A Candid Q&A with the Author of the “Dark Girls” Book

dark girls book

Since the documentary did so well on OWN, the director thought people would appreciate the tactile experience of celebrating brown women in book form.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on November 14, 2014.

I knew very early on that my strand of black wasn’t exactly preferred or exalted. I’m chocolate-complexioned—or, to use the term that is most frequently used to describe my hue (much to my chagrin), dark-skinned.

Colorism. It’s arguably one of the most painful vestiges of slavery: society’s disproportionate preference for caramel-complexioned black women, and the insecurities that it has bestowed on women with dark-brown hues as a result.

But contrary to popular belief, it’s not a “black American thing.” There’s a global fascination and preference for fairer complexions. During a phone interview with The Root, film director and actor Bill Duke spoke about the research he did while preparing for his documentary Dark Girlswhich he has now turned into a brilliant and powerful book. It was released this week, and Lupita Nyong’o is on the cover. Duke described how dark-brown men in India bleach their skin because they don’t want to be mistaken for a low-income Indian man who works in the fields. 

The Dark Girls book features dozens of interviews with high-profile black women who share similar accounts of how they’ve had to contend with their chocolate complexions at some point in their lives. Author Sheila Moses interviewed the women and found that those who were under the age of 50 “did not have the same level of comfort” as older women like Sheryl Lee Ralph and Loretta Devine. The Root spoke with Duke about the book and how colorism might affect people differently; the edited exchange is below: 

lupita_dark girls

The Root: As you raised money for the Dark Girls documentary and then developed the concept into a book, were there people who found the entire discussion and premise to be divisive and incendiary?

Bill Duke: Yes—a lot of people felt like this is something that we shouldn’t be exposing because it was our business—as they called it—and they wanted to know why was I exposing it to the general public.

The most poignant moment was during a screening of the documentary at the Apollo Theater, and an elderly black lady stood up during the Q&A portion and said, “Mr. Duke, thank you for making the film. I enjoyed it but I have to ask you this question: Why are you exposing our dirty laundry?”

And I said to her, “Ma’am, with all due respect, because it’s stinking up the house.” The fact of the matter is, there are young little girls that are suffering because of the color of their skin, and that has to be addressed.

dark girls book

TR: Did you ever think that we should stop using the term “dark skin” to describe chocolate complexions, since it seems to imply that white skin is the standard and the base complexion with which all other skin tones should be compared?

BD: The thing that I was addressing is not how we would like to be referred to but how we are actually perceived and how that perception is impacting beautiful girls that are brown-complected.

You either have a choice of titling it what you would prefer it to be, or titling it in terms of how it’s perceived in the world. I chose the latter.

dark girls book 3

TR: Is it your hope that Dark Girls will be given to and read by black boys and black men, too? What do you think that impact might be?

BD: The book will hopefully display the beauty of our women—particularly and specifically our dark-skinned women. Young boys and men will see a book that portrays dark-skinned women that are successful, have power, have given back to the community and are leaders. Hopefully that will impact their vision, understanding and respect for dark-skinned women.

I also think that the book is attempting to be a tool for young people so that they understand that whatever is said negative about women of dark complexions is a lie.

It is meant to encourage. Young black girls can show it to those people that describe them as anything less than beautiful.

dark girls book 4

TR: It seems brown-complected men and women have similar insecurities about their complexions, but gender can play a significant role in people’s experiences. There’s the idea that dark men have an easier time than women. How might each of their journeys to self-acceptance and self-love differ?

BD: Women are sold these standards of beauty that are established by the beauty business. They try to live up to those standards, but they can never meet them because every time they meet a standard, the beauty business changes the standard in order to sell more product.

But pain is pain. You can’t compare pain. Black women go through horrific things because of the shade of their skin, but how can I compare their pain to my pain?

I didn’t go to my prom because when I was growing up, the pretty boys got the dates. They had light skin, “good hair” and light eyes. I couldn’t get a date to my senior prom because I was 6 feet, very dark-complected and … not considered handsome at that time. To compare pain, I think, is a useless effort.

dark girls book 5

TR: In the book, you wrote a preface describing your own experiences as a dark black man, but that sort of revelation is rare among men. Why do you think chocolate-complexioned men don’t seem to carry the same burdens about their skin tones that their female counterparts do? Or maybe men do, but they’re not as vocal about their insecurities?

