Dear “Ugly” Dark-Skinned Girl,
It’s time for healing.
This is a love letter to every dark-skinned girl who has ever felt the burden of society’s rejection of her skin color. It’s true that many dark-skinned girls grow up without developing an emotional complex due to colorism, but that is not the case for everyone. That was not the case for my younger self, a nine-year-old black girl with ebony-colored skin, who was extremely sensitive to the opinions of her peers and highly-attuned to society’s judgement of her value.
I. The Burden
Selfishly, I must admit that this letter is as much for me as it is for other young dark-skinned girls. Because even though I am older and wiser now, and even though I’ve grown into my own skin (at least moreso than before), I too, have felt the intense, burning shame that comes with living as a dark-skinned girl in a colorist society. The pain of interacting with people who don’t appreciate your ebony complexion, aching to see some representation of yourself in the media. Not simply as the loud black girl, but the beautiful, quirky, smart black girl who is desirable and wanted, appreciated and loved.
As you can imagine, growing up in an all-white community only intensified my shame. It was extremely difficult to stand out in every crowd. I remember standing in the mandatory school choir every year, and feeling the eyes of the entire audience glued to me because I was the one person with dark brown skin, a contrast to the pale, white faces of my peers.
I envied my lighter friends, lighter extended family members—anyone who was black, but lighter than my complexion. It was an obsession.
The only solace was that I’d resolved that one day, I would bleach my skin when I could afford to buy whitening cream. I’d head down to the black beauty supply store, buy some skin whitening cream and leave a beautiful girl. In my mind, if I could only be a little bit lighter, then I would be beautiful. I wanted to be Beyoncé, not Kelly Rowland. I felt as though I could never amount to anything—never have success, unless I were of a lighter complexion. I believed that if I’d only had a lighter complexion, my friends would’ve treated me better—it didn’t occur to me that I was spending time with the wrong people. That there were people out there who would love me for me.
Unfortunately, my story is not unique. We like to believe we are above colorism, or that our modern society has advanced past the light skinned vs. dark-skinned war. However, research shows colorism remains fully intact, and is just as impactful as racism. A 2013 study from Atlanta University Center revealed that, “empirically, women with light skin experience greater success in relationships, education, and employment”. As well, lighter skinned women report higher levels of confidence and benefit from a greater sense of self-worth. That means there are little dark-skinned girls who will grow up someday and meet a world where they will be at both an economic and societal disadvantage.
So to the girl who feels worthless or feels the need to overcompensate for her ebony complexion: There are a million reasons why you should be loved, celebrated and appreciated, and if society won’t show you the love necessary, I hope you’ll come to know your own worth. Even if your family doesn’t celebrate your ebony complexion. And even though your peers may tease your tight curls, wide nose, and thick lips.
Hip-hop culture, Hollywood and modeling agencies have already made their disdain for dark-skin clear. But for once, this discussion is not about the colorist society we live in—it’s about you. The dark-skinned girl who faces the brunt of colorism every day, and the one who may live with internalized self-hatred towards herself or others. Internalized self-hatred is not a personal flaw; it is a result of being in a society that wants you to hate yourself.
Personally, I’ve had to detox myself from any ignorant ways of thinking that I learned from my family. While they never said anything explicit, my parents would cross the street whenever we encountered dark-skinned black men on the street, despite the fact that we were dark and black too. I also have a cousin who would only take selfies if they were standing under a certain light, so that she would appear to be a lighter complexion.
Re-conditioning the mind is one of the first steps to overcoming racism and white supremacy. The same goes for colorism. Educating yourself on the inner workings of racism and colorism, will give you the tools to protect yourself when you see both systems in your everyday world. Learning about the history of colorism will help you understand the way it operates in a systematic way, and prevent you from further internalizing any self-hatred or colorist ideals.
Surround yourself with images of people who look like you—everyday dark-skinned black women who face the same systems of oppression that you do. The people you spend time with reflect your character and shape your future, so let go of any toxic friendships. Reduce your contact with friends or family who continually throw out hurtful, colorist remarks and anyone who continues to hold racist or colorist beliefs.
Stand up for yourself. While you can’t control how the world treats you, you can control how you treat yourself. Standing up for yourself doesn’t always mean responding verbally to colorist remarks that people throw out, but it means making a deliberate choice to create a healthy, positive space for yourself.
In order to move forward from colorism and reduce its power over you, you will need to recognize the many ways our colorist society has systematically shaped and created your insecurities. It’s much easier to remove self-hate once you understand that society has been designed to uplift lighter-skinned people at the expense of dark-skinned black people. Rather than internalizing colorism and racism, you can shift the blame to colonialism, slavery, white supremacy and our modern society which continues to push colorist rhetoric.
Accepting society’s misguided judgement of your worth does not mean agreeing with the judgement that light skin is superior to dark skin. It means truthfully recognizing that society is colorist, and being prepared to protect yourself from the harsh realities of colorism. Remaining educated on the ways in which you may be affected may give you an advantage. It’s true that darker skinned people get longer prison sentences and reduced employment opportunities.
Thus, it’s important to build and support platforms that actively work against colorism and provide exclusive positive promotion for dark-skinned black people.
This Alice Walker quote reminds us that dismantling colorism is an important part of the progression of black women, and black people as a whole:
“Unless the question of Colorism...is addressed in our communities and definitely in our black "sisterhoods" we cannot, as people, progress.” - Alice Walker, In Search Of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose
If these words aren’t enough—which they likely won’t be, as there’s only so much words from a stranger can do, please consider seeking professional help. I wish someone had recommended I see a therapist when I was younger. Perhaps it would’ve prevented the years of depression and darkness I faced as a result of hating my dark skin.
i. You Are Enough
You are enough. Maybe you’ve previously made a habit of pondering over your weaknesses and ignoring your strengths, honing in on the few things you lack and glancing over the many ways you contribute to the world. Now is the time to put an end to focusing on the things you could be, and concentrate on the things you already are.
ii. You Are Beautiful
It’s true that our society holds an objective beauty standard that few can reach. However, true beauty is subjective. We’ve all heard sappy stories of inner beauty, but the truth is, outer beauty is not lasting. It is certainly not fulfilling. Although society doesn’t offer you validation, you must do whatever it takes to find the beauty in yourself both inwardly and outwardly. Whether you’ve dreamed of having more European-centric facial features, slimmer hips, or a lighter complexion, choose to start loving and showing off the parts of yourself that society rejects.
You are not alone.
“While some have described her as overly opinionated, Grace much prefers the terms headstrong and passionate. She is a voracious reader, a dog-lover and a self-professed pop culture junkie. Her other hobbies include watching sappy romantic comedies, consuming too many strawberry-filled doughnuts and people-watching. Grace currently attends university, where she is working towards a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Pre-Law.”