Is Light Skin What's REALLY "Precious"?

11 years ago I was wandering in a San Francisco bookstore and came across the novel, Push, by writer/poet Sapphire. For better or for worse, I buy books based on how interesting the back cover is and how well written the first paragraph seems to be.

The first sentence of Push really got me.
"I was left back when I was twelve because I had a baby for my fahver."
I took the book home and, due to it being less than 200 pages and a pretty gripping tale, I read it that evening. At the very least, every American should be ashamed of the very real depictions of the state of urban public education. But, sadly enough, not much in the main character Precious' life was a complete and total shocker for me. After all, when you've been a schoolteacher, have had the life experiences I have had, and have had conversations with friends where you ask them how they got a particular scar on their arm and they reply back that it's where their mom purposely burned them with a hot iron, well, not much makes my jaw drop anymore.

I subsequently lent the book to someone else who never returned it to me. I hadn't thought about it for awhile until a couple of years ago when I heard it was being made into a film. I'll admit, I wasn't too excited about this news. Although it's an important story, there aren't many movies made these days with black characters or about black people, so if I have a choice, I'd rather see movies that show non-dysfunctional black folks.

Yes, I'd like to see more well-rounded, conflict-laden stories about black people -- stories featuring genuine love between a black male and a black female lead. Coming of age stories with black children who are getting good grades and going to college would be nice... not stories about folks having babies by their daddy.

But, it is what it is and the film, now being called "Precious", had it's trailer released yesterday:

Clearly, the film, like the book, is going to be a very gripping and emotional cinematic experience. But something immediately stuck out to me that I can't stop thinking about.

Since it's been so long since I read the book, beyond Precious' appearance, I can't really remember what the characters in it physically looked like. But after I watched this trailer, I said to myself, wow, isn't it interesting that, according to what I just saw, the "normal" women in the film are lighter skinned black women (played by Paula Patton and Mariah Carey) and the messed up, psychotic, dysfunctional, abusive and overweight women are darker skinned.

I know, maybe I should've been marveling over how Mo'Nique's portrayal of Precious' mom is very well acted. Or how Mariah Carey seems to have stepped it up from the Glitter days, but this light-skin/dark-skin dynamic bothers me a LOT.

No, our First Lady, Michelle Obama, being darker than a paper bag doesn't "make up" for it. There is so much demonization and devaluation of darker black skin in our culture as it is, and, although I don't know who the casting director is, I wonder if the black director, Lee Daniels, contemplated how the film's casting decisions might reinforce colorism-based stereotypes.

Sure, this colorism (here's a good book if you want to read up on this) was begun by white people and hearkens back to the days of lighter skinned slaves being considered more valuable, more pleasing to the eye, and thus, more fit to serve in the house instead of the field. But the, "If you are light, you're alright. If you're brown, stick around, if you're black, stand back," attitude is continued by both whites and black people who have internalized the belief that light skin and "good" (straighter) hair is better -- which is why you have Precious herself in the trailer saying she wants a fine, light skinned boyfriend and wants to be a BET video girl.

A friend of mine says I'm being too hard on the movie, that Precious' story of being abused is a real story that needs to be told, and I should focus on that over anything else. And sure, maybe once the film is released, I'll see more well-rounded, positive, darker-skinned black folks -- and maybe there will be ONE character with light skin who'll turn out to not be a candidate for sainthood.

But I'm not holding my breath for that.


sippinwineman said…
"colorism-based stereotyped". Yeah, it's in there, but . . . .

Okay, you've got a point. I
And this is why I am reluctant to give support to this film. I got burned with American Violet and the effed up Black woman who needed to be rescued by the white people that picked her story. It seems the only time "our" stories get told they are the most dysfunctional and pandering to white supremacy as possible. UGH!!!! It would be one thing if this was one of dozens of stories being told, but not when it's just ONE. I don't care that Oprah has her name attached to it either. She's still stuck on the slave stories. I'd like to see her play a happily married mother of three running a company in a film then we can talk.
I haven't read the book. I'm very curious to see what the box office on this movie will be and the audience is.
I read your post and then watched the trailer but I believe this story is about the abuse and pain this young lady experiences and that's definitely what I took away from the trailer.

I've been following the making of this movie and I don't know if I will be able to actually see this in the movie theater. It is just to heart-rending to me.

