Owning Privilege, Power & Skin Color (Dark Girls Trailer)


So I was at an academic dinner last night and ended up in a long conversation about Beyonce’s three performances of her “Run the World (Girls)” single:  the video, the Billboard Awards, and the Oprah show.  Since a computer is always nearby, we pulled up all three (along with Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video–more on that later).   The conversation reflected a serious generation gap (lots of “Why can’t she cover up” type of talk) but was engaging all around….

Until a colleague of mine, peering over my shoulder at the “Run the World (Girls)” video, tilted her head and asked me, “So is Beyonce saying sexy, light-skinned, long-haired women run the world?”


Well, well.  Remember this image?

This crowd of light-skinned, ambiguously ethnic women in garter belts (love) and multi-colored dresses facing down a crowd of dark-skinned, ambiguously African men with guns?


Yes, I mentioned it in my post on Beyonce.  But I was so busy being mad about war and empire that I didn’t think to expand on it.  Or connect it with power and running the world

Even when the Octopus hit me up on my Facebook wall with this trailer/short preview of Bradinn French’s new documentary Dark Skin…

Dark Girls: Preview from Bradinn French on Vimeo.

…I didn’t make the jump.  And I blame my own color privilege for that.

Black feminist and Radical woman of color bloggers have been having this conversation for awhile.  Moya Z. B. posted a provocative “Light-Skinned Privilege Checklist”:

Light Skin Privilege Checklist

… And the list goes on.

(I clearly failed at the last.  And the first is just…well…#pow)

And Alicia Gill, a visibly black but not “dark” boricua blogger wrote this about being teased by dark-skinned classmates and having to put it in a larger perspective:

our stories are so filled with pains. my pain of wanting to be accepted, by the people i desperately needed as cohorts in a racist classroom, school, and world, and i imagine, their pain, of never being seen as “as pretty as” or “as smart as” me- even though I was being tokenized, and experiencing painful racism myself. They were feeling all of these things, whether i wanted them to experience them or not. but that’s the nature of privilege. i sure wish it wasn’t their experience, but it was, and i own that. i knew that their putting gum in my hair was not about their personal hatred for me. it was about their hearts being fed up and filled with hurt, at a system that constantly reinforces my type of beauty over theirs. even at a such a young age. we’ve all seen the doll tests, and color chart tests, where little black girls choose white dolls to have all of the positive attributes [smart, pretty, kind] and the black dolls have all of the negative ones [dumb, mean, ugly]. i think we should be acknowledging and holding that pain and desperation. these are ten year old girls, who have already gotten the message that lighter skinned girls are a threat, because they are perceived as better than you. these are ten year old girls who have already gotten these messages from somewhere.

But to consider it in context with Bey’s video, and my own brush off of the same ,just brought it full circle for me.

Because color is privilege in the United States and, I’d argue, around the world.  We don’t like to think about it that way because for so long, U.S. institutions based their discrimination solely on race and one-drop rules.  Anyone of African descent, regardless of skin color, was stuck drinking from the “colored” water fountain.  And now that laws have moved oppression into less visible spheres, we like to talk about class discrimination.  Or gender.

Sometimes we do have conversations about paper bag tests and “house slaves” (a myth I plan to debunk in a future post), and black sorority rivalries, but these are conversations that happen within the community.  It really isn’t in our national memory or imagination to have a conversation about mainstream, institutionalized color privilege.

For example, once upon a time, the slaves most likely to be freed were the female consorts (consensual or not) of slaveowners and their mixed-race children.  Rule of thumb across the Atlantic world.  And freedom meant that you owned your labor.  And owning your labor meant that you got to keep what you made, build wealth, buy land, enter into contracts, own slaves if you wanted, and pass on anything you built to your (also free) children.  And your (free) children could also build on what you created by buying more land, owning more slaves, expanding business, etc. etc. etc.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of black people across the United States were…well, slaves.  Who didn’t own their own bodies, much less their own labor.  And who built things, and created and ran businesses even–but whose work was integrated into the inheritance of their master and his or her children.  You could create it and know that you owned it but it would never be recognized as yours and you would never be the author and whenever you or your children got free you would always, always, always have to start damn near from scratch (at least in comparison to what your labor created).

