Between Darkness and Light: Precious & Obama

At work recently, one of my co-workers saw the underside of my arm, which is lighter than the upperside and she was so surprised that she commented, “Ify, I never noticed your skin is so light, so precious!” and I was like “what are you talking about?” This woman is from a west African country, medium to dark black but the skin all the way around her arm is very even-toned unlike mine, which is a little darker on top than on the underside.

My social work professor is offering an extra credit opportunity, which includes watching the movie Precious and a writing our thoughts about the film. So this past Sunday, after watching the Hijabi Monologues, I went to see the film with some sisters. The film is disturbing although it has its good moments, we entered the theater laughing and left silent, each of us lost in our own thoughts, still processing what we had witnessed on the screen.

I had heard one review of Precious on the radio before going to see it and one of the commentators, a writer for the Root, an online publication mentioned that she noticed that all of the good redeeming characters in the life of Precious were light-skinned blacks or white and that the negative characters particularly her abusive parents were dark-skinned black.

Before, going to see the film, I watched the film Antwone Fisher and noticed the same thing, even though directed by an dark-skinned African American Denzel Washington and excluding his role as the psychiatrist most of the redeeming or helpful characters in Fisher’s life were light-skinned blacks. I’m also reading the book on which the film is based called Finding Fish. In the movie Antwone Fisher, the woman who sexually abused him is dark-skinned, his foster mom is medium-toned, the foster father dark-skinned, the mother that abandoned him is dark-skinned while his girlfriend and the psychiatrist’s wife that help soften him are light-skinned as well as his aunt who takes him in and introduces him to the rest of his family.

The same pattern is followed in the film Precious. Precious and her abusive parents are dark-skinned. Her father only figures for a moment and his depiction is quite animalistic and harkens back to all the stereotypes of the dark, naked, sweaty, licentious, and savage African only fit for slavery. The film’s redeeming characters, those that love and help the protagonist Precious are all white or light-skinned blacks. First her principal is a white woman, then the teacher at her new alternative school that is instrumental in her academic and personal transformation is light-skinned black, then the caring nurse is played by Lenny Kravitz, who I believe is mixed, and Mariah Carey as the social worker, who I’m not really sure what her background is, I believe she is also mixed, but am not sure if she is supposed to be white or mixed in the film. All this despite the film being produced by two relatively dark-skinned and successful blacks Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.  They are no real positive representations of dark-skinned blacks in Precious.

A study was released this week, which appears to show that an individual’s political bias even affects how one views President Obama’s skin tone. From NPR, Study: Politcal Bent Affectd How We View Skin Tone. Those that agree with the President tend to view his skin tone as lighter than those who disagree with his policies.

Even though I grew up in a small mostly white college town in upstate New York, my family is from Nigeria and so light-skinned blacks were definitely in the minority usually do to having a white parent or grandparent in their recent family history. I never saw my skin tone as odd, obviously I recognized the racial dynamics at play between whites and blacks. It was unavoidable and inescapable due to the demographics of my hometown, school, and neighborhood as well as my father being a professor of African and African American history teaching classes including Institutional Racism and Apartheid Today, which we often had recapped at the dinner table.

I never recall having a feeling that light-skinned blacks were somehow better, more beautiful or more likely to succeed. But I wonder how even a cursory study of the images in popular media without having strong images and role-models or even a critical mind to counteract the constant stream of “light is better” messages affects individuals and the society, which produces them. Obama may be in the Oval Office but the insidiousness continues to lurk in the hearts and minds.


  1. AS,

    Growing up we always noticed how “lighter-skinned” minorities got it the best. No matter what country you come from like from my family’s (India), or from East Africa, or wherever. i.e. Bleaching cream. I used to the think colonialism was the root of it, but somehow I feel that it was just an intermediary, and that this problem existed for thousands of years. As there is even hints of it through hadith (no I’m not saying Islam = racism …but talking about pre-Jahiliyyah culture).

    We used to talk about it in gradeschool as well. The media no doubt has a preference for lighter skinned minorities. Moreso for females than males (most probably b/c everything is male dominated). This can even be seen in major metropolitan cities. i.e. the city where I am from the more towards Downtown you go, the darker the AA’s get. Similar in southside Chicago. It’s just what it is due to societal restrictions and prejudices. Even around my non-Muslim friends. Having a “red-boned” gf was thing to get, or the prized possession.

    1. It’s very interesting to hear others experiences. I grew up somewhat insulated from those dark skin/light skin issues within the black community simply because most of the blacks I grew up around were medium-dark brown. There were a few lighter-skinned ones but I never got the feeling they were treated better or even thought to be more beautiful. My family is igbo and igbos tend to be very proud of our distinct features and sometimes express feelings of sympathy for people that are perceived to lack the right color, features, and full figure.

    2. SubhanAllah, my sister and I were just talking about this the other day after a relative said to me: mashaAllah, your skin looks so bright, you’ve gotten lighter! It may not sound that bad but just the way she said, it was like because I supposedly got lighter, my features changed.

      A few months ago when I went to my mom’s tafseer class, she was introducing me to her friends and before they even returned my salaam they said: *this* is your daughter?! How come she’s not light like you?! Looks like your husband got more of her than you did! (You know my mom, she looks like an Arab) I was so turned off subhanAllah, and the way they glared at me was even worse! I just stood there awkwardly thinking, sorry I’m not white. The sad part is that it’s within the culture to think this way. In fact, my grandmother is terrified of black people. I just don’t get it. may Allah remove this ignorance from us.

    3. btw Ify, I never heard of this movie! I just looked at the trailer, I totally see what you’re saying.

      I saw this the other day was was quite shocked!

