Colors of our skin: The many sides of our story

Title – Becoming Barbie
When I was a little girl, all I wanted to be was white. Like my doll, I wanted to have straight hair and eyes as blue as the sky. The whole world was telling me that if I made my skin just a bit lighter or my hair straight and blond, I would be instantly beautiful. The day I got my first perm-when I first straightened my hair, I felt like i was one step closer to reaching that goal. But my kinky, curly hair kept growing back and the sun kept my skin dark. Today, I look at my skin, my nose and my hair and accept them and celebrate them as part of myself and as that which connects me to my heritage. I am African and yes, I am beautiful..

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A photographer friend of mine inspired today’s post. Its with great pleasure i share her wonderful photos. Isabella Gathoni, you inspire me :-).

I am always struck by the beautiful variety of skin color that comprises the African people. Black, brown, chocolate, mahogany, coffee, bronze, copper and even beige skin. What a beautiful kaleidoscope of hues and shades, wonderful to look at; God’s very own eye-candy.

Yet within these shades, we make distinctions. Defining one as prettier, one as slower, another as more savage, and yet another as more intelligent. So strong are our beliefs that entire cosmetic lines have been created to lighten, brighten and clear our skin. Often marketed as skin ‘toners’ said to maintain ‘evenness in skin tone’, making ‘fairer’ while denying any actual ‘lightening’. It wasn’t until I began to travel that I realized how widespread this issue is.

The other day, the lady who helps me clean had a friend getting married. So she borrowed my camera promising to share with me her friend’s wedding pictures. When the camera returned, the images were of a coffee-white bride beside her charcoal-black parents and siblings. I had to ask if one of her biological parents was white. Of course they were both dark, and I realized Michael Jackson was not the only one successful at changing his skin color. Her husband-to-be was also quite dark-skinned; I have to wonder what fate awaits their children.

When visiting Europe in the dead of winter, I am always stupefied by these super-bronzed ladies. They want to be browner, so they spend hours lying horizontal in tanning salons several times a week. And of course we know how the sun-tan lotion industry and Africa’s tourism have benefited from the desire for natural tropical sun-tans.

Though it’s often the ladies that seek to alter their skin color, their goal to appear more attractive accord’s men some part of the blame. I don’t remember when it was that I begun to notice the extra attention that lighter-skinned girls received. Don’t get me wrong, I love my skin; I have never thought to change it. Yet, growing up I was certain that I had the raw end of the deal, it seemed to me factual that light skinned girls were way prettier.

I wonder who put it in our minds that our skin color ain’t good enough. Where did this false belief that one skin is more acceptable than the other begin? Should we fault the European/Arabic colonizers that told our ancestors that they were superior? Should we blame Hollywood that crowds our televisions with images of Caucasian heroes and heroines? Or maybe it’s our ethnic communities that raised us to believe others inferior for having darker skin, being circumcised, loving fish?

You see, classifying people does not end with skin color. A black Zimbabwean friend of mine picked up a strong British accent in her grade-school days. Many years later while working in tele-sales, she was on the phone with a white Zimbabwean farmer when he emphatically explained to her, “I don’t think you understand me, I am looking for someone like you and me…you know a swimmer!” Apparently, black people in Zimbabwe don’t swim. This I find a strange concept, since my father taught me to swim when I was 3.

It is said that assuming makes an ass of you and me. Though we may be unaware of our stereotyping, our faulty conclusions leave us looking dumb as nails. What’s worse, discrimination that begins with bias and stereotyping may disastrously end in xenophobia and racism.

This happened to a Zambian friend while in Nairobi for the 2007 World Social Forum. At the end of a long day, he boarded the bus that was to take them to their town hotel as he had done several evenings before. On the bus he took an empty seat beside an older-looking white French lady who was obviously quite uncomfortable with his choice of seat. After a brief moment, she turned to him and bluntly inquired if he was planning to “steal from her”. She had heard that all black people in Nairobi were thieves!! My friend counted to ten before informing her that he was not a thief and had no plans to start stealing anytime soon. They continued on in silence. And as they arrived at the front of the hotel, he could see relief on her face. She had survived a bus-ride with an African and not been robbed blind.

And as if her previous remark was not ignorant enough, she turned to my boyish looking friend and invited him to her room, asking if he would like to see “how a white person lives”. My friend didn’t respond but along with the other passengers got off the bus and continued on into the hotel lobby. Assuming his silence to be compliance, she waited with him at the elevator doors. They both got in and disembarked on the fourth floor. She walked ahead of him as they headed down the corridor to where the rooms were, and he followed behind her silently. When my friend got to his hotel room, which happened to be only one door away from hers, he took his key out of his pocket and put it in the door knob. The look on her face was priceless. She had not once imagined that they might be sharing the same hotel. Ten minutes after entering his room, his phone rang. It was the lady apologizing profusely while offering to buy him dinner and pay for his stay. To my friend this was even worse because it implied he couldn’t afford to pay his own bills!!

See what I mean, stereotypes can land us into a lot of trouble. And the problem with classifying people is that it cannot substitute for cold hard facts. Not all white, black, red, pink, brown people are anything. People don’t exactly fit easily into labeled boxes.

