Light Girls: 4 Ways It Went Wrong

Originally posted on: 2015/01/14

When I first heard that Bill Duke was making a sequel to Dark Girls, I was nervous. Dark Girls, as a concept, made sense to me, even if the execution was poor. Dark skinned Black women face more oppression than light skinned Black women. This is an indisputable fact. As an example, a recent New York Times article reported on new research by Villanova University that “black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.” Another study by Villanova University found that dark skinned women are more likely to get harsher jail sentences than light skinned women and serve less time. Light skinned Black women are more likely to be hired than dark skinned women according to a study at the University of Georgia, even if they both have a BA. Furthermore, dark skinned women are the but of much more violent misogynoir jokes than light skinned women in popular culture (see Exhibits A-D below). To ignore these facts, as well as what dark skinned women have been saying for years, is to be complicit in their oppression. I hope that is enough to quell any naysayers regarding if light skin women have it worse. If not, then this is not the right site for you. Having said that, watching the doc in real time, I had 4 primary concerns: 1) It is so clear that both films were made by the male gaze which had several implications throughout; 2) Too many voices, not enough analysis; 3) Problematic editing around sexual and physical assault; & 4) Erasure, Erasure, Erasure.

Exhibits A-D (Thanks to @galvezmiro for sharing these twitter examples)

Male Gaze

Originally Light Girls was supposed to be called “Yellow Brick Road”, which is a terrible name, but at least it didn’t come off as though light and dark skinned women were being totally pitted against each other. Changing the name to Light Girls however, automatically set up a “now it’s time to tell our side” scenario that confirmed my original fears: two documentaries made by a black man about dark and light skinned black women was going to attempt to divide and conquer Black women for ratings and hype. It is clear to me that Bill Duke, while perhaps unconsciously or having good intentions (neither of which I care about), is using women to work through his own issues with shadeism or colorism. Dark Girls was primarily about how hard it is for a dark skinned woman to find a heterosexual partner. While this is no doubt an issue that hurts straight dark skin women, reviewing the scholarship I posted above, why would desirability to straight men be centered in the documentary? Because this is what matters to a cis-het male filmmaker. Similarly, why centre, let alone feature the voices of proudly misogynoir-istic men in both films? Because cis-het black male voices are important, even if they are completely misinformed and violent towards Black women. Let’s be frank – Black women know exactly what Black men think about us. From the Hoteps to the Black men who “would never date a Black woman” or the men who only fetishize one skin tone – we’ve heard about it our whole lives. To be clear, having black men in the film didn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if they were to discuss the ways that they are often complicit in the oppression of Black women via patriarchy, misogynoir, sexual harassment & assault etc., but I was left totally wanting in that area. In all honestly, if every minute in both movies utilized the wasted time spent on waste men, that would have helped with issue #2 – the cacophony.

If still waters run deep, then frenetic waters run shallow

Throughout the course of the film, we heard from dark skinned women and men, light skinned women and men, mixed-race identified women and men, 2 queer men of colour, psychologists, plastic surgeons, cultural commentators, comedians, news anchors, regular folks, Bill Duke’s friends, his friend’s friends…you get the picture. Featuring many voices can be a good way to get a broader, more inclusive picture, but having your whole entire crew – plus their friends – that’s just turning it into a free-for-all. You cannot have that many voices, many of which were personal narratives with no critical analysis, and expect to do a subject any justice. While Dark Girls was primarily about dating, Light Girls was about “all the things”, and jumped from topic to topic, just tantalizingly skimming the surface of some really important points. For example, both Soledad O’Brien and Michaela Angela Davis had some really important points about the privilege light skinned women experience in employment, as well as the state-sanctioned terrorism inflicted on Black people that made light skin a life or death issue in the community. But instead of diving deeper into these excellent points, we had to listen to an old dread talking about how he loves all women, no matter what colour (massive eye roll) or have more than one person imply that sexual assault is primarily a “light-skinned issue”, which leads me to problem #3.