BD: Men are not vocal about their insecurities because we are taught to hide our pain. If you show your feelings or pain, you’re considered weak or, as they used to call it in the old days, a sissy.

This is why we die of cancer and ulcers and those kinds of diseases because we are not encouraged to show our pain. Unless you have a woman in your life that understands that you’re a human being also.

dark girls book 6

TR: You directed Sister Act 2, and I wonder if it’s a coincidence that the film’s two leading ladies—Whoopi Goldberg and, at that point, a newcomer to the big screen, Lauryn Hill, both chocolate-complexioned women—were cast in those roles. When thinking about your career, do you think you had an ulterior motive to give opportunities to dark-brown actresses who were perhaps being overlooked by Hollywood casting agents?

BD: Yes. I wanted to be able to—well, I’m not choosing people based on their color. But if they’re equally talented, I definitely wanted to make sure that they were not denied the opportunity because of the color of their skin.

I wanted to let people know that these people are beautiful also.

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WATCH: Black-ish Woes. My Success Has Made My Kid Less Motivated

Scared that your success might make your child less motivated? We are too.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on November 2, 2014.

At the heart of the ABC series Black-ish lies one question: How do you go about instilling certain traits and values in your children about hard work and success if your kids have a much more privileged upbringing than you had growing up? It’s a question that is furrowing the collective eyebrows of middle-class and upper middle-class black parents who fear that their own successes will cause their children to not develop certain qualities that would help them propel them to the top.

The Root’s Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele speaks with Nita Young, an accomplished school principal who says she struggled to motivate her daughter to do well in school and take initiative, and Angel Harris, Professor of Sociology and African and African American Studies, who sheds light on how children think about their upward mobility and their chances at success.

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It Will Compel Even the Most Reluctant to Empathize with Ferguson in Under 10 Minutes

This 14-minute film about race and empathy will stop you dead in your tracks this Halloween weekend.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on November 1, 2014.

Empathy.

It’s probably one of the most difficult emotions to teach. It’s the emotion that President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama want most for their daughters to be able to readily tap into—the ability to put oneself in another’s person shoes and experience the world from his or her point of view; to feel the highs, the lows and the nuances of a situation from a completely different vantage point—and then to be able to incorporate that point of view into your own decision-making.

It’s an idea that ran through my head again and again and again as the nation was reeling from the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and then Jordan Davis and then Renisha McBride and, most recently, Michael Brown.

“A life is a life is a life,” I said to myself over and over again.

The short film AmeriCAN, which was released to the public on Wednesday, captures that sentiment so compellingly. Written and directed by actor Nate Parker (Beyond the Lights, The Great Debaters), the 14-minute film begins at the dinner table and ends with a single gunshot that Parker is hoping will shake viewers—particularly white Americans—out of this trance that suggests that black skin is less than, inferior.

“We’ve been conditioned to dehumanize black skin,” Parker said during an interview with The Root.

At the dinner table sits a white family: the father (a police officer), a mother and their two sons—a teenager and his younger brother. The teenager has an African-American friend, J.B., whom he wants to hang out with, but his father doesn’t want him leaving the house to meet up with J.B.—and especially not at night.

“I want to keep you from bad situations,” the father explains to his son—an eerie foretelling, but more important, indicative of the violence that this white man associates with all black boys, even J.B., a black boy he knows personally and considers to be “a good kid.” The irony.

Spoiler alert: Events unfold that night that allow this white police officer and, hopefully, white viewers to experience the grief that has become all too familiar for far too many black parents.

When Parker was in Ferguson, Mo., during the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, he said that what he found even more disturbing were the white protesters who were holding signs and chanting messages expressing their support of the police and the officer who fatally shot Brown, Darren Wilson.

That some white people couldn’t understand why black America was up in arms about the excessive police force that is used against black men, and felt that it was appropriate to communicate their support for Wilson so soon after the incident, seemed “worse than what actually happened,” Parker explained.