"Weeding Rice Field, U.S. South, 19th cent.," Charles C. Coffin, Building the Nation (New York, 1883), p. 76 as shown on http://www.slaveryimages.org, sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

It should come as no surprise that the oldest and deepest pockets of black wealth across the country have historically been centers of free black life during the period of slavery–the DMV (D.C.-Maryland-Virginia), New Orleans and its Mexican and Californian diaspora, South Carolina’s Atlantic coast, New York City, the Boston-Martha’s Vineyard circuit…..

It should also come as no surprise that these have also been home to some of the lighter complected of our race.

I love my color.  But if color is capital, my nut brown self is privileged and middle-class.  In fact, I can actually claim real estate in the Exotica subdivision of color privilege because I’m a proud boricuan Nuñez Daughter.  Yay for me.

Not really.

Because it is draining to have to fight through assumptions of them and of myself, and as a woman to learn to balance my own wholeness against the same.  It is draining to navigate a family where color and ethnicity range widely–as all families these days do.  And because we didn’t talk about, because no one ever really talks about it, like most women, I grew up with it and saw firsthand the damage it did to other women, to men, and was damaged by it myself.  The lighter girls were “pretty” and got stuff but they were also hyper-sexualized at younger ages.  The darker girls were “ugly” and usually end up in trouble and almost never had public boyfriends.  And I’m not saying this applies to everyone-everywhere.  There are individual differences.  But the overlapping layers of power are there.

And because it is so personal, we end up in individual stories of the impact of colorism instead of expanding beyond and considering how assumptions about light and dark are fundamentally impacting access to education, employment, profession development opportunities and more.  If we don’t own that privilege then we can’t begin to fight to unravel it.

This documentary looks like a really important way to continue the conversation.  What do you think?


Kismet Nuñez is one of the Skillsharers of the of the 3rd Annual INCITE! Shawty Got Skillz workshop at the 2011 Allied Media Conference!  Help us get to Detroit!  Click here!


8 thoughts on “Owning Privilege, Power & Skin Color (Dark Girls Trailer)

  1. Hi Kismet!

    Great great article! The notion of fair skin as ideal extends to many other cultures, including Indian and Asian communities. My own research is looking into the Indian ideal of fair skin as beautiful among second generation girls and the research is really interesting. Thanks for this wonderful post.


  2. Thanks for the post, Kismet! Being a light-skinned black woman myself, I was always praised for it by my family members. I slathered on Fair & Lovely to lighten my face even further through my early teens.

    In the past few years, however, I have had a very different opinion of my light skin and the light skin of others. I have felt the need not only to critique the number of fair-skinned actresses/singers/artists in the mainstream, but to react the same way some darker skin black girls reacted to me in school — to harshly critique. And I critique in language that makes it seem objective and impersonal, not emotional and personal. I find it difficult to celebrate the achievements of light-skinned people without feeling like I’m hurting my dark-skinned sisters. Because of their privileges, light-skinned people have to *prove* to me that they are worth my time and praise. Dark-skinned people don’t.

    I’ll be the first to admit that this approach is flawed and cruel; I just don’t know how to come to terms with my privileges and uplift my dark skinned sisters without degrading my light-skinned sisters… In my mind it is the only way I’ve found to sort of “level of the playing field.”

    Again, thanks for this post. It’s a lot to think about.


    • Rae—Thank you so much for the personal and touching comment. It is always difficult for those of us with privilege to act as allies. And to speak up. But it is even more difficult not to see it as a zero sum game where you have to degrade to uplift (or vice versa).

      I’m with you. I’m brown enough to fall somewhere in the middle depending on the region of the country, time period, company I’m keeping. And neither side of the degrade-uplift equation feels good.

