In 2011, “Dark Girls,” a documentary by Bill Duke, stirred public conversation in the African American community about the negative experiences of dark-skinned women. The director and actor continues that discussion in a sequel documentary “Light Girls,” which airs Monday on the OWN Network.
With firsthand stories by light-skinned celebrities including singer Chante Moore, actresses Raven-Symone and Essence Atkins, and journalist Soledad O’Brien, “Light Girls” highlights how colorism, or discrimination based on skin color, influenced their sense of self worth. In an interview, Duke reveals the motivation behind his documentaries.
Why did you feel the need to have a documentary (“Dark Girls”) and start a conversation around colorism in the black community?
It’s based upon my personal experience of being a dark-skinned child and called many kinds of names from elementary school up until high school. I tried to put bleach on my skin to lighten it because I thought it was ugly. I just wanted an opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless because there’s shame involved in the sense that a lot of women don’t say anything because people are going to think they’re complaining or weak.
Considering your personal experiences, why did you choose to focus on women as opposed to men?
There were some things that had happened to women that I know. Also, a friend of mine has two daughters that are dark complected and he had to console them for almost a month because they were the only two girls in their high school that were not invited to their senior prom because [of their skin color]. It brought up the immediacy.
Black people and black women have drunk the Kool-Aid of the beauty business. You can go online and look at “#TeamLightSkinned” and “#TeamDarkSkinned” today. What’s ironic is that while black women that are light and dark are scrapping over this idiocy, white women are in tanning salons twice a week, getting their hair crinkled, getting butt lifts and Botox lips to look more ethnic. It points to an ignorance that is not acceptable.
In “Dark Girls,” there’s a section that highlights the role of men in some of this discussion. How do men enter this conversation when it comes to colorism among black women?
I’ve literally heard famous friends of mine who are athletes and have money, when we’re in a club or something, they’ll point to a light-skinned woman and say, “I want one of those.” Now, in their mind, a light-skinned woman is a trophy. A lot of black men believe this, that you get more power, more prestige if a lighter-skinned woman is on your arm. What happens to light-skinned women is they find out in relationships that since they’re a trophy, they’re transferable.
It’s all produced by the beauty business. What the beauty business tells us is that God made a mistake. We’re going to sell you cosmetics, hair products, extensions and we’re going to sell you skin bleach. It’s a global phenomenon, not just a domestic American phenomenon.
What’s the comparison between colorism in the black American community and foreign communities of color?
It’s equal and in some countries, more. The largest country with the largest consumption of skin bleach in the world is India. Indian men are bleaching their skin because, in terms of marriage, if your skin is dark, it’s assumed you work in a field. If your skin is lighter, it's assumed you work in an office because you’re not getting enough sun. Indian men are bleaching their skin. This is how crazy it is.
Last year, a New York Times critic called actress Viola Davis, who’s in “Dark Girls,” “not classically beautiful.” What’s the connection, if any, between the colorism within the black community and situations where people of other races similarly perpetuate prejudice based on skin tone?
Exterior people of other cultures and other races commenting on the lack of worth based upon a woman in [black] culture’s skin tone is called racism. With us critiquing ourselves, that’s colorism; that’s self torture. But when people see us doing what we do to each other, it gives them permission to do it to us to a certain extent.
Why did you decide to turn “Dark Girls” into a book?
The idea was to give young dark-skinned girls a tool of defense against anyone who had the audacity to say to them that they were ugly, stupid or unattractive based upon the darkness of their skin. In this book, you have dark-skinned, successful, famous women who look like them and were not limited by the ignorance of those comments.
After the success of “Dark Girls,” why do a “Light Girls” documentary at all?
Pain has no color, but there’s a separation socially. It’s assumed that light-skinned women have no problems or issues, but they are judged before you know who they are. The thing is one group thinks it’s going through more pain than the other. The fact of the matter is that when you’re in pain emotionally about your life, the color of your skin does not matter. Until we heal as a people, in terms of resolving the conflicts of our culture, we have no strength, focus, energy or ability to fight the forces that are externally killing us.
A promotional clip online shows actress Raven-Symone saying she tanned to be darker for her show “That’s So Raven.” What other moments or people’s stories can we expect to surprise us?
There are so many. One young lady had her throat cut. Literally, two dark-skinned girls cut her throat. She kept the scar because she wanted people to know that this [happened] for just looking the way that she looks. Another young lady talks about the fact that her parents would not come to her wedding because she was marrying a dark-skinned man.
What’s the message people should take from the pair of documentaries?
Is there any responsibility that we take for the future of our children? By healing the internal issues that we can heal as a people, our children don’t have to suffer the same agony and pain that we put each other through. The second message is “Stop,” because people are watching how we behave. Their behavior toward us is based on what they see us do to ourselves. We have to stop.
“Light Girls” premieres on OWN Monday, Jan. 19 at 9 p.m. EST/5 p.m. PST.