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Seeing Colors Again

When a few casual-but-caustic comments bring up old insecurities, a writer reflects on her deep, dark skin.

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aarp, sisters, skin, seeing color
Islenia Mil
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At a shopping event I attended recently, a brown-skinned woman with sister locs greeted me like an old friend.

“Hey, good to see you again,” she said, warmly.

I explained that we actually hadn’t met before, but I’m friendly, so I chatted back.

In short order she shared with me, in a conspiratorial sister-to-sister way, that

  1. She was originally from Nigeria.
  2. Most of the women in her family used bleaching cream.
  3. Before her first son was born she wished for two things — that he would be smart and light-skinned.

That last revelation was my cue to exit the conversation. I didn’t know why this stranger was telling me all her business, but I could only guess it was because we were sisters with a similar hue.

That odd encounter reminded me of a similar experience I had at a reception where a colleague and I chatted with an attractive older black woman with flawless cocoa-brown skin and striking grey hair. After the friendly exchange, the elder said with a smile, “I’ve never seen two dark-skinned girls with such sparkle in their eyes.” I know she meant it as a compliment, but I don’t think of myself in terms of my skin tone and I wasn’t flattered. What was she really saying about us — and about herself? Did she think that because of our complexion, were we supposed to be sheepish and downtrodden?

As I reflected on these conversations and the two women — one whose ideas about color were shaped by a culture that can sometimes impart worth on the basis of color, and the other who was born in a time when we in this country were prone to do the same — I felt disappointed and saddened. While I could empathize with their backstories, I certainly could not endorse their crabs-in-a-barrel mentality.

For most of my adult life, I’ve flourished in the warm deep-brown skin I was born in. I wear vibrant colors like burnt orange, cranberry and magenta that highlight the richness in my skin tone. I’m often lauded for both my glow and fashion flair. I look up to Lupita Nyong’o, who is one of the most beautiful women on the planet — not in spite of, but because of her skin’s rich hue. But divisive sister chats like these, coupled with the light-skinned versus dark-skinned debates I overhear during stifling subway rides, and the skin-bleaching products I see peddled by reality TV stars on social media, have given new life to old insecurities within me. Suddenly I was paying closer attention to my shade of Bare Minerals powder or NARS concealer — Cacao is lighter than Café, right?

And I thought I’d put that to rest a long time ago.

As a kid, the women in my family made sure I knew that I was both adorable and adored. But as I reached adolescence, I saw how boys fawned over some girls because they were light-skinned with “good hair.” Still, I never felt less than. Colorism didn’t touch my life. Or at least that’s what I thought.

But eventually, even I fell prey to negative thoughts about deeper skin tones. When I was 15, one of my hairdresser’s clients told me I looked like Grace Jones, who at the time was a statuesque Bond girl villain in A View to a Kill. The woman thought she was offering an accolade. I was mortified.

“I don’t look like that scary dark lady, do I?” I asked my hairdresser, Shirley. “No, baby. You’re prettier than that,” she assured me.

As I matured, my acne cleared up, my curves filled in and I felt more confident about my appearance. In my twenties, backhanded flattery from would-be suitors: “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” and “I usually date white girls, but I need some more melanin in my program,” left me shaking my head at wack dudes. But it didn’t shake my belief that I had it going on.

Twenty-five years ago, an essay I wrote called, “Seeing Colors” was published. The last sentence read, “I know I am attractive, both internally and externally. I just wish that African-Americans could accept ourselves for who we are, not what we look like … we’re all beautiful, the lightest no more so than the darkest.”

Now firmly planted in middle age, I still feel that way. Although I am disappointed when others throw shade about my shade, I will continue to rebuke what are clearly their issues and continue to shine. My husband loves my radiant brown skin, chiseled cheekbones and welcoming smile and tells me all the time that I’m beautiful. I love the compliments I get because, for me, healthy, glowing skin reflects my pride in both my culture and my appearance. I also love seeing stunning red-carpet images of celebs like Viola Davis, Issa Rae, Tika Sumpter and Lupita, with skin that looks like my own, with their #melaninpoppin.

And these days I’m proud to rock a Grace Jones t-shirt, and her pop-art Portfolio album cover is framed in my home office. And so, my moment of self-doubt was short-lived. I no longer find Grace scary. She’s fly, and so am I. So sisters, let’s make a promise to each other to celebrate our #blackgirlmagic in every shade — from golden nude to deepest deep.