She stood quietly with a crooked smile on her face. That was the best she could do at that moment. Her eyes stung, and she was afraid to ease into the sting as couldn’t tell if she was about to cry or yell a tonne of profanity. ‘Compose yourself; like a poem- do not slip into the feeling. At that point, she had no idea what the man was saying. There was still movement in his lips, and this intensified the force within he clenched fists disguised with the “mmhs and ahhs’ she let out timely. She knew everything he had to say before he said it and could anticipate the whole trajectory of that pointless conversation.
This situation was not her first rodeo. She had been in that conversation countless times. It was different people all who felt the need to inform her that she was a dark-skinned black girl and proceeded on to tell her what it meant to be a black girl and a dark-skinned one for that matter. A few sought validation from her by speaking whichever African language they knew and seemed surprised when she did not respond to all of them. The climax was the ones who took the time to give her relationship advice to ensure she raised the next generation of beautiful black children.
While this might not sound like your everyday experience, it almost entirely represents mine. It often starts with a simple ‘Hi, I hope you don’t me saying this but your skin is so beautiful’ afterwards we dive into the rabbit hole of how I should maintain my dark skin, how I shouldn’t get kids outside my race and the occasional ‘You should be very proud of yourself for not lightening your skin or you are so brave. On the receiving end, I am expected to be grateful that they noticed my beauty and honoured that ‘I am beautiful for a dark-skinned girl.’
I have been dark-skinned for more than two decades, and in that time, I learnt what it meant to me to be an African. This realisation is mainly because even within the African continent, I have always been treated as more African than other people. At first, this felt like a burden I was the face of a race that was undermined, oppressed and silenced for ages. I always felt like I needed to make myself small to be acceptable. I needed to understand my place in society, and I was not happy with that. Instead, I defined what being black meant to me and how I would approach my experience of being African. The truth that I understood was that my complexion was simply another thing that described me rather than defines me. This truth allowed me to thrive and be the best version of myself without any limits whatsoever.
The rise of the Black and proud thing hit hard in my late teens. The first time I noticed it was the natural hair frenzy in Nairobi. Suddenly, with no prior explanation, my kinky 4C hair was a beauty goal. On a typical weekday, while walking through the central business area in Nairobi, a group of girls stopped me
“Wewe ni mrembo,usiwahi jibleach,” they said translating to “You are so beautiful, don’t ever bleach yourself.”
As a person used to receive negativity about my skin, I felt seen for the first time. Unfortunately, with time more and more people felt the need to tell me whatever they wanted to say to me about my skin. With time, it was no longer about my skin…Today it is about what food I like, what music I listen to, whom I am sexually attracted to, what type of hairstyles I like and other personal details. Everything about me seems to matter way more than it should. The fact that I do not have extensive knowledge of all African history is a disgrace. My lack of preference for Afro-beat signified just how much my mind has been ‘colonised. ‘ People feel the need to make me an ‘authentic African’ without realising that there is no one existing definition of what the African experience is.
I love the ‘black and proud’ movement. The brave and loud positivism about being African and portraying elements of being African such as Afros is the energy we needed for such a long time. Seeing dark-skinned people on TVs such as Lupita Nyongó and Danielle Brooks has been a blessing that I never saw coming. I had given up and accepted the world as a place where I might never indeed be acceptable. As more people learn about Africa and continental Africans, the information on our past, present, and future have resulted in some of us treated like we are artefacts. The pressure of being viewed as the face of the race tends to take away from our other identities. It feels like a different kind of racism. The situation where our value as people is not always prioritised, and often we find ourselves perceived as African bodies rather than African people.
I would love to celebrate my skin and ‘Africaness’ without the pressure to be African enough for someone else’s metrics. To whom it may concern: dark-skinned people are not a rare exotic creation. While we might be some of these things, it is important to note that we are not all Nubian gods, we are not all models, and we don’t speak all African languages. We are different people with identities beyond our dark skin, and we do not owe anyone the burden of representing Africa in the way that they perceive it. Above all, it hurts to feel like we have to perform our race- especially to people who look like us.
We need to find a healthy way to celebrate each other with all the diversity we have. An approach that allows people to be more than their given identities. I believe that through that, we will be able to make meaningful and lasting connections with people. I no longer try to prove how African I am. This decision has allowed me to meet people whom I can connect with based on my personality and interests. Genuinely accepting diversity means putting away stereotypes and all expectations we have about people before we know them.