There was a lack of empathy. And AmeriCAN does a fascinating job of giving white Americans the burden to bear as well. But “the film is not an indictment,” Parker said again and again. He wants people, especially cops, to “take a beat.”

“Just take a beat,” he said, and be more conscious about the way dark-brown complexions are not valued in America, and the brutal way we perceive the intentions of black men. If more people—both law enforcement and civilians—took a beat and imagined young black men as their own kids, it would go a long way.

AmeriCAN left me stunned, saddened and yet oddly vindicated that activists like Parker (he maintains that he’s an activist first and an actor second) are using every tool at their disposal to change the messaging so that those white Americans who are sick of black people complaining about racism and police brutality get it.

This Halloween weekend, AmeriCAN allows white Americans to dress up as blacks, just for a moment. It’s a soul-baring journey that everyone ought to have.

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The Root TV: Breast Cancer at Age 26: Her Boyfriend Found Her Lump

A misdiagnosis at 26 led to a double mastectomy at age 28. The Root TV speaks with Tiffani John about her fight against breast cancer and the importance of early detection and self examination.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This segment was published at The Root TV on October 26, 2014.

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WATCH: Diana Discusses Raven-Symoné’s Contradictory Comments On ‘What Is American’

Raven spoke as if all Americans are mixed-race or perhaps not clear about their ancestry.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This segment was published at The Root TV on Oct. 7, 2014.

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Pssst! Here’s a Cheat Sheet for the US-Africa Leaders Summit

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama

Need some talking points? Make reference to China’s influence, the unrest in South Sudan and Libya, and be sure to throw in, “Did you hear what Hillary said?!” and you’ll be all right.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on August 4, 2014.

Africa’s coming to town.

And in a big way. Africa’s movers and shakers are in Washington, D.C., this week to chop it up with President Barack Obama about trade and investment opportunities, politics and the U.S.’s interests in the region’s stability. The 2014 U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit is the largest gathering of African presidents and leaders ever to meet with a U.S. president.

If you’ve got your eyes on the international stage, then this initiative should be of no surprise. China has been making a killing in Africa. The Chinese had the insight to take Africa seriously as an economic partner when a lot of nations saw the continent more as a humanitarian charity case. Now that Africa’s influence is becoming increasingly important to a lot of countries’ bottom lines and GDPs, Western nations are looking at the Motherland through a new lens.

The festivities start on Monday. Here are some topics to keep in mind when gabbing about the summit at the watercooler or during happy hour as you take in the news reports that’ll trickle out of this three-day affair:

1.) South Sudan’s civil war is ongoing.

United Nations peacekeepers patrol a road in Malakal, South Sudan, as internally displaced South Sudanese people go about their daily routines.

United Nations peacekeepers patrol a road in Malakal, South Sudan, as internally displaced South Sudanese people go about their daily routines.

The civil war in South Sudan is not looking like it’s getting any better. The 2013 fallout between its warring ethnic groups—those loyal to the current president, Salva Kiir of the Dinka tribe, and those loyal to a deposed vice president, Riek Machar of the Nuer tribe—is picking up steam again since the meetings that were supposed to take place last week to drum up solutions were delayed. Apparently both sides are still engaged in off-the-record conversations about the state of the transitional government. South Sudan is a fairly new country—it split from Sudan in 2011 and has been embroiled in ethnic fighting stemming from that succession ever since. That there’s still fighting going on in one of its northern states is not helping move things along.

The United States and Europe threw down the gauntlet by freezing important assets in the country and told both sides that they have until mid-August to form an interim government that has a clear plan for maintaining the peace.

2.) Ebola is refueling Africa’s “image” problem.

Members of Doctors Without Borders put on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, Guinea, where people infected with the Ebola virus are being treated.

