As a woman of a darker hue, I've always wondered why it always seemed less likely for me to be the object of certain men's affection and desire. Was it because I'm not thick with curves? Do I not fulfill the modelesque stature idealized by some guys because I'm barely 5'3"? But ever since I can remember, the back of my mind always screamed, "It's because you're dark-skinned."
Now, don't get me wrong, I love the skin I am in, but for a long time it bothered me to think that I am placed outside of the dating pools of many men that, ironically, have the same complexion as me. Was it because of my own comfort in my skin color or is it something much deeper than that?
Recently, Gabrielle Union joined Ashley Graham on her podcast Pretty Big Deal with Ashley Graham. The two discussed everything from colorism, raising young black boys in today's world, and the concept of the code-switch.
The 45-year-old actress is consistently an open book when it comes to her life, and this time she opened up about her past experiences with learning to love her own dark skin and the effect it might have had on her own dark-skinned stepsons. Gabrielle mentions the fact that her boys and their friends may or may not have a subconscious preference for women who are of a lighter complexion. They recently had a much-needed conversation about the girls they chose to follow on Instagram and whether or not when they inevitably see girls that are the same complexion as they are, are they able to see their beauty in them and, in turn, within themselves. She says:
"We have to go a little deeper. What is it about your skin that you can't see a girl your skin color and see the beauty in her? Do you see the beauty when you look in the mirror? Because for me, I feel like you're projecting feelings you have about yourself onto these young women, in erasing them, and ignoring them, and not seeing their beauty."
In the conversation, Gabrielle also addressed a point in her life where she only dated light skin men as if it were a badge of honor to gain their affection. Presumably, her lack of confidence in her own skin needed to be pumped up by the affection of a man who might not normally date a woman darker than he was. Her inability to self-validate in her youth served as a catalyst to discuss with her stepsons the importance of seeing beauty in themselves and everyone else around them. She reveals:
"I somehow thought I was more visible and real and valid and worthwhile if a light skin boy found me attractive. Like it was somehow negating my darkness, and in the reverse, what is it about what you see in yourself that makes you erase these young women. I want you to be able to see that women are beautiful in every shade, shape, race, ethnicity, religion – along the spectrum there is beauty. And right now, I'm seeing a very, very, very narrow scope of beauty."
It's no secret that Gabrielle Union is an awesome bonus mom to her husband Dwyane Wade's sons. During their discussion, the L.A.'s Finest star goes into more detail about her very real fear surrounding the boys' safety in an increasingly volatile world, why their privilege doesn't translate when they are outside of the confines of their home, and what she is teaching them about interacting with authority figures in traditionally white spaces. She says:
"It's terrifying… it's terrifying. Once they're old enough to move around without being physically tethered to you, you just hope they come back. You know all the obstacles they could face in any given day. You know how their skin has been demonized and criminalized and weaponized, especially in Florida. Any one of my neighbors can kill my kid and get away with it and say, 'I was afraid.' That alone is terrifying...
"...there's a certain level of privilege and entitlement that they've been raised with – but that won't matter. You don't walk around with your parents' credit scores and their bank accounts on your forehead. You are just occupying space in a black body in traditionally white spaces. You cannot respond to authority figures, police officers, our neighbors' security officers, teachers in the same way your friends can. And it's that proximity to whiter or lighter privilege that they can see that is infuriating to them."
Ashley then asks her how are they raising their sons to be strong black men. Gabrielle acknowledges that while she is still trying to figure it out, she also wants them to never shrink themselves to please anyone else while doing whatever it is they need to do to return to their family safely if confronted by an aggressive encounter with an authority figure.
"That is the question, right? I haven't figured it out. What we do, which is part of what makes me fearful, is 'You are a strong, proud, beautiful, intelligent, world global citizen. Stand in that knowledge. Be proud of that. Own that space. Don't shrink for anybody.' But in the same breath, when you are in the presence of the police, if acting subservient will bring you home, you do whatever it takes to come home and then you let me whoop somebody's ass."
In her book We're Going To Need More Wine, Gabrielle discusses growing up in a very white world in which she feared others seeing and recognizing her blackness. This feeling transitioned when she used to visit with her grandmother's side of the family and being framed by her own family as "white". This combination led to real identity issues that took her many years to overcome.
Ashley posed the question of what she would she tell young Black girls struggling with similar feelings of not being good enough or too black or not black enough. She reveals:
"It's a journey to worthy, right? … I tell people first and foremost, 'Baby, you are worthy from birth. You are worthy as a thought. You are worthy as a zygote. So, as you move through the world, do not be afraid of taking up space. Do not be afraid of living your most authentic life. I get code-switching because I do it all the time, but you don't have to. Whatever your authentic voice is, that's what you ride with. You don't have to switch it up to be something to everyone because you will end up being nothing to you."
In addition to feeling the need to code-switch, as Black women, we also have to contend with the perception of perfection. What does it mean to be the "ideal" Black person? Who came up with this equation in the first place? To me, there is no measure to what a "real" Black person has to be. For others, people are ready to quantify your Blackness based on a list of things that would be highly impossible to adhere to at all times. For Gabrielle, regardless of your level of blackness, you are worthy and your journey is real. She tells Ashley:
"The other day I was talking about the performance of perfection. And we have this idea of what a 'perfect' black person is, and white folks have this idea of what a perfect black person is, which is usually a mute or somebody that amplifies white supremacy – that centers white supremacy. And I have been that person. And in my own community, this idea that you have to be the wokest, dopest, most natural-hair-wearing-est, most fully evolved, educated formed person at all times – it's impossible because we're all on this journey. And no matter where you are on that journey, you are a dope person, you are a worthy person, and who you are as a black person wherever you are on that journey is real and valid. However, you sound, that's okay too."
Colorism is a real thing that seeps into nearly every aspect of our culture, whether we like it or not. The truth is, without the proper amount of self-love, anyone can become susceptible to "only dating light skin" people, improper and unjustified run-ins with authority figures, fears of not being "black enough", and a host of other nuances that permeate our society. Until everyone is able to see the value in every person that walks this earth, we will forever be on an uphill battle.
It is important that as a community, we continue to promote love for all colors and hues, and uplift every young person enough to know and recognize the beauty reflecting back at them from the mirror. Maybe I am optimistic, but self-love and the promotion of diversity is an important step in overcoming the scourge that is colorism and racism.
To watch the entire podcast, click here.