A friend recently told me something incredible: “Someone just came up to me and said, ‘You are really beautiful for a Black guy.’ I said excuse me? And they said, ‘Yeah, you’re sexy for a Blacky.”‘ My mouth hit the floor. “That is not a compliment,” said Romeo Ballayan about the friendly White woman, who strolled over to him and began to engage in casual conversation.
So often people don’t realize the things they say are not interpreted in the way they meant. How anyone could view the statement above as a compliment begs for a lesson in semantics. What this “compliment” essentially says is: “Most Black people are ugly, so I expected you to be ugly too, but what a pleasant surprise it is that somehow you managed to come out remotely attractive. Congratulations on beating the odds.”
As if it isn’t enough that a White person gives the Black person this screwed-up expression of praise, in many instances this type of statement is exchanged from one African American to another, in terms of shade. “You are really pretty for a dark-skinned girl” is a phrase heard all too often.
So many times, we have tried to break this cycle of detrimental negativity and teach ourselves to embrace our Blackness. The efforts by the Black Panther Party, The Organization US, Ebony, Jet, Essence, BET, the My Black is Beautiful campaign and so on are just part of the process. However, it seems that the damage is so inbred in so many of us, that we can’t seem to shake it.
To understand how someone could have the gall to utter these words, we have to look back at history.
As far back as the days of slavery, skin tone has been an issue between Black people; during that period, slave-owners intentionally pitted slaves against each other by magnifying their differences as a means of control. Things like age, sex, size, and color played a major role in the separation and domination of the African family.
Light-skinned slaves, known at that time as “house n****rs” were treated better than dark-skinned slaves. Typically, they were able to eat and sleep in the master’s home; they were beaten less and in some cases, they learned to read and write. They were considered better, because they were closer (in appearance as well as proximity) to the White man. After more than 250 years of this message being continuously drilled into the minds of these slaves, eventually and inevitably most of them began to embrace it as their own belief, and the remnants of this are still very evident today.
One African American woman–who most would describe as medium to dark-skinned, has fine, curly hair, a slim nose and thin lips–says she constantly gets questioned about her ethnicity.
“People don’t believe I’m just Black. They think I’m Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, Dominican, anything but Black. It gets really annoying to me because I find it an underlying insult. It’s like they are saying just because I am pretty I have to be mixed. So spitefully, I tell them that all four of my grandparents were slaves from Africa (even though my grandparents are too young to be slaves). I feel that it is important for me to force them into accepting that I am 100 percent Black, so that I can be a representative of the beauty that comes from Africa.”
Studies done by the University of Toronto showed that men actually prefer to date lighter-skinned women. “Men are subconsciously attracted to fairer-skinned women, because of the skin tone’s association with innocence, purity, modesty, virginity, vulnerability and goodness. The studies concluded men drawn to darker looking women are expressing a preference for danger, because darker women are seen as more promiscuous. On average, fair complexions in women are the dominant aesthetic ideal, because sexual modesty and conventional femininity are the dominant behavioral ideal for women.”
Everywhere you turn Blackness/darkness, and other aspects of African culture are equated with negatives. The word Black itself is synonymous with foul, dirty, unclean, depressing, death, and a multitude of others negative connotations. Nobody wants skin the color of night, nappy hair, or a wide nose, because we have been brainwashed to believe these things aren’t beautiful. It isn’t true.
So thanks for the compliment. But we are beautiful because we are Black, not in spite of it.