I wonder if before the phrase “You’re pretty for a dark girl”, the words, “You’re pretty for a light girl” existed.
There are so many “isms”. Racism, sexism, extremism, tribalism, nationalism vs activism, womanism, feminism, patriotism. A thousand different solutions to a hundred different problems. And so it would seem that we’re over sensitizing this life we live. It would seem that we’re problematizing social norms – looking for the nuance in “boys will be boys”, “you kick like a girl”, “he was so dark he was navy blue.”
Except we’re not.
We’re looking to the girl who sits in front of a mirror seeing unsophistication in her dark skin; the mother who prays that God will color her child light. It’s never that simple. And so when I think of colourism, also known as shadeism – “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a darker skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group” – I think of a social condition that exists because of the standards of beauty; an affliction that exists because black women ascribe to a culture that glorifies white skin and white features. And I talk about it as a girl who is relatively light-skinned and has received certain privileges because of the lightness of my skin.
Like many other forms of prejudice that thrive within Kenya and the larger African community, the genesis of colourism is found within the constructs of the colonial era. In watching documentaries such as “Dark Girls” by Bill Duke, even in relation to colourism within the African-American community, the origins of colourism are tied to the idea that colonialism abruptly changed black perceptions of beauty and identity.
The white man or woman was presented as a superior being and as someone to aspire to, not only in terms of mannerisms and thought, but also in terms of physical beauty. In white people we see an honesty, reliability, an air of sophistication, that we don’t see in ourselves as Kenyans, be it in regards to education, business or even the social scene.
This is a perception that is evident in the distinction of service that we extend to white individuals in hotels, restaurants and offices and even in the twangs that we add to our r’s and o’s when dealing with white people. Further we have extended this subconscious prejudice, this subliminal misallocation of supremacy, to our understanding of beauty and sophistication within our own community. As such, we associate light women, the women who most embody white women in skin tone, with beauty, whilst suppressing darker women with “You’re pretty for a dark girl.” Suddenly black becomes different shades of grey, dark and light, black and white.
Suddenly she’s no longer just black.
The most evident manifestation of colourism in Kenya is bleaching. Often, these regular visits to the alley ways of River Road, for shots of mkorogo or Whitenicious treatments, are justified as a response to the idea that many Kenyan men prefer women with fairer complexions, as opposed to darker women. As a child, I would watch as the house-helps who watched over me gradually changed from chocolate-brown to pale yellow all in a matter of weeks. Often they would rationalize the change as an effort to find a husband.
Then there’s the story of Vera Sidika. She claims, that along with an increase in interested suitors, she has witnessed a surge in business opportunities and payouts since bleaching her skin. A trip to banking halls in Nairobi tells a similar story.
So it’s not just about in an internalized adulation for the blue-eyed, blond-haired, pale beauty or even in self-hate for darker skin. Our tendency to aspire to white aesthetic ideals is also more economically lucrative. Many may say there are exceptions to the rule (like Lupita Nyong’o). But was she was a dark beauty before she won an Academy Award?
This leads to one question; what now?
Like charity, this begins at home, because sometimes the worst type of prejudice that many darker people experience is that which they are exposed to in the comfort of their homes. From Facebook memes poking fun at Southern Sudanese women and women who live in Kisumu, to status updates comparing dark women to makaa (charcoal), to #teamlightskin, to the snarky comments that relatives make such as “you’re getting really dark these days”, it becomes clear that our society does not encourage dark women to embrace the color of their skin. It even blatantly expresses its disdain for any tans that arise as a result of long hours of walking under the hot December sun.
We need to stop with the hypocrisy, demanding lightness from our women and then proceeding to shame them for bleaching themselves. We need to appreciate women light and dark. We need to be better than the sixty year old sins of our oppressors. A trend shouldn’t be determining our perceptions of something that is so intimate and profound to ones self-esteem. We cannot afford to have yet another generation of girls going to dangerous, expensive lengths, looking for a beauty that they’ve had all along – inside and out.
Mumbi Kanyogo is an upcoming freshman at Duke University. She considers herself a lover of words and culture, and is passionate about feminism, African development & politics and storytelling. Follow her on Twitter @mumbi_kanyogo