My family has always been the number one champion around my beauty. I loved being told I was beautiful; it was the one thing I knew I had. I could count on my beauty, and it inspired my first career aspirations to be a model. An innocent ambition that became a full blow passion for a career. The question of my beauty had never been up for debate until I started interacting with the world.
My dark-skin got me kicked out of games, Sometimes I got to play the games, but I would get the negatives such as ‘The monster’ chasing people. I was called derogatory terms, some of which still hurt to think of, and I was the punchline to all jokes that had anything remotely related to darkness. Similar to the people around me, the media always reminded me that my black was not acceptable from the absence of people like me. In the rare occasions that they were, they played the roles of bad people, low intellectual characters, suffering people or characters who got killed off early.
Am I beautiful? Does my family even mean it? Are these people trying to protect me from the truth? It felt like they were telling me lies to spare my feeling while in reality, I was ugly; I was too dark, and it was just not okay.
The most significant blow hit when I was 12. One of my classmates told me that one of the boys in my class had a crush on me and wanted to go on a date. It felt surreal, but we were at the end of our final year in primary school, it made sense that someone was shooting his shot before we moved to high school and never saw each other again. At the same time, I was excited at the prospect of someone outside my family, thinking I was beautiful.
During the end of year class party, I ‘borrowed’ cool clothes from one of my sisters and went to meet my future husband. I remember how it felt strutting into the classroom that day: How I confidently swang my bag..the smile on my face…the butterflies when he turned to look at me… and then the uproar. The outstanding burst of laughter that followed as soon as I asked him when he wanted to set the date. Once again, I was the punchline. I was the main piece of a practical joke, the joke that I thought I could be beautiful. This moment stripped me of the tiniest shed of self-esteem that I had been holding on to for the most part of my formative years.
A few months later, I went to an all-girls boarding school, ready to work on being smart. I wanted to be at the top of my class. At least that way I wouldn’t be both dumb and ugly, I’d have something positive going on. One night, I was summoned to one of the senior girl’s room. As soon as I got there, I had more than ten girls just staring at me. One girl commented, “this is the dark girl I was telling you about…” she paused for a moment then added, “…the gorgeous one.”
I stood there for a few minutes as they spoke of how lovely my skin was, to me, it was the worst type of humiliation. The fact that they had called me to sarcastically ridicule me was cruel. Overwhelmed, I broke down. I couldn’t stop the stream of tears from gushing from my eyes, I wanted the curse of darkness gone so badly I was ready to die. As I stormed out of the room heavily sobbing one girl ran after me, stopped me and apologized -she thought I was going through stage fright. I remember being confused, I thought this was part of the act, but she calmed me and told me that they were honest. They actually thought I was beautiful, and I reminded them of one of their friends who was an actual model. Up until that moment, I had never considered myself a lovely person. I had walked into that room ready to be tormented about my dark skin as usual, and the last thing I expected was being looked at as a goddess of beauty.
The next day, I was called back into that same room, but this time it was different. There were a few new faces, significantly, the school’s deputy head girl (this role is like a school vice president) who was also the model referred to on the previous night. She was as dark as I was, she was gorgeous, smart, had friends all who were surprising to me. That night, I began a journey of unlearning melanin shame.
This chapter of my life is not unique. It is a chapter that exists for so many dark-skinned people. Dark-skinned people whose skin colour is associated with lower intelligence, poverty, ugliness and shame- a whole cocktail of unpleasantries. Colourism is the systematic discrimination of people with darker skin tones- Lupita Nyong’o describes it as the daughter of racism. Colourism, like other forms of discrimination, creates a dehumanizing hierarchy. During the colonial and slave trade period, lighter-skinned Africans and slaves were treated better than their darker counterparts, e.g. they would work in the houses rather than the fields which have significantly harsher conditions. This resulted in the lighter-skinned being associated with wealth, power and privilege.
Years later and the problem became such a systemized into our institutions and even among black people. We started seeing black people on tv, interracial couples, black people in upper management, modelling, and it felt like racism was ending. However, on a closer look, the black people who were able to rise were often light-skinned or biracial. The message became clear: It is okay to be black just not too black. Dark-skinned women and girls find themselves at an intersection that makes them the most significant victim. Black men are often able to ‘date upwards’ removing them from the target zone of colourism. By ‘date upwards’ I am referring to black men dating people from other race, interracial women or light-skinned women as a way to raise their social capital. This further segregates dark-skinned women and highlights the lowest being on the racial hierarchy.
Today, beauty products are often made for lighter tones and finding products that work for dark-skinned is rare and expensive. Notably, the beauty industry keeps developing new skin-lightening products for dark-skinned people to the extent that skin bleaching companies can open multiple massive retail stores to deal with the demand. One of my greatest disappointments was seeing a whole aisle of skin bleaching products in the leading supermarket of an African country. It signified just how deep colourism has seeped into societies psyche.
It is high time we spoke about colourism and actually did something about it. Empowering dark-skinned children to love their skin is not enough. We need to teach all children about embracing diversity, and that colourism is unacceptable. This is because most of the bullying that builds the foundation of self-hate starts with children. Dark-skinned people need to know they are beautiful outside the confines of their family. In the world of content creation, there needs to be a shift. We need to see more dark-skinned people. Dark-skinned people need to be portrayed as ordinary people and not diversity sprinkles.
Photographer: Samantha Akinyi Osanjo (Instagram: AkinyiOsanjo)
- My family- I am grateful that you guys never stopped reminding me that I am beautiful.
- Those senior girls who made me believe that I was beautiful.
- Lupita Nyong’o. Her work in activism against colourism including the fantastic children’s book Sulwe (I attend her book reading and got a signed copy- one of the highlights of my life so far)
- The guardian. I commend you for running the shades of black series which shows the world what colourism is and how it affects its victims.
- All the Dark skinned women in media who are a constant reminder that we are acceptable and we are beautiful while fighting against colourism, e.g. Danielle Brooks
- Samantha Akinyi, Alvin Aringo- Photographers and friends who use their content creation for advocacy on diversity.