“MOST publications lighten darker people, because lighter skin and hair reflect more light and are more eye catching, magazines are after all a business. BUT! For example: Where ARE the cameras that make brown skin look amazing? Oprah has them I can tell you that! But in general, lights and cameras are ALWAYS tuned for lighter complexions. This is what institutionalized racism looks like. So, for musicians and actresses in the public eye, you are not just selling your talent, you are actually selling yourself. YOU become a product. The less your product fits into conventional beauty ideals, the less MARKETABLE, and therefore, less safe of an investment you are.” -India Arie
The Black woman is the greatest gift that has ever been presented to the black race. As mothers, lovers, and friends; they often represent the first teachers. The lessons that we learn from them, whether of tenderness or hostility, the seed for passionate inspiration or the source of sorrow and heartbreak; we as black men are destined to learn from and be shaped by our experiences with our women. Therefore it is no surprise that one of the most effective weapons of institutionalized racism has been to poison the relationship between the black man and woman in such a manner that the venom permeates itself into an entity that has, for hundreds of years shaped the confidence, destiny, and the very foundation of black consciousness.
The war for black identity begins, as with everything, on a visual battlefield. Institutionalized racism was founded on the principles that the treatment of human beings as work animals, sex objects, and experimental lab rats was rationalized upon the color of their skin. Black equaled inferior and white equaled superior, simple as that. The Bible was used as the ultimate tool of subjugation, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” This was translated as God making the White Man in his own image and that of the African race as the cattle to serve under him.
Black women were taken, raped, and made to suckle and rear both the bastards born of their own violation as well as the legitimized children born of the Master’s wife. In a vile, and yet oddly humane form of forced social hierarchy, the Masters would often select the mulatto bastards sired by them to serve within the plantation household, sparing their children the harsh conditioning and ghastly labor of field work. This set of circumstances began the genesis for the divide between light skinned versus dark skinned people of color. A divide that has only widened as institutional racism has utilized social, economic, and media commerce to further the narrative that there is more worth in a lighter skin tone. As Africans and African Americans the world over seek to rediscover a sense of the assurance that was stripped of us alongside our forgotten heritage, how do we define our self-worth? How do we define our beauty?
This question was an extensive point of conversation in a recent episode of Survivor’s Remorse. Now in its third season, the program portrays the ups and downs of a black family living in Atlanta, courtesy of the main protagonist Cam Calloway (Jessie Usher); a star NBA player who brings his family along with him to enjoy in the trappings of the high life. Survivors Remorse is mostly a light hearted comedy, its first two seasons dealt mostly with Cam and his cousin/manager Reggie (played terrifically by RonReaco Lee) attempting to build Cam a business empire while making sure the various family members all had a part to play. Now in its third season, the show has moved onto more dramatic and thought provoking mediums of storytelling. In the episode, titled The Photoshoot, the wife of Reggie, Missy (the gorgeous and infinitely talented Teyonah Parris) is put in charge of organizing and overseeing a photo session which will star Cam and a female model for a magazine cover and spread.
Missy, a business school graduate, has recently been promoted to serve as Cam’s media consultant after presenting him sound and reasonable advice that helped fix a crisis that occurred in the previous episode. Missy’s character since the program’s inception has been to serve as both an insight into the world of the black elite (where proper manners, decor, and carrying ones self with an air of educated confidence is the key to equality) as well as to represent the burgeoning awakening of black consciousness that many young African American youth are experiencing (she is definitely “Woke”). Missy specifically chose an African American model of darker skin complexion to serve as Cam’s pictorial muse, however, when that model turned out to be unavailable, the photographer (Jaleel White turning in a funny and spirited cameo) chooses a lighter skinned model, to Missy’s ire.
As Missy sees it, and as she emotionally explains to Reggie, all of her life and for all of the lives of darker skinned women in general, the world has constantly berated them with images, words, and portrayals of their undesirability. It is as if the darker the skin tone, the more a black woman has to compensate for a factor of her existence that cannot be hidden. Missy demands the model’s immediate replacement and when Reggie interjects due to matters of professionalism and the Photographer interjects due to arrogance, Missy stands her ground on that of fighting against institutional racism, and more importantly, self hatred.
“All my life I have been told to let it go.
When I turned on the videos and it was nothing but light skinned girls with wavy hair they said ‘let it go Missy!”
When it was the movies, and every wife, girlfriend, and everybody who was supposed to be hot was everything other than a brown girl they said ‘let it go!’