      I think it’s also being fed to us at a young age. I just remembered two incidents that happened while I was in Ottawa…

      My cousin is married to a Lebanese brother and I’m not sure who is feeding them this propaganda but I heard their oldest daughter (around age 6) tell her younger sister (around age 4) who loves bananas that she shouldn’t eat a banana because only somalis eat bananas! I laughed at first but subhanAllah I wonder who would tell her something like that.

      My young cousin who is around 6-7 (Taqwaa, I think you met her in Ottawa 🙂 ) came to me just a few weeks ago while I was there and said: I wish I had hair like you, then I would be beautiful!
      la hawla wa la quwwata ila billah! I went to my aunt and asked her where on earth did she get that idea and she mentioned how Taqwaa goes to a predominately Arab Islamic school and how all of her classmates are light with straight hair and some even tell her she has ugly hair and that she is dark 😦 All of us have to try and counter what she is hearing from school but it’s really difficult.

      I’m going to show Magda your article, she talks about this more than I do 🙂

    4. @ MuslimApple

      I’m not some crazy super social-psycologist, but I’ve def noticed a liking of the lighter skin more akin in the southern-related communities? in America… When I go to the East Coast, or talk to people from there, it’s not really like that. Re: Women of lighter color vs. darker color. Although, you’ll always hear it from the older generation no matter what (at least my friend’s moms).

      @ Amatullah

      You reminded me of one time we were in the car driving , and there was a Pakistani brother and an AA brother in the car. Something came up about I don’t even remember who, and I said something like “man s/he is super light-skinned compared to their parents” and he responded with “ya MashaAllah” (meaning like Desi culture, “ya Allah has blessed him/her with beautiful skin”-type of thing) And it got silent, and me and the AA brother was like “what?” It was hilarious because HE didn’t even noticed how weird that “mashaAllah” was until we were like “damn what are we, ugly?”. Afterward haha he was seeking repentance from Allah. It was funny.

  2. The light-skin preference is quite predominant in Pakistani/desi culture as well…you can tell at weddings especially where the bride puts so much makeup on her face you can’t tell if its the same girl. Majority of men want light-skinned wives. It’s quite sad

    1. Yes, I’ve seen some desi wedding pictures with the caked on white face makeup, pretty scary actually. It’s strange to me because I think the girl looks so much better without that.

  3. Assalaamu Alaykum,

    @ Amatullah – I have nothing against Somalis at all. Some of my best friends are from Somalia.

    But they really do eat a lot of bananas. I lived in Atlanta for a long time and there’s a significant Somali population with several Somali/East African restaurants.

    Every meal you get from their restaurants includes a banana. They even eat bananas with their rice! I thought it was the strangest thing.

    Then one of them told me they thought it was strange when Americans ate bananas without rice!

    It may not have been subtle-prejudice on your niece’s part. Perhaps she just noticed a trend.

    Speaking of race relations, this ex-Muslim has to say interesting views about Islam

    1. Asalamu alaykum Abu Ibrahim, welcome to the blog.

      Rice with bananas is a common thing for Nigerians as well. Rice without banana is just not as good.

    2. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

      Are you sure that’s the usual sweet banana? In Ethiopia they have a banana-like vegetable which is used as a starch, and a lot of Somalis live in Ethiopia. Also, bananas don’t grow in Somalia. They grow in central and south America, the Caribbean and in the Azores.

  4. This ignorance lives all around the world. Amatullah noted how some Arabs react to light vs dark. So many Arab women by bleaching creams and makeup so they will be lighter and thus “more attractive” it is sad. My wife is Arab and I am of German descent when we are around her family they always note that the “kids look more like dad.” Always adding “at least they are not dark like your wife.” It is their sister they are taking about. Allah help us with this ignorance.

  5. when there’s a discussion about Somalis, it always tends to go to their food huh?

    Well, I’m of the small minority who does NOT do the banana and rice thing. The comment by my niece was not the first of its kind which is why I think someone from her father’s side told her that. She’s said before how she’s not Somali but she’s Lebanese because Lebanese are better. I just find it disturbing for a 6 yr old girl to say such things.

    @Yusuf Smith bananas don’t grow in Somalia? You mean originally or at all? I know there are banana trees there.

  6. Very interesting perspective.

    I am half Somali and I eat bananas with rice sometimes. Every nation has its eating habits and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I have heard several stories and experienced many situations where skin tone mattered…

    I was in Dubai with my cousin this summer and we visited her In-laws there. When they found out I was only half Somali and my mom was African American they were telling me I was lucky I looked like my dad. Although I get the exact opposite when I am with my mom because she looks Egyptian.

    I don’t let it get to me, we are what we are, and Allah (swt) doesn’t make us except in the best form, so Alhamdulillah right?

  7. As Salaamu Aleykum,

    Came across your blog today, MashaAllah its very nice =)

    Yeah, for some reason people do prefer lighter skin. I didn’t know it was a big deal in the entertainment industry until recently, i mean – i thought people would be over such stuff today. Seems like a lot aren’t. I’m just confused as to whether people think lighter skinned people are BETTER than darker skinned people, or just prettier? You don’t need to be light skinned to be pretty.

    About the bananas: i am full somali and i love eating bananas not only with rice, but with pasta too. yup. tomato sauce and all. But if there isn’t any banana then its not the end of the world lol. @Yusuf Smith, they are the regular sweet bananas you get from the supermarket.

    Wsalaam =)

  8. Same goes for Tyler Perry movies, as my wife pointed out to me yesterday. Another interesting thing is that alot of white people spend alot of time in the sun or tanning booths to darken their skin. Just an observation.

  9. Light skin, dark skin, who cares? As long as there’s light in the heart…doesn’t matter to me.

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