But I have to respectfully disagree with you about telling the story...if we are truly to reach equality ALL of our stories have to be told and shared. There is a place for the stories that tell the shameful parts of our culture as well as the ones that celebrate our "normalness" and how we are just like our white brothers and sisters.

It will take generations for our people to lose our color issues. We just have to continue to try and embrace the beauty of all of our shades!!!
nick said…
Interesting, Liz. I was only vaguely aware that people made that light/dark distinction. Interesting too about the lighter skinned slaves being more valuable. How awful that a film thousands will watch perpetuates this idiotic stereotype. Did nobody involved in the making of the film try to challenge it?
Liz Dwyer said…
I really wish this hadn't been what jumped out at me after watching the trailer. Again, I don't remember if this matches the physical descriptions in the book. If it does, I don't know if that makes it any better, but I do find it interesting that it's not something I remember from the book -- but maybe I just wasn't as aware of such things back then.

You reminded me that I never wrote my post about my AV thoughts regarding savior paternalism/white people doing what's right. I thought a lot about the paternalism that might be being expressed, the white people as saviours thing in that film -- and I came to a few conclusions: 1) whites do need to navigate their own communities/networks and stand up for what's right. It's not right but people who will listen to my white dad will not listen to my black mom so he can get things done that she cannot and I think that's true in many instances. 2) ultimately, she saves herself because it is HER intelligence that figures out how to nail the sheriff 3) the black atty lays the smackdown at the end. -- so for those reasons, I gave AV a pass.

I am VERY curious, too. Now that Oprah and Tyler Perry have thrown their names behind it, (and they have two very different audiences) I wonder who it's going to be targeted to.

I think this story is about those things, too, but I was momentarily distracted from the story by what, to this viewer, seems to be some colorism going on.

I absolutely believe all of our stories have to be shared, but I think we have an imbalance now. We don't see enough of the normalness yet. It's kinda like if white people were a historically oppressed people and the majority of movies featuring them had characters like that sick Austrian father who held his daughter captive, raped her and had seven kids with her. But, I hear you and I'm really curious to see how the film as a whole will turn out.

Sometimes these things are etched so deeply into our subconscious that we don't even notice at all what we're doing. Maybe what I'm noticing will come across differently once I see the entire film.
Dirty Red said…
Well I can feel you about this whole light dark thing. Growing up I was constantly picked on for being dark. The only females that would give me any play in school were the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and the few Africans that attended my PS. It has gotten a little better now for dark brothers today, but you hardly ever see a dark sister on TV, the movies, or in the maninstream at all. Now a Dark Man is considered fine, but a Dark female is still considered not so fine. Americans (especially Black Americans, sad as it is) are still color struck and I do not seeing that changing.
Miz JJ said…
I love that book by Marita Golden. It's a must read for black people. I do not think you can underestimate the power of images.
Michele said…
As a "light-skinned mixed girl," I've always noticed how I'm treated over my darker sisters. And today, as the mother of a three beautiful children of varying shades of brown, I notice the same things you do.

My middle child, happens to have a gorgeous deep chocolate skin tone that mirrors my husband's. She noticed that her skin stood out in our family at the precious age of just 2-1/2 when she asked me, "Why are you white and I'm brown?" This came as a result of a Latina girl in her preschool saying her skin looked like "doo-doo."

Since then, she has always favored white, blonde baby dolls and Barbie's over the mocha-toned ones. Once, when she was 4, I asked her why she didn't choose a tan or brown-skinned doll. She responded as if stating the obvious, "Mommy, the white ones are prettier and good. And they have nicer hair." The pain of the comment stung me - stung me deep! How could this precious girl not appreciate the beauty and richness of her own skin color and thick, curly locks?!

Media and entertainment have a lot to do with my daughter's perception, as well as public-wide perceptions, of black & white or light & dark. As a result, I spend a great deal of time teaching my children to have positive beliefs about themselves and others, regardless of skin color.

So, while the movie may be centered on abuse and perhaps the producers didn't intentionally cast the roles with light = good and dark = bad, I'm glad you called it out. Because unintentional or not, it's a skewed depiction that feeds into common, negative stereotypes.
Jen said…
I've been on a long hiatus, Liz, but it's wonderful reading you again.

This was a very thought-provoking post.

