Rejecting Shame: “Who taught you to hate the color of your skin?”-Malcolm X

Alek Wek
Alek Wek

“Bo yu blak o!”[1]

The rickety poda poda bounced, dipped and jerked on the dusty stony road leading from Lumley junction to Malama, my hometown .Our bodies jiggled as our bottoms involuntarily twerked on the wooden seats, sweat dripping down our backs, absorbing both the heat from the many bodies tightly packed   in the 1952 escort Mazda bus, and heat from the blazing March sun. I silently prayed that no one would be ungracious enough to let out bad air. The only open windows were the driver’s and the apprentice’s, and the little oxygen the passengers survived on was only increased when the door was opened-to take another passenger. I wiped my brow and looked over at the bus apprentice. I envied his spot, right by the window, fresh breeze fanning his face…his striking face. He was in his early twenties-maybe twenty-one, and wore a supposedly white (now brown) singlet and shorts. His bulging muscles strained against his ebony skin, a fine blackness that complimented the scarification on  the back of his neck. He was black, and his blackness truly shone. However, his blackness had so affected the man sitting behind him that he voiced out loud “Bo yu blak o!”.Many people in the bus burst into laughter and the apprentice turned to give his accuser a once over and then sarcastically spit “na yu yala?”, questioning the man’s skin tone, as he was coffee-colored.  “Bo a nor blak lek yu,yu blak tumos!”( “At least I am not as dark as you are,you are way too dark”). I laughed with the crowd too. The kind of laughter that was really loud enough to drown my inner conscience of thanks that the “insult” of being “too black”, was not being directed at me. I was trying to disassociate myself from the apprentice’s abundance of rich blackness.

My very first memory of colorism was an incident that took place during my refugee days in The Gambia. I was very young, not more than 8 or 9 and my elder sister and I were taking a walk along Cape Point, a tourist area full of toubabs[2] on holiday, enjoying the warm Gambian sunshine. My sister was tightly holding my hand, as I, ever curious, looked at batik clothes and wooden artifacts that the beach vendors were selling. As we strolled past a stall, one of the vendors called out to us “eh Toubab! Toubab! Kai wai” I spun around to see who he was referring to, certainly not me! He was looking directly at my sister, who has always been of dark caramel color. I was completely confused. My sister was in no way a toubab ,but the fact her skin color, lighter than mine, made her closest to being white looking, qualified her to be labelled as toubab,to the vendor.I don’t remember analyzing the situation then.I was just truly bewildered. It was also in The Gambia that I became aware of the damaging effects on skin bleaching, since that’s where I  came of age. I saw some women with  different shades on their skin,from dark brown knuckles, to golden-yellow feet, the effects of harsh chemicals put in skin bleaching lotions, in a bid to move away from seen as “too black”. I knew I wanted my skin to stay as it was, I was never ashamed of being dark-skinned, and seeing the discolored skin of women who bleached with harsh creams made me vow to keep my color in its true original form. 

However, the attributes given to lighter skinned people as being beautiful by default, and darker skinned people as having to make more effort to look beautiful, cuts across the Americas, parts of Asia ,and Africa. Through colonization and slavery, a Eurocentric approach to the standard of beauty switched to a different trajectory that exhibited no regard for historically traditional standards of African beauty. The danger of this was that not only did it create a different way of measuring beauty, it also created a hierarchy of who was more racially superior-closest to the white looking caste, and those who looked more “primitive”, “native”, or “bush looking” ,were at the bottom .Through colonization and slavery, a Eurocentric measure of beauty was created wherein “white looking” features of straighter hair, straight nose, and fair skin, were held in higher standards than tightly coiled hair, a broad nose and darker skin.

The structure of imperialism is clever in the sense that it starts with mental colonization and leaves the oppressed to internalize inferiority. The first step is to exhibit that conforming to Eurocentric standards will be a benefit to the oppressed. The next step is wherein the oppressor makes sure that the oppressed have internalized these ideals and then steps back to watch the oppressed struggle amongst themselves   to transcend externally imposed shame and internalized inferiority complex. This took place in many African countries during colonialism, but a specific reference that comes to mind is the case of Rwanda. The Germans and Belgians believed that the Tutsis were more superior because they were more “white looking”. Hence the Tutsis were put in positions of power and the Hutus and Twas were discriminated against by the colonizers.  Most of us know how that story ends-the tragic Rwandan genocide.

