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“Light Girls”: opening the conversation of colorism

Maggie Hunter contributed her expertise on colorism in the documentary, "Light Girls."
Maggie Hunter contributed her expertise on colorism in the documentary, “Light Girls.”

Margaret Hunter, associate professor of sociology and new associate provost, was recently featured in Bill Dukes’ documentary “Light Girls.” The film provoked a significant response on social media, bringing about a mass discussion about colorism in the U.S. and around the globe.

“Light Girls,” which premiered on Jan. 19, is a sequel to Dukes’ first film, “Dark Girls.” Both films delve into the matter of skin tone stratification, also known as colorism. Skin tone stratification analyzes the issues arising from the variation in lightness and darkness of skin tone.

“Light Girls” is an exploration of the skin color issues of light-skinned women of color. The documentary focuses on issues of skin color on a global level, discussing skin bleaching, bullying, personal stories from light-skinned black women and interviews with celebrities like Russell Simmons, Michaela Angela Davis and Salli Richardson-Whitfield.

Hunter has been published previously on topics of colorism and skin bleaching, including her book, “Race, Gender, and the Politics of Skin Tone.” In her book, Hunter published her findings from studying African-American and Mexican-American communities. She analyzed trends in discrimination and, like other researchers, found clear patterns of discrimination against darker-skinned women.

Interim Provost David Donahue was not surprised that she was invited to speak on the documentary.

“Her scholarship is impressive and given her expertise on colorism, I’m not surprised the film makers have drawn on her knowledge and insight,” Donahue said.

In the documentary, Hunter supplied historical context, helped explain how colorism shapes people’s lives and provided information about skin bleaching and racially based cosmetic surgeries and alterations. Ten Mills students were also interviewed, and Hunter felt that they made a big impact on the documentary.

“The filmmakers shared with me that they felt that the depth of personal response and analysis from the Mills students was very profound,” Hunter said.

Just like “Dark Girls,” “Light Girls” received a lot of viewer reaction on social media and drew a lot of online commentary that ranged from praise to harsh critiques of the film.

According to Tre’vell Anderson of the Los Angeles Times, a large majority of the social media response separated into lighter and darker people speaking about their own personal experiences.

“Voices in each group echoed long-held sentiments: Feeling undue pressure to be ‘black enough’ for lighter women, or being ‘too black’ for darker women,” Anderson wrote.

Hunter explained that colorism is just as relevant to our culture today as it was hundreds of years ago, and the response to this documentary reveals that the subject of colorism is touching on racial taboos that people now want to open up conversation about.

“Colorism is a long-standing issue in the U.S. as well as other places,” Hunter said. “People are interested in the nuances of colorism because it is only possible in a racist context that darker skin is less valued.”

She then explained that when delving into the subject, many are going to have divisive opinions about it because colorism was a topic not openly talked about until recently.

“Colorism in the Black community has long been seen as dirty laundry,” said Hunter.

Because this subject has been so taboo, any research on or openings of conversation on colorism is relatively new, according to Hunter.

“People have strong connections to this painful topic that is not supposed to be talked about and that brings about the social media frenzy,” Hunter said.

But above the conversations this work has stirred, what she ultimately sees as the larger goal of the film is to channel this discussion to prompt productive change.

“The bigger goal [of this documentary] is to continue this kind of conversation and changes in our laws, actions and behaviors, so we can reduce the harm from color-based discrimination,” Hunter said.