Members of Doctors Without Borders put on protective gear at the isolation ward of the Donka Hospital in Conakry, Guinea, where people infected with the Ebola virus are being treated.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, primarily Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have people on edge. In fact the leaders of Liberia and Sierra Leone will be skipping the summit in order to tend to the Ebola outbreaks in their countries. Within the past two weeks, more than 100 new cases were reported in these countries, and two American health care workers who were working in Liberia contracted the virus. Besides the obvious health concerns, one point that is not being discussed, which ought to be, is how this recent outbreak is unraveling the years of work it took to undo the perception that Africa is a diseased continent and that travelers going there should beware.

Unfortunately, for many parts of West Africa, that perception is now a reality.

3.) Libya’s power vacuum has taken a turn for the worse.

Libyans take part in a demonstration in the capital, Tripoli, on July 31, 2014, calling for international intervention to protect civilians.

Libyans take part in a demonstration in the capital, Tripoli, on July 31, 2014, calling for international intervention to protect civilians.

The summit, like most initiatives about Africa, will likely focus on the continent’s sub-Saharan countries, but Libya, an African country that is typically brought up during discussions relating to the Middle East, ought to be on everyone’s minds as well.

Getting rid of a dictator is typically a good thing but the power vacuums that emerge often create bigger problems. It’s been nearly three years since Libya’s former leader Moammar Gadhafi was disposed. But in that time, the interim government has not been able to reign in the various law-enforcement groups that have vied to fill that slot and provide security. The situation has gotten so bad on the ground that several embassies were evacuated—including that of the U.S.—and the United Nations no longer has a strong presence in the region.

There’s been chatter that this is the West’s problem, since Gadhafi’s ousting was heavily influenced and backed by Great Britain and France. Some say the enthusiasm to hold Libya’s hand as it transitions to a sound democracy hasn’t been there, and that lack of support is causing a lot of violence, unrest and confusion on the ground.

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11 Compelling Hip-Hop Lyrics That Give Props to Africa

Nas

Nas

If you were to look to rap music to see how American attitudes about Africa have evolved, here is what you’d find.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on June 19, 2014.

Middle America caught whiff of the tension brewing between the police and low-income black communities in the early 1990s because of the lyrics on N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton album and Public Enemy’s call to “fight the power that be.”

People didn’t need to hear statistics about women entering the workforce in droves because Queen Latifah said so in “Ladies First.” She was no journalist, but she was reporting about a new generation of women who were taking charge at home and work. When Jay Z told folks to “change clothes” and to “throw on a suit [and] get it tapered up,” we knew hip-hop was growing up right before our very eyes.

Hip-hop has always served as a compass for showing the direction that urban culture has taken on a variety of issues, including Africa. Africa has shown up in some pretty interesting ways in hip-hop music, particularly in the profound lyrics and statements made by its artists.

But Africa has always been a tricky topic. Mainstream America was fed a steady diet of images featuring naked tribal men living alongside lions, tigers and elephants while bare-breasted women tended to emaciated children. Disease, famine and refugee camps became synonymous with the continent because of those infomercials that begged Americans to donate a dollar a day to feed an African child. Just this week, Delta Air Lines experienced a social media faux pas when it put up an image of a giraffe as a way to represent the West African country Ghana. Twitter graciously took the airline to task for the error since giraffes are not indigenous to the country.

Through hip-hop, black American artists began educating the mainstream about Africa by singing praises about its people and its culture. At times, they’ve even self-identified as African—which is a pretty major feat since the continent is not always depicted in the best light. For African-American Music Appreciation Month, The Root decided to point its hip-hop compass at the artists and lyrics that provide a sense of how attitudes and perceptions about Africa have evolved.

1. Lil Wayne

Lil Wayne

Lil Wayne

When the natural-hair movement exploded a few years ago, the kinks and curls that Type 4 black girls once subdued with relaxers and texturizers were set free. YouTube instructional videos and articles in mainstream news outlets documented this phenomenon in great detail.

But caring for kinky hair is not for the faint of heart. It requires lots of moisturizing, gentle detangling and an understanding that each luscious strand can think and act independently from the rest, which is what New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne presumably meant when he called it “tough” in his 2008 release A Milli. His reference to one of the more popular countries on the continent, Nigeria—currently the richest and most populous country in Africa—is fitting, too.

2. Nas

Nas

Nas

Nas’ bars are chock-full of history lessons.