The colonizers did their part, the Eurocentric standards of who is more superior because they conform to a Eurocentric standard of beauty, has reigned for years and years. The damage has already been done, the shame of being “too black” has being both internalized and championed by many. When African countries gained independence from the British, the French, the Germans , the Portuguese…did they also gain independence from mental colonization? Did they attempt to remove deep-seated feelings of inferiority based merely on how dark the color of their skin was? Let us examine ourselves: How many times have we glorified the white/lighter/white-looking skin over the   ebony hue ? How many times have we denied our own dark brothers and sisters, because we don’t want to be as seen as “black” as them? How many times have we preferred to address the comfort of others over our own people, because they sported Eurocentric standards of dress, skin color, manners, etc ? We still have that shame, “ Don’t call me black!” “ I am not as black as you” , “I am not from Africa, they are too black” “These/Those black people over here/there…” “ I don’t want someone who is too black, I want my kids to be beautiful”. This sense of  shame crosses borders between the black Africans and black Africans in the diaspora-we are ashamed to acknowledge one another, simply because of the color of our skin.

I am guilty of it-very guilty of colorism, very guilty of internalized shame, very guilty of glorifying the white skin/white looking/fairer skin, over my chocolate sepia one. But I know it is up to me, as an individual, to change it. The conscious decisions I make every day as to how I treat myself ,how I treat people who look like me, how I slowly but surely decolonize the deep-seated imperialist indoctrination of how inferior darker skinned people are, will hopefully change things in my little corner. Eurocentric standards aside, it is really up to us (Black people and here refers to black Africans on the continent and in the diaspora) to start revisiting our inferiority complex and our internalized colorism. Let us start being in love with who we truly are again.Why? Because internalizing how inferior our dark skin is both self-destructive and self-limiting. I once heard a man loudly declare that he specifically wanted a woman who was “yala” or light-skinned, but also preferably white, because he wanted his children to look beautiful. According to him, women who were “too black” would not give him beautiful enough children. I took one look at him and hoped, at least for his own sake, that he did not think his own mother, had been “too black” for his father, hence that he was not good-looking enough. Let’s teach ourselves to love the color of our skin and its many shades, let us reject shame.


[1] From Krio,in English means “you are so black/dark-skinned!”

[2] From Wolof,which means “White Person” in English

13 Comments Add yours

  1. Debbie says:

    BRILLIANT PIECE!

    Like

    1. sepiadahlia says:

      Thank you!

      Like

  2. Pierre Palmer says:

    Nice piece of writing. Firstly enjoyed the choice of words forgeting about the content, I had to read it again to get the morale of the story. Kudos!!!!

    Like

    1. sepiadahlia says:

      Thank you!

      Like

  3. richa says:

    I love this piece! I really enjoyed reading it. This is so true for Indians as well!

    Like

    1. sepiadahlia says:

      I’m happy you could relate to it Richa,thanks!

      Like

  4. Grae Elysbeth jones says:

    It’s a good piece carefully put together.

    Like

  5. Nancy says:

    Good work as always Ngozi. This used to be a big issue in zimbabwe esp when I was growing up but now I think attitudes are beginning to change and pple are beginning to appreciate our dark skin color

    Like

    1. sepiadahlia says:

      It’s true,things are surely changing,and no one can appreciate our dark skin color more than ourselves.

      Like

  6. Atyeno says:

    This piece got me tinkin gyal write a book oh. Chimamanda ain’t got nothing on you

    Like

    1. sepiadahlia says:

      haha,Thank you Winnie,I’ll never forget your words sister.

      Like

  7. cklo says:

    @sephidahlia..This is a beautiful piece about the awakening of self. I think its beautiful because I see myself too. I remember admiting to myself that I think more of a white man than my own brother (whom I love to death mind you) Oh girl it was painful. But once i faced the ugly truth, my journey of freedom began and its one thing I will never trade; I consistantly free myself from the shackles of a system created to dehumanize creation. I absolutley love my ‘ebony hue’ (refreshing vocubulary) and as i journey on, I come across people like you which makes it a wonderful experience. Let us journey down

    Like

    1. ngozicole says:

      Wow! This is great! I’m happy I can share this 🙂

      Like

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