Roland Martin CNN headshot

Story highlights

Acura criticized after agency sought light-skinned African-Americans for its Super Bowl ad

This isn't a new story, Roland Martin says

There must be discussion on belief that being light-skinned means a better life, Martin says

Film "Dark Girls" explores pain associated with dark skin, re-creates famous doll study

CNN  — 

Acura found itself in a bit of hot water this week when it was revealed that a casting agency in Los Angeles only desired light-skinned African-American actors for the company’s Super Bowl commercial featuring Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld.

The company apologized, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of the chatter criticizing Acura for not doing more to keep the casting agency in check. This really isn’t a new story considering how many times in the past we’ve heard similar stories, including that advertising agencies have non-urban dictates like refusing to buy advertising space on black-focused radio, TV, magazine and online properties.

Worldwide, nearly $500 million is spent on bleaching products, an effort for people with darker skin to lighten their skin. This is pretty laughable considering the lengths some whites go to darken their skin through tanning beds or even spray painting a bronze look in order to appear darker. (I’m still trying to figure out the skin tone of Speaker of the House John Boehner.)

But there is another critical discussion that must be had, and that is the belief that the lighter skinned you are, the better your life will be.

The effects of this mindset are examined in the documentary “Dark Girls,” produced by actor/director Bill Duke and directed by Chan Berry.

“Dark Girls” explores the pain that is associated with having dark skin, even re-creating the white doll-black doll studies made famous by Dr. Kenneth Clark, which played a crucial role in the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.

Facilitator: Show me the smart child.

[A Black child’s hand points to the fairest-skinned depiction among a spectrum of drawings of a little girl, identical, save for the skin color).

Facilitator: And why is she the smart child?

Child: ‘Cause she is white.

Facilitator: OK. Show me the dumb child.

[The little girl, who is brown-skinned, points to the drawing of the child with the darkest skin).

Facilitator: And why is she the dumb child?

Child: Because she black.

Facilitator: Well, show me the ugly child.

[Again, the little girl points to the darkest drawing).

Facilitator: And why is she the ugly child?

Child: ‘Cause she black.

Facilitator: Show me the good-looking child.

[The little girl points to the fairest drawing.]

Facilitator: And why is she the good-looking child?

Child: ‘Cause she light-skinned-ed.

I talked to Duke and Berry on my TV One show, Washington Watch, and both said the results of the documentary were stunning when considering how pervasive skin color plays a role in the minds of kids, even at an early age.

“Unfortunately, I think we’ve accepted values that set standards of beauty that are not us,” Duke said. “And as a result of that, as you saw the small child, unfortunately, at a very, very, very young age, whatever they look like is not beautiful enough. And so they try to be something other, and we sell them products to do that, and I think whoever’s selling that ad thinks in the same way.”

In the documentary, one woman fighting back tears tells the story of a friend who recently had a baby: “It was my first time seeing the baby, and the baby was beautiful. And she said, “Girl, I’m so glad she didn’t come out dark!”

In addition to the Acura controversy, there have been complaints that on album covers and magazine ads, the skin of Beyonce, who is already light-skinned, is made even lighter to make her appear white.

Even when it comes to dating, some black men have the view, “Light is bright; she’s alright.”

“In our film, we have a young man saying he does not think a dark-skinned girl looks right on his arm. He says that in the camera,” Duke said. “He says long hair, fair skin - he feels better with that person on his arm.”

Berry says it’s vital that we have real discussions about this issue.

“I want to continue what has happened six months ago when we dropped the trailer on everybody – to know that – to recognize that there is an issue with us, and then start the healing process,” he said. “If you recognize that you have an issue, and then open up about it and start talking about it, that’s when the healing begins.

“So with our film – we’re not psychiatrists, or psychologists, or sociologists, Roland. We’re just filmmakers who decided to point a lens at this particular subject, this issue, to say, ‘Listen. This is how we can fix this, possibly. Just open up and talk about it,’ because, as Bill says, you’re not going to find anything outside of yourself to heal this. It’s going to come from within.”

While “Dark Girls” ( makes its way across the country, Duke and Berry are working on their next documentary, which will deal with light-skinned black women.

Even that is a serious issue; even to the degree that some blacks still pass for white in the 21st century. Just last year, my Aunt Rita died in Louisiana. She lived most of her adult life as a white woman, even though she was black.

Her daughter, who is married to a white man and passes for white even though she knows she’s black – but her kids don’t know – waited two months to tell my grandmother that her only surviving sister had died. Why?

Because she was afraid of her black relatives showing up and exposing their secret.

How’s that for a post-racial America?