On a Thursday morning in 1971, approximately 1,000 inmates staged a rebellion and took over one of the most infamous maximum-security prisons in New York, the Attica Correctional Facility. While holding approximately 40 prison staff hostage, the inmates drafted a manifesto outlining the concerns they had about their living conditions. They protested the prison’s overcrowding, poor food quality, inadequate health care and harsh physical treatment the inmates endured at the hands of correctional officers.

After four days of negotiations, and casualties endured on both sides, the riot was quelled and authorities agreed to adopt more than two dozen of the inmates’ demands. The Attica prison uprising was a watershed moment in the prison-rights movement.

Africa is often thought of as an ideal destination for the enlightened black man in America, and so it is no surprise that the Afrocentric Nas described how if he ruled the world, in his 1996 duet with Lauryn Hill, he’d free the Attica inmates and send them on a well-deserved trip to the Motherland.

3. Drake

Drake

Drake

All the caramel-complexioned girls with parents from countries like Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, and names like Mekdes, Louam and Alitash, had to be feeling themselves just a little bit after hearing Canadian rapper Drake’s verse in “Poetic Justice.” He complained about how an East African girl swerved on his advances and instead chose to hang out with another guy.

It makes sense why East Africans are on Drake’s radar. Toronto, his hometown, has a sizable Ethiopian community and one of the largest Somalian populations outside of Africa. According to the 2000 census (pdf), the U.S. takes in a large number of immigrants from countries like Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea and Kenya.

If I were Djiboutian and could convince my mom that Drake was one-quarter Afar, I’d take Drake up on his offer, or at least would keep him in the running as a potential suitor. Round-trip tickets to cities like Addis Ababa and Juba are costly, and we all know it means something when a guy offers to meet your mom—and offers to foot the bill for her vacation back to Africa at that. Later on in the song, Drake gushes about their “natural hair and soft skin.”

East African girls, I’m no Cupid, but it sounds like Drake might be a keeper.

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1994 Harvard Student: Nigeria’s Democratic President Was Overthrown. He Was My Dad.

moshood abiola_cover

Moshood Abiola

A new documentary explores an underdiscussed idea: that a democratically elected president in Nigeria didn’t receive adequate assistance from America in 1993 when he was overthrown by the military. The possible reason? Oil.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on June 26, 2014.

Hafsat Abiola was walking on campus one day in 1994 as a student at Harvard University when she was summoned by a group of students who were collecting signatures for a petition.

“There’s an elected president in jail in Nigeria and we’re gathering signatures to demand his release,” one of them said to her.

It brought Hafsat Abiola to tears.

The man they were advocating for was her father, Moshood Abiola, a Nigerian businessman and politician. Moshood Abiola was the presumed winner of the 1993 presidential elections in Nigeria, a historic election that was supposed to put an end to the country’s 23-year on-again, off-again, bout with military dictatorships. U.S. President Bill Clinton reportedly called Abiola’s win the “biggest demonstration of democracy since the ending of apartheid.”

Moshood Abiola votes for himself in Nigeria’s 1993 presidential elections.

Moshood Abiola votes for himself in Nigeria’s 1993 presidential elections.

The celebrations, however, were short-lived. Nigeria’s military challenged the election results, overthrew Moshood Abiola’s pending administration and threatened anyone who opposed the new military regime.

But it was too late. Nigerians had already gotten a taste of democracy. That their new democracy was being yanked from them so recklessly ignited a firestorm. People took to the streets to protest the military coup. Moshood Abiola traveled the world to bring attention to the political crisis. He made it all the way to the White House to encourage the international community to put pressure on the Nigerian military so that it would step down and allow his civilian administration to take hold.

He returned to Nigeria and was soon captured by military soldiers and jailed. Civil rights activists in Nigeria and abroad—much like those students at Harvard—demanded that he be released and reinstated as president.

This watershed moment in Nigeria’s history is fleshed out in a new documentary called The Supreme Price. It’s a fascinating history lesson about the country and gives a compelling account of how Moshood Abiola’s senior wife, Kudirat Abiola, and their daughter, Hafsat Abiola, risked their lives to reinstate Abiola and fight for the pro-democracy movement in modern-day Nigeria.