I turn on commercials for damn shampoo and everybody’s hair is bouncing but mine and I’m supposed to let it go! I’m TIRED of letting go Reg. I’m tired…and we’ll work on it next time, no next time NEVER comes. That’s how we keep having movies about Egypt with nothing in it but white people. Every other time it was somebody else’s choice,
Today ITS MINE”
Missy has the light skinned model dismissed, albeit with pay. This has the consequence of earning Cam’s ire, as his feelings are that firing a model midway through the shoot is in poor taste as not only does it constitute a form of interracial prejudice, but it also reflects poorly upon him as the face of the operation (this is a lesson that he has learned painfully over the course of the series and surely is not to be easily dismissed) moreover, the dismissed model is extremely upset that an opportunity that she had worked for, and would surely bring her much welcome notoriety, was snatched from her on the basis of her not being dark enough. The verbal confrontation between the two is an uncomfortable, painful, and searing dialogue into the hearts and mentality of two black women who represent a divide between our race. A divide that has left wounds still freshly bleeding the sorrow of a strained sisterhood. “Don’t you see that we’re in the same boat?” The model pleas with Missy. “If the boat sinks you think because I’m light skinned I don’t drown?!”
The problem lies within the fact that through an existence of conditioning, that’s exactly what Missy has been programmed to believe, that the lighter skinned will not be subject to the fate of drowning in the humiliation of being unmistakably black.
The episode uses Missy as the Avatar through which black women face an insecurity that was forced upon them in order to keep them from giving pride to subsequent generations. The black woman addresses both the fear of unworthiness and undesirability with herself, and with her “nemesis” the light skinned colored woman. And in the final sequence Missy must face one final entity, in the form of her husband Reggie, the black male.
It has been a point of contention within the black community, of not only society at large, but of the black male, preferring lighter skinned women of color over our darker skinned sisters. The same conditioning conceptualized from institutionalized racism that turned dark vs light into such a point of contention with the black female has infected the black male. This has led towards an undercurrent of pain, jealousy, and outright hostility towards black men from black women who feel as if the black male has abandoned the very essence with which give us life. The popular stereotype of the black athlete, musician, actor, or intellectual who gains a position of status in the white man’s world is to procure for himself the white man’s female, or in absence of that, to procure the lightest, most exotic black woman he can find. “Good” hair, green eyes, mixed heritage, Puerto Rican, Asian, ANYTHING but good old fashioned B-L-A-C-K. Because of this stereotype, there are a myriad of black women who voice frustrations that the black male simply doesn’t have the black woman’s best interest at heart when it comes to progressing the black family unit.
This comes to an explosive culmination when Missy and Reggie have it out later in the evening regarding the Photoshoot. An unapologetic Missy and a stern Reggie voice their opinions on the matter from viewpoints that could be further apart even when they both realize what is at stake, the perception that they hold of both themselves and each other within the black experience.
Reggie, used to hustling amongst rich and affluent white people on behalf of Cam’s budding enterprise, preaches tact and subtlety, that letting go of the small battles of allowing a light skinned model a spread in a moderately successful in-flight digest will lead way to the power of having the choice of a dark skinned model for a prestige magazine such as Vogue. Missy, recognizing that small victories often have great legs, is unrepentant in her stance that EVERY opportunity to right a racial injustice is one that should be taken, by any means necessary. Her smoldering indignation that she felt Reggie didn’t 100% “have her back” was delivered with the focused exasperation of an entire subset of black women who feel precisely the same way about the black male. Reggie’s resentful response that he indeed supported her, by pointing out that once she made the final decision he acquiesced to her wishes and made sure it happened, even to the annoyance of Cam and the embarrassment of the fired model; speaks to the tired, stressed, and pressurized viewpoint that the black male views as part of his own existence. Both of them make strong points, both of them still love each other, both of them are trying to come to an understanding, but ultimately, Missy is the one who is right.
The only way in which to combat institutional racism (which is simply the politically correct way of saying White Supremacy) is for us as a race to recognize when we can take action and TAKE that action. The action to change perception within ourselves and our communities is a powerful tool. Our purpose should no longer be to exist within a bubble of white acceptance, but to accept one another as beautiful, intelligent, and capable. This begins with the black woman, and uplifting ALL shades of black women as gorgeous, opulent, and desirable. Dark skin is the tone that survived the transatlantic journey. That survived the wounds of the whip. That gave birth to the children of many different shades that permeate the very genetic lifeblood of this country. And as such it is far from a tone to be ashamed of.
The time for letting go is past. Love, respect, and honor our black women TODAY.