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.