Black Women On: The Light, Dark Thang. Directed by Celeste Crenshaw and Paula Caffey. New York: Women Make Movies, 1999.

Reviewed by Wendy A. Burns-Ardolino

Black Women On: The Light, Dark Thang explores the problematic power relations of racial privileging and colorism that undergird stigmatic classifying systems in both mainstream U.S. culture and African American communities. The imprint of American slavery as a formation of colonization and perpetuator of Anglocentric beauty standards unmistakably marks the ethnographic experiences of the African American women in the film, who bear witness to the discriminatory practices of colorism. These women of varied hues speak on the issues of both stigma and praise in relation to the privileging of light skin, straight hair, aquiline noses, and other European facial features and the derogation of darker skin, curly hair, broad noses, full lips, and other African facial features. In this way, the film’s criticism of discrimination on the basis of Anglocentric beauty standards intersects with and troubles systems of oppression such as white supremacy, imperialism, and sexism while asking viewers to consider their own complicity with these systems.

In particular, Black Women On: The Light, Dark Thang articulates that colorism still exists in African American communities and that a mental colonialism has pervaded the mindset of African Americans. Each woman in the film explains that colorism is a painful reminder of American slavery, segregation, and racist oppression that many prefer to deny. Commentator Patricia Randolph Williams, for example, claims that she has always been labeled as dark and lovely, but never just lovely, while Shirley Jones notes that when she admired Angela Davis and decided to wear her hair in a natural Afro style, her friends and family would not even look at her. Sociologist Jamila Kizuwanda argues that many brown-skinned women do not get affirmation except through the words of the oppressor and that black men are caught up in the same trap of upward mobility. In this way, Kizuwanda concludes that white supremacy continues to dominate African American relationships.

Ultimately, Kizuwanda posits that we must open up the discourse of racist oppression to include discussions of colorism and Anglocentric beauty standards. Women and men of all races and ethnicities must understand the problematic power relations embedded in colorism as it has traditionally and historically dictated who is desirable as a playmate, a wife, a date, an employee, and so on. That theses choices are being made through the lens of colorism, through the inheritance of imperialism and white supremacy, and through a notion that beauty equals Eurocentric ideals is apparent. Kizuwanda maintains that we must acknowledge the problematic history of colorism in order to undercut its power over us.

For classroom use Black Women On: The Light Dark Thang may be paired with any feminist text that discusses race, nation, or ethnicity as they relate to the materiality of the female body as an articulation of empowerment or disempowerment. While Black Women On: The Light Dark Thang opens up the discourse of the colorism, racism, and the black beauty myth within the context of African American women’s lived experience, it does not confront the larger issues of colorism across racial, national, and ethnic lines. Hence, further readings might include my essay “Jiggle in My Walk,”1 Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Sexual Politics and From Black Power to Hip Hop,2 Isabel Molina Guzmán and Angharad N. Valdivia’s “Brain, Brow, and Booty,”3 Bell Hooks’s “Eating the Other” and “Selling Hot Pussy,”4 and Deborah Willis and Carla Williams’s The Black Female Body.5 Marlon Riggs’s 2004 film Color Adjustment: Signifyin Works (San Francisco: California Newsreel) would also be a suitable accompaniment.

1 Wendy Burns-Ardolino, “Jiggle in My Walk: The Iconic Power of the Big Butt in American Pop Culture,” in The Fat Studies Reader, eds. Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

2 Patricia Hill Collins, Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender and the New Racism (New York: Routledge, 2005) and From Black Power to Hip Hop: Racism, Nationalism and Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

3 Isabel Molina Guzmán and Angharad N. Valdivia, “Brain, Brow, and Booty: Latina Iconicity in U.S. Popular Culture,” The Communication Review 7 (2004): 205-21.

4 Bell Hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” and “Selling Hot Pussy: Representations of Black Female Sexuality in the Cultural Marketplace,” both in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992).

5Deborah Willis and Carla Williams, The Black Female Body: A Photographic History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002).

Wendy A. Burns-Ardolino is Assistant Professor and Director of the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Clayton State University, located due south of Atlanta, where she teaches interdisciplinary courses in women’s studies, media studies, and liberal studies. Her publications focus on feminist theory, body studies, media studies, globalization, and popular culture.