discussing their usual random topics of the day when our topic of conversation turned to black girls. There was a black guy sitting next to me saying that most of the black girls at our school were either “too ghetto” or “too bougie;” and to conclude his remarks, he stated that most of them were unattractive, and he preferred girls of other races or mixed girls.
I sat there and rolled my eyes and as I was about to verbally abuse him, he cut me off by saying, “not you though, you’re beautiful. Especially for a dark skinned girl.” At that point I had never heard anyone say such a thing to my face. My initial feelings were that of confusion, because I had never had such mixed feelings about such a seemingly simple “compliment.” From that point forward, I would only experience more of this phenomenon.
Growing up in Northern Virginia (Loudoun County specifically) I was exposed to a lot of different cultures outside of my own, but at the same time it is a predominantly white area. I had a lot of white friends, grew up in a white neighborhood, and most of the people in my classes were white. My point being is that if I were to come across any type of prejudice towards me and my skin color, I was expecting it to be from white people. But I have never met a white person to this day who has ever said to me, you’re beautiful for a dark skinned girl.
If I got a compliment on my appearance, it was straightforward compliment. No confusion. But with black people, black males in particular, it was another story. After that lunch in school I had heard the phrase “pretty for a dark skinned girl,” “beautiful for a dark skinned girl” at least several times since graduating. When I went to college I thought I would hear the backwards compliment less often because I was going to a more diversified school where whites and minorities were almost 50/50, but I didn’t.
I was at a house party one night with a few new friends that I made and one of the party goers, a black male, took the time to stop me and say that I was in fact the most beautiful dark skinned girl he’d ever seen. Instead of thanking him I just gave him a half smile, nodded and walked away. I thought to myself, why can’t I just be a beautiful woman? Why do they need to point out that I have dark skin?
The subject irritated me so much that I decided to base one of my term papers on it in college. It focused on the issue of colorism in the black community, and how colorism negatively effects dark skinned women. Colorism in a nutshell is the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with dark skin tone among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
In my research I’ve found that this issue is rooted in American slavery, as I believe most problems in the African American community stem from. Light skinned blacks would get preferential treatment by slave owners, as opposed to dark skinned ones who were more often made to do grueling, laborious work. Therefore, being light skinned presented opportunities. These opportunities continued after slavery when blacks could more freely explore the job market.
Employers were more likely to hire you the lighter your skin was. Back then having lighter skin, straighter hair…having similar Eurocentric physical traits meant a greater chance at survival. It’s no wonder that physical beauty in the black community, in particular female beauty, is often times linked with more Eurocentric beauty ideals. The media especially propagates the image of lighter skin, straight or wavy hair, small nose, small frame, etc. for female beauty.
My assumptions were that because the black community has an issue within itself with colorism, and the media today still frequently shows images of light skinned women in beauty ads, TV shows, music videos and whatever else, black men would be somewhat programmed into thinking that that is the standard of female beauty within their own race. So when someone comes along that disrupts this archetype, it’s almost like some of them can’t comprehend it. It’s as if a beautiful dark skinned women is some type of anomaly. The same thing holds true for other races and ethnic backgrounds around the world. Anywhere where the culture has experienced a high volume of European colonialism in the past, colorism is an issue.
So back to my personal experience with colorism. In writing my term paper I had discovered that a lot of these things made sense. My confusion turned into realization, and I was more understanding (but obviously not accepting) of my situation. I can say with confidence that I am a beautiful black woman, as can others around the world. But when a man comes to me and says that I am beautiful for a dark skinned woman, it devalues me. And whether I chose to accept being devalued or not, the fact that it happens at all is still a problem.
I am not by any means saying that black men should not have a preference in the type of women they like. I completely understand that physical attraction can be somewhat preferential. After all, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, what I am saying is that black men and women should not say someone is unattractive simply because of their skin color.
A person’s skin tone should be the most meaningless part of beauty assessment. There’s beauty in all shades. For this reason, I must also clarify that light skinned women in the black community and of other races should not feel bad for having light skin. They shouldn’t, however, believe that this makes them better.
In my own journey to self-acceptance and self-love I have come to love and appreciate my dark skin, because at one point I actually didn’t. I used to think that if I were lighter skinned my beauty would shine even more, and maybe, just maybe I would be called a beautiful girl by all. But until the black community as a whole makes introspective efforts into the problem of colorism, it will continue to persist. I’m sure someone will call me a beautiful dark skinned girl again. To this I will respond, “thanks, but just say I’m a beautiful girl.”