Dark Girls in Toronto: Reflections from an IofC Canada Regional Coordinator
In 2011, Mercy Okalowe was working as a Regional Coordinator for Initiatives of Change Canada. As part of her work to build trust in her community and engage residents in honest conversations on race, reconciliation and responsibility, Mercy attended the world premier of the documentary film Dark Girls. She writes here a reflection of her experience and a call to action for all ‘dark girls.’
On 14 September 2011, I attended the world premier of the documentary Dark Girls at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The director and the film producer were in attendance to answer questions after the screening, so a large and excited audience was present. The beautifully diverse audience was buzzing with anticipation as Cameron Bailey (Artistic Director of TIFF) introduced the film. Dark Girls is a documentary that seeks to explain the trauma and dismantle the discrimination endured by women who have a skin complexion that is ‘darker than a brown paper bag.’ Yes, there was a time in our history when it was acceptable to compare a person’s skin tone to a brown paper bag. If your skin tone was lighter than the bag, you were deemed beautiful, worthy and you could access certain resources which otherwise would have been denied. If your skin tone was darker than the bag you were essentially considered an inferior human being. Fortunately, we no longer openly and blatantly use these types of criteria or ‘tests’ to determine beauty and worthiness; however, the ‘colourism’ or ‘shadeism’ that is the ugly offspring of such ‘paper bag’ practices is still somewhat present in our communities—this is what the film seeks to address and to ultimately resolve.
Dark Girls is a powerful documentary which succeeds in creating a very necessary space for women of varying skin shades to come together and share candidly all that they have endured as ‘dark girls.’ We hear from children, teenagers, and adults. We hear from women and men. We hear from Americans and non-Americans. The issue – as I had discovered myself just several months prior to watching the film – extends across generations and genders while also maintaining global implications.
Four months prior to the screening of Dark Girls, I completed the Trustbuilding Facilitator Training offered by the Hope in the Cities team from Richmond, Virginia. During that training I had several private conversations with one of the female leaders of the Calgary South Sudanese community. She shared stories of her pain and frustration with what she was witnessing amongst the females in her community. Some of the young women had taken to bleaching their skin with ‘skin lightening’ creams and lotions. To my dismay, this practice of skin bleaching is nothing new. For some people, deceased pop-icon Michael Jackson and his very public battles with self-image may come to mind. He went from being a relatively ‘dark-skinned’ young boy when he was a member of the Jackson 5 to a strangely pale man at the time of his passing in 2009. But skin lightening is not a cosmetic adjustment sought after by only the rich and famous. In Dark Girls, the filmmakers shared the stories of many non-famous women from a variety of countries, including Ethiopia, Korea, and Cuba, who endeavored to lighten their skin. The issues of ‘colourism’ or ‘shadeism’ and skin-lightening appear to be a global phenomenon.
Dark Girls starts its story with a look into the history of Africans in America, beginning with their enslavement following the transatlantic slave trade, then moving on to the era of post-enslavement ending in 1964, and finally discussing the decades of the fight for civil rights from 1965 to the present. When we consider the historic – and current – treatment of dark-skinned people, is it really a ‘phenomenon’ that girls with darker complexions are susceptible to lower levels of self-esteem? Under the circumstances, is it really a ‘phenomenon’ that these girls would be compelled to purchase and apply dangerous cancer-causing lotions to their face, arms, legs, and torso—all in an effort to lighten the skin that feels to them to be more of a curse than a blessing? I think the real phenomenon may be the strength and resilience demonstrated by these girls and women who, despite being seen as inferior human beings, are able to accomplish great things, including becoming the First Lady of the United States of America. Well done, Michelle Obama!
Dark Girls concludes with an investigation into what is needed to bring deep healing into the lives of dark-skinned women and girls who represent the future of our communities. Healing the wounds of history has been an important component of the work of IofC and, through my own engagement with this network of dedicated change-agents, I have myself found the strength to heal many of my own personal wounds. Moving forward, I hope that any fellow ‘dark-skinned’ girl who is reading this will stand up, walk over to a mirror, look herself in the eye and say, ‘You are so very beautiful, and you are worthy of the greatest love.’
Mercy Okalowe lives in Toronto and is the founder of B Better Communications. She is an alumna of Western University (formerly The University of Western Ontario) and Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology. When not working, she can usually be found exercising or watching tennis.
For more information about the social effects of skin tone, you can watch Dark Girls or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s 2016 film Real Talk on Race: Colourism and the Discrimination from Within.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.