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Darkly beautiful: Portfolio Gallery explores skin-tone discrimination

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 23, 2012 - Some of Audery Sims-Timberlake’s favorite childhood memories are of St. Louis summers spent playing outside with her brothers and sisters. But her sunny recollections are marred by painful remarks about her dark skin.

“I would get three to four shades darker than I am now, and people would say, ‘You need to stay out of the sun; you’re black as tar now,’” Sims-Timberlake said.

After decades of living with low self-esteem and worrying whether lighter-skinned co-workers were getting recognition she deserved, she wrote an award-winning poem called “Skinned,” that asked, “Is it a sin to be clothed in the skin I’m in?”

Her poem is part of Portfolio Gallery’s “Dark Beauties” exhibit, a collection of paintings, photos and fabric pieces celebrating dark-skinned African-American women and acknowledging discrimination against them.

“I was really moved. I saw there are other people who felt that same way and experienced that same thing,” Sims-Timberlake said.

Preschoolers prefer lighter skin

“Dark Beauties,” which opened in May has been extended through Aug. 31. Portfolio Gallery and Education Center owner Robert Powell was inspired to create the exhibition after seeing clips from a documentary called “Dark Girls.”

In one scene, a young African-American woman recalls asking her mother to put bleach in her bathwater to lighten her skin. Another thought her skin was dirty and that she could wash the dark color off. Still another flinches every time she hears someone say, “She’s pretty for a dark-skinned girl.”

Powell remembers a painful episode in his own life about 50 years ago. Listening to the radio with his junior-high friends, he heard a caller request a song in his name.

“Someone called in and said, ‘Robert Powell -- and he needs a bleaching creme,’” Powell said. “Someone perceived me as dark and ugly.”

Powell said his experience shows that skin-tone discrimination isn’t limited to girls and women.

“I could have done this exhibition with dark boys and it would have been the same story,” Powell said.

Kimberly Norwood, a Washington University law professor whose research focuses on issues of racial identity and color, agreed that dark boys and men also face discrimination. But not to the same extent as girls and women. Females of all races are judged more on their looks than males -- and lighter is always better.

“The U.S. standard of beauty is a white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. That’s the goal everyone is looking at,” Norwood said.

Mid-century doll studies demonstrating that black children preferred white dolls were replicated two years ago in a pilot study of black and white preschoolers commissioned by CNN. In the 2010 study, the children were asked to point to cartoon faces with a range of five skin tones in answer to a series of questions.

“They asked these very young children, ‘Who lives in your neighborhood, who are the good kids, who are the bad kids, who gets in trouble all the time, who’s ugly?’” Norwood said.

The results showed that both black and white children favored lighter faces over darker ones.

“The devastating thing about this study is that these are young children. They haven’t been anywhere except the playground,” Norwood said. “This is really about how you’re raised and the messages your parents are practically or unconsciously sending you.”

Reluctance to air ‘dirty laundry’

Prejudice against darker skin also exists among other minority populations in this country including Latinos, Asians and Indians. And it comes into play in other countries around the globe. A disturbing and extreme by-product of dark-skin anti-bias is the existence of a shower gel sold in India, that, according to a British Broadcasting Corporation editorial, claims to lighten a woman’s genitals.

In the United States, skin-tone discrimination among African Americans is a subject that’s rarely talked about but gets expressed through nuanced interactions.

“Black folks prefer lighter-skinned black folks over darker-skinned black folks,” Norwood said. “Many men will prefer lighter-skinned women over darker-skinned women. Many moms will prefer that their child not be dark-skinned.”

Talking about the issue is problematic for many reasons.

“You still have a lot of people who think these kind of issues should not be aired outside the black community — you don’t air your ‘dirty laundry,’” Norwood said.

Another difficulty, according to Norwood, is that blacks who have light skin may feel that conversation lays the blame on them, and diminishes the prejudice they do experience.

Sims-Timberlake discovered a prejudice of her own after a boy named Lionel called her 6-year-old son André “black as tar” — the same slur she endured as a child.

When she went up to the school to look into the taunts, Sims-Timberlake saw two boys erasing the chalkboard, one black, one white.

“I perceived it was the white boy, and I asked my son, ‘André, is that him?’ and he said, ‘No, that’s Lionel,’ and he pointed to the little dark-skinned boy,” Sims-Timberlake said.

Quickly, she surmised that Lionel was acting out of his own hurt.

“I had the revelation that somebody made him feel bad about himself and so he wanted to pass that on,” Sims-Timberlake said. “It’s something we do within our culture to each other, and I think it really kills self-esteem.”

Norwood is working with Saint Louis University on a survey about skin-tone discrimination. The questionnaire is available on the SLU website.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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