I acknowledge as I write this post that this is my struggle too. For example, I have a huge disdain for Kenyan-Indian landlords. This originates from numerous horror stories that friends have narrated as well as my own experience of a conniving Kenyan-Indian landlord who stole from me. Yet, the moment I start to say that Indians are horrible, I have to stop and remember my Kenyan-Indian colleague who had to be the nicest kindest most hardworking lady ever, and who saved my ass on many an occasion. You see, one experience cannot take precedence over another.

In October 2009, Novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a famous Ted-talk where she tells the story of how she “found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories.”

(PS – Another great 2007 Ted-talk is Ory Okolloh’s personal take on the portrayal of Africa’s poverty, disease and disaster that eventually led her to Harvard. She is the founder of Ushahidi and Google’s Africa Policy Manager).

What am I saying here? This is the Internet age; we can do something about the stereotypes we have consciously or unconsciously formed. We can find alternative information. We can read/watch/listen widely; learn more about others. The more we know about others, the more facts and the less prejudice we shall have about them, and about ourselves. There doesn’t exist a type of person that is more beautiful, intelligent, sophisticated etc. than another because of their skin color.

I have seen ‘stop-in-the-middle-of-the-road-to-stare-at’ beautiful people from almost every corner of the world, and I would be hard-pressed to select one beauty over the other. I now know for a fact that light skin does not mean beautiful.

Song of the weekJe suis né pour te louer (I was born to praise you).


21 thoughts on “Colors of our skin: The many sides of our story

  1. Very reflective Rp. Two things come to mind for me. A while back Ebony did a survey on young black girls in the States by putting them in a room where they were asked to select a doll they thought was prettier and most girls picked the white dolls (Barbie I assumed). It spoke alot on the esteem of the black girl in a continent that is as racist as it is fast food joints laced.

    The second thing that comes to mind is the Dove Evolution campaign which for me shows just how complicated beauty really is because what we see on glam mags has no ounce of truth.


  2. I really do not have a generalised answer for Kenyan men regarding the issue of skin colour For it is not a topic i often engage in and give much conscious critical thought to,secondly but closely related even from a personal point of view i have never been quite conscious of skin colour as a critical aspect of beauty and thirdly my general observation about beauty is that it’s the women who determine what beauty is…not quite the men. I had a similar conversation once with an American friend and i told her i am yet to meet one single guy who likes skinny girls and it was a bit eye opening for her because she is constantly being bombarded with images of skinny girls as being pretty yet even her she could only name one man from all her friends who likes skinny girls…so really who is determining that skinny girls are beautiful? If you ask me it’s the women not the men. If i may i will generalise this even for skin colour, excluding excesses, you will not quite hear men talk about skin colour or tone…really it’s the women who really talk about it. So here we differ i agree that perhaps light coloured women are considered more beautiful…but i think it’s more the women pushing that agenda. Men are hardly as conscious of women’s beauty as women are of their own beauty…this is just my take, it’s not a critical analysis of the issue:)

    • I like that you have taken the time to reflect and share you thoughts. And i agree with you men are VERY unaware of their subconscious choices especially what they find attractive. I cannot count the number of times i have been with a group of girls and when a man (or a group of men) come by and its always the light skinned ones that get the attention. This happens even with watchies and guys wa mjengo. This is why i think its unconscious. And women are very quick to pick up these cues and respond to them. And this then influences their perceptions of their own beauty.

      This is why i think men too must re-think their perceptions of beauty. And i agree with you, although my chosen emphasis was skin color, there are many other beauty topics (weight, natural hair, weaves, make-up etc.) that could benefit from men’s self-awareness. How about you start a revival of male consciousness on this, what say you?

  3. It is not entirely true that “it is the women who determine what beauty is, and not quite the men”, as argued by Gachuki up this blog. Men are not blind to beauty and aesthetics in all its forms. They are active participants, they too have a part in the process. It is true though, that beauty lies closer in reference to women than men. But this is often in a context whereby the women themselves are subjects and up for judgement by others, not decision-makers. In Greek mythology, it was Paris (son of Priam and Hecuba and brother of Hector) who was called to judge who of three goddesses, Aphrodite, Hera, and Pallas Athene, was the fairest (read the most beautiful).

    The ancient Greeks were especially attentive to the beauty of young men’s bodies, and the Nuba of Sudan and the Wodaabe men in Niger also have no difficulty in associating men and beauty. Indeed, the latter stage a beauty contest for men, ‘gerewol’, to express their special birthright of beauty and their true identity among African people.

    To beautify themselves, the male beauties of the Wodaabe people in Niger apply yellow colour to their faces in order to lighten them, draw a line from the forehead to the tip of the nose to make the latter appear longer; blacken their lips; and, at the height of their striving for beauty, squint at the women.

  4. Pearl, this a wonderful piece. I’m itching to say something about stereotypes; They come from somewhere i.e when a group of people exhibit similar tendancies for whatever reason. It is not unlikely that you will fear/love hate them for that. True, we should seek to understand the behaviour and it’s origin because we too belong to groups that have peculiar behaviour and dislike being misunderstood/hated/feared for it.

  5. Pingback: Stereotypical…. »

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