Black Lies

UPDATE: This has been the most viewed post, with at least 2 hits a day, every day, from all over the world. This is a lot of traffic in my humble blog’s world. Today I want to add award-winning film maker Ng’endo Mukii’s short, Yellow Fever. The little girl’s voice is particularly unforgettable in this film, and totally resonates with the last sentence of my post. I hope this film adds to the message for all who come here.

“In my film, I focus on African women’s self-image, through memories and interviews; using mixed media to describe this almost schizophrenic self-visualization that I and many others have grown up with.” ~Ng’endo Mukii. 

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”― Nelson MandelaLong Walk to Freedom

Bill Duke’s ‘Dark Girls’ Documentary which aired on OWN earlier this week has had a profound effect on me. First, I saw skin colour in a totally new way. I didn’t just see black and white people any more, or (as my brother calls it) “team dark skin and team light skin” black people, but every possible shade of brown under the sun. I recognized that no two black people are the same shade of brown. From caramel to mocha to dark chocolate, I saw them all standing side by side at the bus stop and going about their business in the office. I had to stop myself from staring at some Dinka girls that I walked past on my way home. My eyes never fail to be drawn to their distinguished height and complexion, but today I was astounded. It was so dark, like heavy crude oil.

team light skin-dark skin


Manute Bol of the Philadelphia 76ers. credit:  John McDonough

Manute Bol of the Philadelphia 76ers. © John McDonough

For many reasons I’m questioning my own choice of words to describe different races and shades of skin colour. ‘Dark Girls’ reveals the roots of these reasons and how they still affect people of colour all over the world. The reality is that after colonialism and slavery and holocausts there comes colourism: a form of prejudice or discrimination based on the social meanings attached to skin color, usually within an ethnic group. I was shocked to learn about the “brown paper bag test”, dating as far back as the Civil Rights Movement or earlier. The colour of a brown paper bag was considered to be the “center” marker of blackness, complexions that were lighter bestowed acceptance into lighter-skinned social circles (like sororities), reflecting an idea of exclusion and exclusiveness from the inferior darker skinned status.

The documentary showed a young girl, possibly three or four year old, taking the Doll Test. Designed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, the test illustrates how early colourism develops in human beings. Their studies found contrasts among African-American children attending segregated schools in Washington, DC versus those in integrated schools in New York.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark conducting the Doll Test, Harlem, New York, 1947 © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark conducting the Doll Test, Harlem, New York, 1947 © Gordon Parks

The doll experiment involved a child being presented with two dolls. Both of these dolls were completely identical except for the skin and hair color. One doll was white with yellow hair, while the other was brown with black hair. The child was then asked questions inquiring as to which one is the doll they would play with, which one is the nice doll, which one looks bad, which one has the nicer color, etc.

Like most kids in the original experiments, the girl in the documentary shows a clear preference for the white doll. Whilst these findings seemed to expose internalized racism in African-American children that was more acute among children attending segregated schools, it made me wonder what the response would be in a 21st Century African setting, controlled for the natural propensity of children to be drawn to brighter, shinier things. And I wonder also if we don’t eventually grow out of judging a book by its cover. As one of the women in the film said about her life in high school, “We [dark vs light] were separated and it caused a lot of friction among children, which now as an adult seems stupid to me”.

Of course Colourism exists in Kenya, but maybe the unlikely combination of tribalism and globalization has stolen its spotlight. And even more prevalent than all these are the never-ending undertones of internalized racism, which Obama himself could not escape in one of his Kenya visits. You might be thinking, surely, do we not waste enough time already worrying about superficial things that we can actually change like teeth, hair, body, racism, etc., without worrying about our shade of skin as well? I have long experienced the existence of an inexplicable preference by black people for lighter skin colour. In fact, there were clips in the documentary of black men talking about how they think lighter skinned girls look better. But I want to say it would have been just as effective without them. I want to say I’ve never consciously let this kind of shallowness bother me. I mean, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? No, it’s never that simple.

Untitled, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Untitled, Mobile, Alabama, 1956 © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Is it, as Timothy Foley, Psychotherapist, puts it, a result of the centuries of internalized negative vibrations and energy with our molecular make-up that is passed down generations through our DNA? Or is it, as Michael Colyar puts it, “When you getting married, everybody’s wearing white; when you go to a funeral, everybody’s wearing black. Day is perfect and fabulous and wonderful and night is sinister and negative, so we connect it to ourselves and justify hating our [darkness]”. Now, remember Snow white? “Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” Fair = blameless, beautiful, exquisite and bright/light. It could be that along with a lot of other bad shit, we inherited colourism and it was intensified by the vast diversity of browns. Maybe being Black is just not enough for some of us, because of our “lack of unity… partly because we don’t have a language.”

So many causes, so many reasons, but really it boils down to one.  It’s an example of the self-fulfilling prophecy. “If you are not made to feel loved unconditionally and made to feel that love of self you will be inhibited in terms of interacting with others.” It seems to me that black parents and role models need to check themselves, and dissociate skin colour from attractiveness and definitely beauty once and for all.  Just as, for whatever reason, these days it’s fashionable for white people to have serious tans, so the fairness delusion can be fixed. Besides, chocolate is delicious, mahogany is beautiful and oil is black gold! And how to go about this? Douglas Kearney seems to think the media is the most powerful answer. “There is … a cultural literacy that allows people to make a message that is going to have the odds of being more successful than another” and that the media feeds off people’s insecurities as a result.

So, whatever your colour may be, are you above colourism , racism, tribalism and other isms? And more importantly, are your Kids?

“Until the Lion has a historian, the hunter will always be a hero. “

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