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‘Dark Girls’ is a much needed candid film to expose the psychological scars of slavery and colonisation on the psyche of African people, scars that exist on account of the global white supremacist paradigm that promotes European forms of beauty

The UK premiere of the film ‘Dark Girls took place on 19 September 2013 to a packed audience inside the Museum of London in central London. The issues dealt with in the film have long been discussed behind closed doors and in private conversations – rather than in public forums or platforms – among people of African descent. The issues pertain to the discrimination – otherwise known as, shadism, colourism or pigmentocracy that exists among people of African descent within the global Diaspora. Put differently, there is an invisibility of darker skinned African/black women positively represented in society compared to the elevation and promotion of lighter skinned black/African women who resemble Euro-American notions of beauty. Such women with their Eurocentric attributes approximate Black Barbie doll lookalikes. But apart from this, there is also the destruction in terms of self-esteem and self-worth that such darker skinned women have experienced as a result of the wider societal perceptions of dark skin that is captured in some of the painful testimonies of the women featured in the documentary.

The filmmakers by the names of D . Channsin Berry and his colleague Bill Duke have made an excellent documentary film, in which, whilst its focus is on the experience of darker skinned African American women within the context of the US, they also interviewed African American men and asked them what their ideal preferences are in a woman i.e. light or darker skinned women as partners. In addition, the documentary also interviewed women from Cuba and Puerto Rico where such negative perceptions of dark skin also exist. A South Korean American woman revealed that on visiting South Korea she discovered that light or white skin is also desirable. She was made to feel undesirable and viewed as being too dark.

The phenomenon of skin bleaching that exists in many African nations (as well as in many Asian countries) is discussed by a Sierra Leonean man. Commentary throughout the documentary is provided by African American psychologists and two white American males on the impact of this internalised racism and its historical roots lying in the context of slavery in the USA. The pernicious global reach of Hollywood and the media in general – whether on billboards, the Internet, tv or magazines in Cairo, Accra, Lagos, Cape Town, Kingston, Nairobi, or Dakar – light skinned African/black women are billed, often with their sleek relaxed European-looking hair or wearing Korean or Brazilian weave, alongside false nails and false eye lashes. The paradigm of beauty that has become globally pervasive is a Euro-American one.

The phenomenon of internalised racism and Eurocentric concepts of beauty have been ingrained in the aspirations and desires of black/African males as well as black/African females. Such males as Umoja points out in ‘The Beauty Con Game’ remain just as conflicted over skin colour, hair, facial features as black/African women. Yet, it is not evident because black/African men are not pressured to alter their faces, hair, bodies with makeup, hair relaxers, weaves and plastic surgery to look more attractive by white standards. [1] Despite the fact that a minority of African men on the continent and in Jamaica have recently started to skin bleach, there appears to be an acceptance in society that men can be ‘tall, dark and handsome.’ Yet this popular and European adage cannot be applied to women.

The audience was made up of around 100 people, largely black/African women of all hues with less than half a dozen black/African men of varying hues.

The highlight of the evening was the question and answer and the panel contributions. The panellists comprised: Dr Rob Berkely, Director of the UK’s Runnymede Trust; Kered Clements, editor of Complexd Magazine; Maurits Dolmans of Cleary Gottlieb Steen who was a sponsor of the event and a lawyer by the name of Hamilton. The hosting of the film was organised by the UK based diversity consultancy group by the name of Abundant Sun led by Jude Smith Rachele, co-founder and CEO. The proceeds of the film were donated to the young African women’s charity called ‘Make Every Woman Count’ set up in December 2010. [2] The young founder and executive director of the organisation, Rainatou Sow gave a brief address during the evening in which she outlined the aims of Make Every Woman Count are to empower African women by strengthening the work of African women’s rights advocates in a range of spheres including peace and security issues in Africa; violence against women; political leadership for African women; economic empowerment and HIV/Aids and reproductive health issues.

During the question and answer there was a pertinent point that won applause made by a dark skinned African woman who expressed her concern well into the discussion that its focus seemed to be dwelling on dark skinned women simply engaging in self-love and ‘personal development’, which she considered to be a fundamental deflection from the fact that no amount of self-love or personal development can alter a white supremacist society that is structured on valuing whiteness and lighter skinned people more aesthetically legitimate. Moreover, as this person pointed out, tied to this racist notion is the reality that the life chances of darker skinned women are adversely affected. Studies have disclosed that if a dark skinned woman and a light skinned woman attend a job interview, the outcome is that it is the lighter skinned woman who is more likely to get the job. Further to this, M. L. Hunter’s fascinating piece entitled ‘Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World’ argues that ‘light skin tone can be transformed into capital (social networks), symbolic capital (esteem or status), or even economic capital (high-paying job or promotion).’ [3] The writer Umoja poses the critical question thus: ‘How can the black female have a higher self-esteem than white females in a white supremacy system where the black female occupies the bottom rung of the beauty totem pole?’ [4] No amount of self-love is going to magically transform the notions society has of the dark skinned woman if society itself and its notions of the inferiority of the darker skinned woman are not challenged head on.