I think this is an ages-old issue that doesn't just apply to skin, although you'd think by 21st century we'd be over cosmetic differences.

There are historical chronicles going back 1000s of years about war bounty and those who looked like the winning population would be given special positions, etc., whereas those who seemed more like their own race/heritage, etc. were put to labor.

Our random choices as a society in terms of value never stop astounding me.
BlackLiterature said…
Interesting call.

We can say that we are enlightened and past our color issues, but it isn't true. As a group, we ahve issues, in fact, most people that have been colonized have similar issues.

I doubt that this type of casting is intentional, but the fact that it isn't intentional is, to me, the danger.
Unknown said…
Well the social worker is white in the book and the teacher is dark brown.
And neither is important as the issues and how those will be portrayed in the movie.

The girl was raped by her father. She was beaten and molested by her mother.

Had two children and HIV.

That is what is I hope the movie will tackle and not sugar coat.

I am glad that the story is being made into a movie and not is not a comedy or a dance movie.

And that white people aren't running all through it.
Liz Dwyer said…
Dirty Red,
So sad that you had to go through all that because of having dark skin. I wonder if it's at all different for teens nowadays because it's true, you rarely see women with dark skin in the media.

Miz JJ,
Isn't that a great book? It's one of my favorites.

I notice it, too, and I notice how my kids regard their own skin color as well. The story you shared about your daughter favoring the white Barbies is SO heartbreakingly sad, and all too common. For boys there is a total dearth of non-white superheroes/action figures. It does require a whole lot of reinforcement that they are beautiful/worthy regardless of what society says about them.

I've missed you! How are you these days?

Interesting point about the war bounties. So I want to know what it's going to take for us to mature enough that we cut the crap and stop colorism/war bounty stuff! Hopefully it won't be another 1000 years!

Black Literature,
No, we are not past our color issues. If you look in the comments on any "black" gossip site, you'll see all sorts of color struck/good hair drama going on. It's pretty sick.

I agree with you that this casting was probably unintentional but I'm with you in thinking that that makes it even more potentially problematic.

True Urban Queen,
Ah, thanks for the reminder about the color of the characters in the book. I could not remember, which speaks to the power of the book itself.

I do think the color of the people portraying those characters is important AND I think the issues in the book are important issues to be addressed. So if they're going to cast those roles without trying to be totally authentic to the text descriptions... Mariah Carey is a better actress than other folks who could've played that role? I seriously doubt it. And Paula Patton? She's an okay actress but no one else who was darker skinned was available?

I also don't particularly want another comedy/dance movie with black characters (unless it's REALLY good) but I wonder, why can't there be a movie like Revolutionary Road with a black couple? Or why can't there be a truly diverse cast like in Rachel Getting Married?

I'll still go see the film because I think it's an important story, but I think there's a missed opportunity in the casting because it falls into the same skin color based mythology that has gone on for generations.
Lola Gets said…
EXCELLENT observation! I havent seen the movie nor read the book, but I think its great that you picked up on those slight (ya, whatever) differences.

As a fair skinned woman myself, I have had to be cognizant of the way my phenotype effects those around me. Sometimes its good, somtimes its bad. Sometimes I can cut through the colorist bull and get to interact with people "on the real" but sometimes I cant, and then have to reap the negativity. Its a hazardous maze and I dont think it will ever fully go away.

I wonder how many other people noticed the color differences in the characters in the movie? Id love to see what they thought.

Anonymous said…

It is high time that the world
came to know that the false idea
that the "house slaves' were
of a light-skin coloring /

Here is a link to a commentary
on that very same subject

Unknown said…
I just finished reading the book a few days ago, and Precious pretty explicitly notices and points out other characters skin color (and specifically admires/covets light skin). I took it as the author acknowledging internalized racism in an intentional way. I would hope the movie handles it the same way and not glossed over the issue.
Anonymous said…
If / when you have the chance to read
the information found in the link below
(on the topic of 'Light' & 'Dark' Skin)

... please make sure to then click the
'Vote' button (found in the lower left
corner of the page) after reading it.

Thanks and have a great day.
AP said…


#1) There is NO SUCH THING as
a so-called "light skin Black"

#2) The ALLEGED light-skinned favored

#3) The alleged Colorism-inspired
"FEATURES TESTS" ARE also proven MYTHS;=14

--AP (

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