My biggest fears

If you had asked me what the source of my concern was around this movie, I would have explained that it is very difficult to treat a sensitive issue in a neutral way. It can either shed light on a very important issue with heavy critical analysis and proper representation or it can further marginalize the very people it seeks to uplift. Of course it can do a bit of both, nothing is truly binary, but the latter tends to outshine the prior. So when a couple women very bravely speak of the sexual assault and abuse they survived, the director/editor essentially implied that this was at least in part due to their light skin. I can barely articulate how problematic that is. Sexual assault, abuse and harassment are a very complicated issues that cover many intersectionalities, including gender and race no doubt, but they are certainly not exclusive to light skinned women. This narrative not only silences the experiences of dark skinned sexual assault survivors, but also implies that sexual assault has something to do with sexual desirability, which has been debunked over and over again. Sexual assault has to do with power and the abuse of boundaries of vulnerable people. People of all genders are assaulted as young as just months old to well into their 90s. Perceived attractiveness has absolutely nothing to do with it, especially in this context where it is supposed to be “obvious” that light skinned women would be assaulted more because they are, in fact, “more beautiful”. This treatment of the film truly had me enraged – how dare he use survivors, some of which who look just like me, to do so much harm to my community?! Similarly, the stories of physical assault of light skinned women by dark skinned women were painfully uncritical. For example, one woman told a story about how she would only use the bathroom on Fridays because she would be followed in, beaten up, and have her clothes torn off by dark skinned girls. This became so regular that the Principal would be prepared with a coat for her to wear and send her home in a taxi. Do you see the problem here? What kind of ineffective Principal are you if you know that a student is being attacked on a weekly basis that you offer her a coat and a taxi ride but you do nothing else to protect her? Maybe there was more to the story, but from the brief clip we are shown, one can only conclude that the system was failing these black girls (both the victim and the abusers) – and really – what else is new? Speaking of the system failing Black folks, my final point is how the film failed marginalized Black folks.

Erasure is the name of the game

How does a movie that features the opinions of two out queer men of colour¹ (only one of whom is Black) on the experiences Black women have with shadeism and NOT feature any out LGBT Black folks? Aside from Raven who, as we know, doesn’t identify as anything, Bill Duke completely misses an entire sector of the Black community. Queer and trans* folks experience shadeism in every way that cis-het folks do, except with the added layers of oppression from sexuality and gender discrimination. Interestingly, both movies focus quite heavily on how both light and dark skinned Black cis women and men feel excluded from the Black community for different reasons, but what would make you feel more excluded than not even being at the table? (Dis)abled folks are also erased as usual, which again begs the question of who really gets to be Black and matter. All of us are so vital to the Black community (whatever that is to each of us) and further marginalizing our most vulnerable is violent and uncalled for. Of course, queer, trans*, (dis)abled and other marginalized folks don’t need shitty handouts from cis-het folks or to be stapled on to the side of otherwise cis-het-normative projects, but cis-het folks need to know that they are working on the side of the oppressor when it happens.

Back to the drawing board

Responsible, inclusive, critical projects are possible. As Maya Angelou says “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” We can all do better folks. Let’s support work around Shadeism and other vital topics that are made by women of colour, queer people of colour, trans* people of colour, (dis)abled people of colour. If you identify as any of the above and are in a safe enough situation, keep telling your stories. We have never lived at a better time in terms of having access to an international audience and finding supportive peers around the globe. It is scary no doubt, and there will be trolls and maybe even worse, but as Zora Neale Hurston writes “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” A bit morose no doubt, but think of the ancestors whose stories are all but lost, save for the shards we try to piece back together to get a picture of their lives. We have the privilege of telling our stories, let’s take it and cheer each other on when we do, and call each other in when we fail.

¹Ms Jay Alexander, from what I’ve read, does not identify as trans* but as a drag performer who uses the pronouns he/him. If I am wrong, please let me know and I will immediately change it.

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