In our white supremacist society women’s bodies are commodified, marketed and dismembered in patriarchical and capitalist culture and black women’s bodies and sexuality continue to serve this culture whilst simultaneously being denigrated. For example, whilst dark skinned women are made invisible and considered undesirable, many European women as the documentary pointed out, are obsessed with obtaining tanned looking bodies – but not too dark or too tanned. Meanwhile in Jamaica, since the release of Buju Banton’s 1990 song ‘Love Mi Browning’, it has extolled the notion that light skinned women are more desirable than darker skinned women. Donna P. Hope’s article entitled ‘From Browing to Cake Soap: Popular Debates on Skin Bleaching in the Jamaican Dancehall’ is an outstanding piece that critiques and reflects the popular discussions via the lyrics within Jamaican dancehall music that have condoned light skinned women and skin bleaching and those musicians and lyrics that have denounced and attacked the phenomenon of ‘browning’ and use of ‘cake soap’ (the latter is used to bleach the skin in Jamaica).’ [5]

‘Dark Girls’ is a much needed candid film to expose the psychological scars of slavery and colonisation on the psyche of African people. Those scars exist on account of the fact that the global white supremacist paradigm of beauty continues to promote European forms of beauty that African people consciously or unconsciously aspire to as a consequence of the pervasiveness of the white supremacist ideation system that controls everything from economics, political models of how power should be distributed in society, religion, and defines and controls how beauty is represented and who represents beauty. Whilst the film ends on a positive note on the need for healing, it is not only that the healing needs to take place in families positively instilling that a dark skinned girl and boy are attractive, but on a number of levels, African people must consciously engage in reversing the negative ways we see ourselves. In the short and long term we need to increase self-validation among African people which will be a long and complex struggle. In no order of priority, this struggle must exist on a number of simultaneous sites. First, we need to educate ourselves about the system of white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy and our true position and participation within these interconnected systems. For example, it is evident that capitalism profits from not only the skin bleaching and hair weave industries but makes billions of dollars from beauty products that largely target women around the world. Similarly, history has shown when countries in the North invade and impose ‘regime change’ on the darker nations of the world, it is the patriarchcal value system of the invading country that is a corollary of military and economic occupation.

Second, we need to promote and surround ourselves with positive images of the diversity of African beauty that we do not see in the mainstream media in order to challenge European notions and perceptions. A friend of mine has made this a personal political crusade to post on her Face Book page positive images of African women of all shades of beauty and particularly darker skinned African women as well as African women wearing natural hair styles. Alternative African media has a major role to play in perpetrating such positive images. Researchers and writers also have a role to play in looking into indigenous concepts and definitions of beauty prior to enslavement and colonisation of African people. For it is white supremacist ideas of beauty that has acted as a cancer in the aesthetics of African people; yet this cancer has not always been part of the history of African people. It is important for African people to re-connect with our history and learn what our ancestors considered and defined as beautiful in terms of skin shades and adornment of the human body and mind.

Third; we need to not only teach our children about white supremacy or racism, but that racism is about power in all spheres of society and that racism dictates the lie that white people are more beautiful than black people and lighter skinned people are more attractive than black people. We need to teach our children to appreciate the beauty of all shades of skin colour and that beauty is within the behaviour, convictions and values of an individual rather than outward physical appearance. We need to challenge the images of scantily clad light skinned women suggestively and salaciously gyrating around male Hip hop artists and being referred to as ‘hos’ (i.e. whores) in the lyrics of such artists as well as untangle with our youth the covert and overt sexist messages of such videos.

Fourth; we need to seriously examine the language we use among and against ourselves as African people. Words such as: ‘nigger’, ‘nappy hair’, ‘good hair’, ‘bad hair’, ‘red skin gal’, ‘blik’, ‘light skinned’, ‘dark skinned’, ‘blue black’, ‘high yella’, ‘mixed race’, as well as the plethora of terminology/labels used within the Afro-Latina communities that continue to divide and rule people of African descent around the world, need to be contested. They are often negative stereotypes and terminology born out of racism and colonisation that continue to reconfigure themselves in our present day society in profoundly harmful ways.

Malcolm X once said: ‘When you teach a person to hate his [or her"> lips, the lips that God gave them, the shape of the nose that God gave them, the texture of the hair that God gave them, the colour of the skin that God gave them, you’ve committed the worst crime that a race of people can commit.’ This exceptional film engenders the raising of important questions on how we go about destroying the unconscious mind-set and values of shadism, colourism or pigmentocracy that prevents greater unity among people of African descent. This unity will continue to evade us if we fail to address this issue in our on-going quest for total liberation.


[1] See ‘The Beauty Con Game’ by Umoja, Trojan Horse Press, 2012, p.15.
[2] See the website:
[3] See the website:
[4] See ‘Buying Racial Capital: Skin-Bleaching and Cosmetic Surgery in a Globalized World’ by M. L. Hunter, in Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 4, June 2011, p. 145.
[5] See, ‘The Beauty Con Game’ by Umoja, Trojan Horse Press, 2012, p.55.
[6] See ‘From Browning to Cake Soap: Popular Debates on Skin Bleaching in the Jamaican Dancehall’ by Donna P. Hope, in The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4. No. 4, June 2011, pp. 165-194.

Ama Biney (Dr) is the Acting Editor in Chief of Pambazuka News and a scholar-activist.



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