“You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” is one of the many fake compliments I still receive from individuals of the same or similar ethnic background as myself. I know I’m beautiful, but why does my beauty diminish because of my black skin? Can I just be beautiful?!
It didn’t occur to me that this was a conversation that still had to be had until my junior year of college. I had started seeing Brett*, and he was hesitant to take me to his home to meet his parents. After more than a few awkward silences, he gathered the courage to tell me the reason behind his hesitation: my dark complexion.
Brett was tall, dark-skinned, and came from a prestigious family. Five months into our relationship, the discussion of holiday plans occurred. I thought things were going well but, according to him, not well enough to risk his social status in his hometown of Dallas. He often dated lighter-skinned or Caucasian women, and he was concerned about the looks he might receive as a result of being with a dark-skinned black woman. Bringing me to his home was quote-unquote too tough.
What he deemed reasons, I deemed excuses. Here we were, both dark-skinned individuals but for some odd reason, only one of us got to call the shots while the other felt inferior, even worthless. That’s because black men do not play by the same rules. They are revered for being athletic, strong, and decisive — qualities often associated with dark skin. Dark-skinned black women, on the other hand, are often automatically canceled or, at the very least, have their character questioned for displaying these same qualities.
I’ve had men tell me that I was pretty in private but fail to act on their desires in public as if they were ashamed.
Sadly, it’s not just Brett who feels this way. It is now 2020, and we are still dealing with colorism, a prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.
From not being “fun enough” to being “too determined,” there are any number of reasons that dark-skinned black women have historically been less desired. Darker skin has been referred to as “poor,” and “ratchet,” amongst many other harsh terms. It doesn’t matter where you live — even some of the most diverse cities in America are ripe with colorism.
Over the years, my dating life has taken a drastic blow because of my dark-skinned complexion. I’ve had men tell me that I was pretty in private but fail to act on their desires in public as if they were ashamed. When I was younger, my phone was always fully charged, i.e. not blowing up with dates from love interests. Compared to my lighter friends who had dates for every meal of the day, my calendar was pretty much DOA.
Growing up, my guy friends were not shy about telling me about their preferences with no regard to how they actually made me feel. The common denominator was the shade of complexion. Lighter-skinned girls often were the first pick, and this left me feeling invisible and downright less than. “I’d love a woman like Lisa Bonet — she looks exotic,” one would say. “I’m not really attracted to darker skin,” another would flat-out admit. “It’s never really been my thing.”
“Like the brown paper bag test, we know colorism is a concept that has existed since slavery to separate groups of people and categorize them unfairly based on who is and isn’t ‘deserving’ of their own wants, needs, and desires,” says Rebecca*, 29, a fellow dark-skinned black woman. “Unfortunately, in my experience, dating isn’t any different. I’ve seen a loft of men declare ‘preferences’ when what lies beneath are thinly masked ideologies rooted in colorism and racism.”
Amber*, 27, has faced similar struggles. “It’s hard with black men, because colorism is so ingrained in us,” she says. “In the media, especially in rap music, you hear men talk about finding a light-skinned or redbone girl. Some dark men even say they don’t mess with dark girls. It can be discouraging and adds another unwanted level to dating.”
The reality is that we, as a society still have a lot of work to do around dismantling colorism. I’m thankful for the knowledge and language available, because we are able to weed out potential dating nightmares with open communication. I’ve learned to hit my potential partners with the hard-hitting questions early on (Have you dated outside of your race before? Have you dated a dark-skinned black woman before? Has your family been supportive of that?) so as to see where their hearts and minds are before taking things to the next level. I advise others to do the same.
For many years, I internalized my feelings and never addressed colorism, instead accepting it as a social norm. Recognizing that it is an issue was the first step in learning to be brave enough to pursue the dating life I deserve. It took time for me to come to terms with my complexion, and it was far from easy. But now, it is the thing that I love most about myself. I deserve a partner who agrees — and I won’t settle for less.
*Names have been changed.