WATCH: Let’s 86 the Term ‘Dark-Skinned’ & Settle on Chocolate-Complexioned. Deal?

The Root TV gives a pretty convincing case for why we should start using more descriptive vocabulary to describe different complexions, and stop thinking of white skin as the reference point.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article and Root TV segment was published at The Root on November 19, 2014.

When CNN’s John King used the term “dark-skinned” to describe the individual that he thought was an alleged suspect in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, he was widely criticized for not being descriptive enough and also for using a charged phrase that carries with it racial connotations.

“There are some people who will take offense for even saying that,” King said during the live broadcast in April 2013. “I understand that.”

With regard to his reporting, King turned out to be dead wrong: The perpetrators of that terrorist attack were two white Chechen brothers; but more importantly, the incident revealed how arbitrary the phrase “dark-skinned” can be and the power of language.

In The Root TV segment above, The Root staffers Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele and Diamond Sharp explain why they have a personal vendetta against the term and why more descriptive vocabulary like “chocolate-complexioned” should be used to describe individuals with brown skin tones. Plus, “dark-skinned” seems to suggest that white, porcelain skin is the starting point when discussing skin hues—and that’s not the case.

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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: 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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‘Beautiful’? What about ‘Pretty’ or ‘Hot’? Why Do Brown-Complected Women Get Grandma Compliments?

lupita_l2b

Sure, she’s been celebrated. But the language with which Lupita Nyong’o’s beauty is often described is a reminder that some of us haven’t strayed far from our hesitation to embrace brown girls.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on March 12, 2014.

Perhaps my brown-girl sensitivities are tainting my view, but I feel like there’s something going on with the words we use to describe Lupita Nyong’o.

Lupita is pretty, she’s cute and she’s a legitimate dime. And I use those adjectives intentionally, because it seems like these words are rarely used to describe her good looks in everyday discourse. Nor are they frequently used to compliment chocolate-complexioned black women in general. If you pay close attention to what people are saying—whether in TV shows or romantic comedies or even just hanging out with a few fellas on a Friday night—it seems that a large chunk of men, at least a lot of the guys I know, will lay eyes on a good-looking woman, turn to their boys and launch into a variation of “She looks good,” “She’s bad” or “She’s fine.”

For brown girls, though, it’s wholesome, grandma-esque adjectives like “beautiful,” “stunning” and “gorgeous.” They’re the kinds of words that some men, particularly young men, reserve for their mother, daughter, cousin, auntie or when a woman is all dressed up for a special occasion, like Sunday service, the prom or a wedding.

A friend on Twitter noticed this trend, too:

When you do a Twitter search for the terms “Lupita” and “beautiful,” the list of results you get back is a mile long. But the same search for “Lupita” and “pretty” turns up comments like “pretty dress,” “pretty brilliant” and various exchanges about whether she’s even pretty at all.

And even when writers are trying to celebrate her, they wind up doing their own version of this, too. A Time photographer called her “captivating,” the Daily Mail described her as a “breathtaking beauty,” a New Zealand paper said she has a “striking beauty” and the Huffington Post labeled her “stunning.”

Some men really do use words like “beautiful” and “gorgeous” to compliment women—but I get the sense that the uptight language often used to describe Nyong’o’s beauty is reserved for wholesome (read: boring) women whom men appreciate but don’t actually care to court, sleep with or flaunt to their boys as proof they’ve got game.

The datable girls who qualify to be the next “Mrs.” usually start off as “pretty,” “cute” or “sexy.” There’s even a school of thought that if a man calls a young woman “beautiful,” it’s because he doesn’t actually think she’s all that attractive. “Beautiful” is the politically correct term. It’s the go-to adjective to appear couth, when guys want to describe your personality and spirit in lieu of your looks.

Plus, I feel like I can tell when someone is trying to ingratiate themselves with me to atone for a prior offense—and that’s kind of how I feel when people call Lupita “beautiful” but not “hot.” There is a deep-seated preference for lighter skin and European features, and while counterintuitive, it almost seems as if this effusive praise for Nyong’o’s beauty actually demonstrates that.

On one hand, the collective gushing reads like an apology for the way beauty standards have historically subjugated brown-skinned women. And on the other hand, it’s as if people are going all out to boost Lupita’s self-esteem. The praise isn’t simply a spontaneous, organic reaction to this woman’s beauty; it’s a compliment, yes, but one that comes with a lot of baggage.

We’ll know we’ve arrived at a place of skin-tone aesthetic equality when men—and black men in particular—fashion magazines and America in general can admire Lupita’s beauty in the same imaginative, flamboyant—even salacious—way that people have expressed admiration for Beyoncé, Sofia Vergara or Angelina Jolie. There’s unabashed awe for these ladies’ looks, without further qualification. They’re simply referred to as “hot.” Full stop.

Brown-skinned black women want to be wanted in the same manner as caramel-complexioned black women—even if the praise is less polished—because that suggests there’s parity between different hues.

Don’t gaze at us and then put us up on a pedestal, never to be touched or spoken to or courted. We’re tactile beings just like other women, and we want the good—and sometimes the bad—reactions that come along with being sexy, pretty girls. We don’t need to be coddled or reassured.

Our beauty isn’t rare—it’s rather ubiquitous when you just open your eyes and rid yourself of narrow Western standards of beauty. And guess what? You can express your attraction by using the same colorful and colloquial vocabulary used to describe those bad “light-skin” chicks from around your way. 

Sure, Lupita’s gorgeous, even “resplendent.” But you know what else? She’s also fine as hell.

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