One of the film’s most poignant themes is an idea that’s underdiscussed: that Nigeria did not receive adequate assistance from the United States when its democratically elected leader was being toppled by the military. In the documentary, Hafsat Abiola is still reeling from that as she describes how the U.S. government did little to support her dad’s efforts during Nigeria’s political crisis. The reason she says the U.S. didn’t support her father still annoys her, too: Nigeria is one of America’s top oil suppliers, and the military controlled the country’s oil patches at that time.

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The Annoyingly Effective Ways African and Caribbean Parents Get Their Kids to Get A’s

Screenshot: "ItsMrLawson" YouTube Page

Screenshot: “ItsMrLawson” YouTube Page

As we bask in graduation season, watch these parody videos that show black immigrant parents’ obsession with perfect test scores. And get this: A few of these spoofs are great history lessons in disguise.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

Social media have been inundated with news reports about those brilliant high school students who gained admission to a boatload of Ivy League schools. That many of them are first-generation black Americans (children whose parents come from countries in Africa or the Caribbean) made headlines, too. Not to mention that “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua put out a list earlier this year singling out the Nigerian culture for its prowess at rearing high-achieving students.

It seems as though something special is happening in African and Caribbean households that is making their children excel. It makes you wonder: What, exactly, are their parents doing to raise such successful children?

A handful of hilarious YouTube videos demonstrate some of the antics used by black immigrant parents to get their kids to take their studies very, very seriously. Parents will also be happy to know that some of these spoofs can moonlight as great history lessons. So be prepared to laugh and learn.

1. Nigerian Dad

This Nigerian father is utterly appalled and disgusted that 1) He had to remind his son to bring his report card to him for review, and 2) his son’s average grade was a—wait for it—90. When his son tries to explain to him that he earned the highest grade in the class, his father immediately rejects that line of thought and encourages his son (in an aggressive but hilarious manner) not to compare himself to others. In many non-American black households, regardless of how well the student does in school, parents often encourage their kids to focus on the test questions they got wrong so that the next time around, their child will not get any questions wrong. Perfection is the goal.

As punishment, the Nigerian dad tells his son that he will be eating Ghanaian jollof rice for dinner—and this is where the history lesson comes in. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Nigeria was a hot spot in West Africa. The oil economy boomed and a lot of people from neighboring countries like Togo and Ghana came to Lagos to work and fraternize with Nigeria’s working class.

After a while, when Nigeria’s economy slowed down and jobs became few and far between, the country needed to get rid of its excess labor pool—and thus the “Ghana Must Go” movement was born. Ghanaian immigrants had to take whatever belongings they had, stuff them into medium-sized checkered grocery bags and return to their country.

That brief history (Nigerians were expelled from Ghana for similar reasons in the late 1960s) has always been at the heart of the harmless enmity between Nigerians and Ghanaians. That’s why the Nigerian dad teases his son by suggesting that he will eat Ghanaian jollof rice as punishment: He’s taking a dig at a longtime West African rival.

2. Jamaican Dad

It’s parent-teacher night, and this Jamaican father is not pleased with the feedback he’s hearing about his son’s behavior in math and music class.

At one point the father launches into the lecture that nearly every child has heard: the “back in my day” or “when I was your age” rant. But what’s unique about the African and Caribbean version is that it typically involves walking miles and miles to school—barefoot; not having enough resources to learn once you got there (45 kids to a classroom); getting swats across your wrists if you even think about challenging your teacher; and having to do your homework at home with little to no light (or electricity) available.

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WATCH: There’s No Such Thing as a ‘Bad’ Match-Up | Episode 20

Why Carrie should develop compassion for the part of herself that is attracted to harm.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This is Part 9 of a 9-part analysis of Carrie and Mr. Big’s relationship from Sex and the City.

Experts Featured:

(1) Drew Joseph, MA, LMFT, provides individual and couple therapy to adults in Washington, DC. His therapeutic methods are informed by psychodynamic psychology and Shambhala Buddhism. Learn more about Drew Joseph here.

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