      Maybe an Allies 101 post is incoming. Allies workshopping. For all of our privileges….

      Thanks again for reading.

  3. Hi, I enjoyed your article. I have been observing a lot of similar trends in recent news surrounding Beyonce and etc. Though I have also been noticing something that doesn’t get addressed as much as I thought it would.

    There is a quite constant usage of the word “girls” when referring to contemporary feminism in all sorts of ways, especially when you frame it as post Spice Girls (girl power) and I know the various ways that saying “girl” works within certain speech communities/communities of practice. Though I find there is a disproportionate use of the term “girl” when referring to anything involving Black women. For instance, the title of the documentary “Dark Girls” as opposed to “Dark Women”, and the Beyonce’s new song, saying “girls” rule.

    What do you think about this phenomena?


  4. Hey Stephen. Thanks for commenting.
    I noticed the excessive use of “girls” as well. In the context of a song like “Run the World,” I think the question of audience is important. The unofficial critique from an older generation of Bey fans–you know, the ones who remember the first Destiny’s Child?–has been that she is such a superstar, so innovative and creative, that she could stand to move beyond Top 40 pop songs for teeny boppers. At least in the singles she releases.

    But I do think there is something larger to be said about the way we use girls so freely to describe what are obviously women, as in the Dark Girls trailer. Certainly there are gendered dynamics to the word girl that intersect forthrightly with race–the ways that black girls are always often represented as women when they should be seen as children, the way that black women are not seen as having the same authority as men (minors, in a sense?). But this is all conjecture without real live comparisons to make. Dark Girls may be the best example. When the movie is out, I look forward to revisiting this question with you.

    Another approach might be this: Would we–black bloggers at least–be nearly so cavalier about song after song after documentary after TV movie being named “black boys”? See. Even typing that….not a good feeling….

    There is more to be said here and plenty to think about. Thank you for bringing it up.

  5. Hey, Great article (I know im late) , I agree with some of the article but one thing just stuck out to me.

    As a light skin women I think in this day and age Light Skin Privilege is BS. While in some fields like video modeling you might see this type of stuff, in an office you will not see a light skin women a certain job over a dark skin women other than the fact that the light skin women might be qualified for the job.
    As far as being approached by people or men and being referred to as pretty; pretty is as pretty does. If you as a dark skin women feel that when you’re out with your light skin friends that you don’t look as beautiful that is on you. I go out with my friends from light yellow to deep chocolate and they get just as much play as me because they know they look good and don’t pay attention to the people who don’t think they look good.

  6. Thanks for checking out the piece Anon!

    I don’t think we will begin to know whether or not light skin privilege is BS or not until we take it seriously enough to do research. Which, in and of itself, is problematic because if it isn’t done well it will smell more like 18th century castas paintings (check this NPR special on them for more: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=3043790) and less like serious research. But doing that would force us to take a critical look at the issue. For example, we would immediately have to consider what we mean by light-skinned. Do we mean only phenotype? Do we mean body type, hair texture, hair style (relaxed, curly natural, afro, locs), height even? Is it speech patterns? And what do we do with more stereotypically exotic looks–hazel eyes in a dark face, full lips in a Gallic face, locs with light skin? Is it different for men versus women?

    In other words, I don’t doubt that you are having that experience of acceptance and advancement with a broad range of people of color who are of all shades. I share that experience. My friends are fine and fly and all colors too. :) But I don’t think U.S. society can “know” for sure unless we start doing the research.

    Most important, I don’t think we as light or lighter-skinned women who potentially have the privilege that is under discussion can decide whether or not its real. That would be analogous to a white person saying that racism isn’t real or is over because they go to they have black, Puerto Rican and Korean friends. Or a straight, cis-gendered woman of color saying it isn’t so bad to be gay in this day and age. We will just never experience the world the same way by dint of our color, even if we do experience so much oppression as women of color and as women.

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