When I was 9 I remember someone asking me, “Why are you so dark?”
My response was one of confusion, “I was born this way….” They then responded with a question that has loomed over me for nearly my entire life, “But why are you SO dark?” And to that, I had no response. Why was I so DARK? But more importantly, why was it an issue?
I grew up in Santa Barbara, California. To be black in that town was to be a single chocolate chip in a sea of vanilla ice cream. There was no way not to stand out. But aside from being a member of one of the few black families in the city, I was a performer. I sang, acted and danced. I did everything I could to be put in the spotlight. I’m a Leo... what more can I say?
You see I’ve always known, even at a young age, what I wanted to do with my life. (There a was a brief moment I wanted to be a pediatrician but that’s beside the point.) I was 5 years old when I saw Whitney Houston sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl and that, combined with a few other moments, solidified that the only career for me would be in entertainment. I wanted to sing. I wanted to be on TV. I wanted to inspire and influence others to follow their dreams because I was able to achieve mine. (Yes, I had all of these thoughts and feelings when I was 5 years old. It’s probably why I skipped a grade.)
I’m 31 now. Is my career where I want it to be? No.
But do I sing for a living? Yes.
Have I been on TV? Yes.
Do I inspire and influence others to follow their dreams because in their eyes I’ve achieved mine? Absolutely.
But the one thing that people who are watching me and my career from outside don’t know is that for a long period of time, I looked in the mirror and questioned if I would reach the level of success I have always envisioned for myself because of the color of my skin.
When you’re a kid you have no filter. You don’t know what it means to be politically correct, you don’t worry about asking questions - you wear your curiosity on your sleeve. So there’s no way really to know when your words can negatively affect someone for the rest of their life.
That year my darkness was questioned as a child was the same year I sang in front of my peers for the first time. I was in the 5th grade and we had auditions for the school play. I wanted to be the lead so badly. I knew I had a good voice, I just wanted everyone else to know that too. The other girl that was up for the part I wanted had blonde hair, blue eyes and was popular. I had no idea how many times I would come up against this gene pool in my line of work, but this one situation set the precedent for how I feel almost every time I go into an audition.
A friend of mine during that year told me that this girl, this pretty, blonde - with what some would view to be genetically perfect girl - had begun to voice her opinion about me also being up for the lead.
The words still to this day ring in my mind:
“She won’t get the part because she’s black”.
That one sentence held so much weight. But I’m talented. Why would I not get the part because I’m black? The amount of times I’ve had to ask myself that question in the past 20 years would astonish you. Now, granted, in the scope of black lives in America I’m aware I do live a very privileged one. I do make a living using my gifts. I own my own business. I’m married to an incredible man. I work for myself. I’m happy. But to deny the fact that I face discrimination in this industry, whether it be subtle or overt, would be sweeping a serious issue under the rug... an issue that no matter how successful I become, will always be a part of my story.
You may be wondering if I have ever been denied something because I was too dark. Well guess no longer: I definitely have.
When I graduated from college I got involved in a lot of different projects: anywhere from teaching to acting to modeling, you name it. I was a go-getter. A friend of mine worked for a popular cosmetic company and they wanted to add an African American female to their product ads. I auditioned and they loved me. But I didn’t book it. It wasn’t because I was black, because that’s what they were looking for. It was because I was too black. You see, the makeup company didn’t have a shade of brown that would match my skin tone. The infamous lack of makeup situation. This in itself is a recurring theme in my life. Because surprise! All black people aren’t the same shade. But apparently my shade isn’t important enough to be included.
When I was growing up, the amount of representation my race had in the industry was overwhelmingly encouraging. Throughout TV and in music there were so many incredible black figures for me to look up to. I had no reason to think that I couldn’t be that for someone else. But looking back, I realized there really wasn’t anyone that looked like me. There was no one as dark as me. But I never thought of myself as dark. I knew I was black and I was happy with that. But the more people brought it to my attention (because for some reason it needed to be), the more I realized that my skin tone must be an issue for some people.
It was brought up as easily as if you were telling someone they had bad breath and needed a mint.
“You’re really dark.”
But why did they feel the need to bring that to my attention? Why was it and is it such an issue to be dark skinned? What exactly do people equate dark skin with? I can’t really answer this question. But based on the reactions and comments and the amount of rejection I’ve received because of my skin tone, I can only decipher that people view dark skin as something that isn’t a thing of beauty. And unfortunately beauty is something that is coveted in this industry... this crazy evolving industry that I’m still navigating my place in. Beauty is something that is sadly almost a requirement.
As a result of this thinking, I never felt pretty when I was younger. I would look in the mirror and wish I could see something different. As I got older, I would try to hide my darkness with makeup and different hairstyles and nice clothes because the last thing I wanted was for anyone to mention how dark my skin was. This feeling stayed with me well into my adult years.
But it wasn’t until I was cast as a CoverGirl in Procter and Gamble’s “My Black is Beautiful” campaign did I actually realize that my black is beautiful.
This was 4 years ago and although I hate to measure my security and self-love from booking a magazine ad, it did give me a sense of self-assurance I had never had before. It gave me a feeling of acceptance. I didn’t feel overlooked, I truly felt beautiful. Funny thing is, when I went to that audition, I didn’t think I would get it. Funny how God has a different plan sometimes.
Today, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see that little 9 year old girl who was questioned about why her skin was so dark. I see a strong black woman who has overcome a lot of self-hate and insecurity. I see a successful woman that inspires others and will continue to do so as her career grows. I see a beautiful woman who just so happens to have dark skin. I wouldn’t be human if those negative thoughts and doubts didn’t creep up on me every now and then, but I’m finally content with the skin that I am in.
I love my complexion. I love my face. I finally found makeup that I can wear and I am the FACE of the company!
www.valanaminerals.com ...SHAMELESS plug!
When I go into auditions now, that little voice inside of me still questions whether I won’t get cast because I’m too dark, but at the end of the day I know that the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.
- Malynda Hale
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