By Zawadi Birya
In a test commissioned by ABC News in America, a group of people were asked to rate 60 photos on how beautiful the people pictured were. Although the face in the picture was of the same person, it had been altered in each case so that it portrayed a different image. Some of the effects made the person appear dark skinned while in other cases she appeared light skinned.
The respondents, who comprised both white and black people, gave darker skinned images lower scores compared to their lighter counterparts. The test proved that colourism, a form of segregation in which members of the same race discriminate against each other based on the shade of their skin, was still very much alive in the world.
Although the test was conducted in America, it also applies to African and Asian societies today.
The light skinned silky haired European featured skinny woman has become the ideal for both societies, to the exclusion of numerous other beautiful black women who do not fit this mould. The result of this has been the emergence of a generation of African and Asian children suffering from a chronic lack of self esteem as well as the increasing availability of mostly harmful bleaching pills, creams and dangerous surgical procedures designed to minimise the ethnic features of a perfectly normal African and Asian women, by moulding the women into delicate European features.
Reflecting on her teen years, Faith, a 22-year-old ebony skinned university student studying in Kenya attests to this. "It did not matter how a light skinned girl looked or behaved. As long as she was light skinned she was a beautiful. A couple of years later, I see the same thing happening. A college mate even had the audacity to tell me that I was too pretty for a dark chic".
Annette*, another dark skinned girl who works as a customer care attendant in Nairobi also complains that she has experienced colourism while trying to secure a job. "In some occupations like mine, looks seem to be part of the qualifications employers are looking for. Light skinned women tend to carry the day during recruitment," she says.
Though seldom spoken about, colourism has long been an open secret in numerous communities around the world.
Dates back to slavery
In the USA following the abolition of slavery, African Americans formed mixed race societies such as the "The Blue Vein Society" that was made up of well connected free born or freed individuals. To be eligible to join this society, one had to be light skinned enough that the veins on the underside of their arm were visible and blue in colour. Members of these societies married and mingled amongst each other in an effort to preserve whatever greatness they felt their skin colour portended.
In her 2007 biography, world-renowned model Alek Wek, also speaks about her struggles with colourism: "Whether I like it or not, my skin defines me. The first thing many people notice about me is how dark my skin is. Not just in America and Europe but also, to a lesser extent, in Sudan. In Khartoum, my skin marked me as a southerner, probably a Dinka, and many lighter skinned residents of the city looked down on me. Racism exists everywhere...I’ve noticed that journalists often liked to say that I’d been discovered in ‘the bush’ in Africa — As if I had been a primeval innocent afoot in the forest when the great model agent plucked me from the muck and tamed me, without destroying my savage beauty’’.
Entrenched in the mind
Celebrated Booker prize winning Indian author V S Naipul also illustrates the extent of colourism in Asian societies in his book, Half A Life. In this book, Willie Chandron’s father rebels against his family by marrying a darker skinned woman of a lower caste. While plotting his rebellion, the reader is let in on Chandron’s father’s deepest thoughts: "My decision was to...marry the lowest person I could find...There was a girl at the University. She was small and coarse featured, almost tribal in appearance, noticeably black. ... It would have been unbearable to consider her family and clan and their occupations. When people like that went to the temple they would have been kept out of the sanctum...The officiating priest would never have wanted to touch these people."
Colourism originates from the slavery and colonial eras in which slaves began to associate wealth and intelligence with colour. Hence, on both the African and Asian continents where colonialism and slavery took place for decades, subjects progressively began to think that their colonisers were powerful and wealthy because they were white.
Pooja*, a Kenyan Indian with two children says that she often felt the difference in treatment between her and her darker skinned cousins — even from close family members. "No one will come right out and tell you how ugly you are because of your dark skin. Though very subtle, the hints definitely exist and you can feel them".
It, therefore, seems as the decades go by that the pursuit of light skin is not only intensifying but that colourism is becoming more entrenched in both African and Asian societies. Problem is that subsequent generations are getting rooted in this mythical belief.
It calls for women and mothers especially, to take a front seat in addressing the issue of colourism among their children. Right from a young age, girls must understand that it is only a myth that light skinned women are the superior race.
If we do not do so, we risk aggravating the matter and suppressing our children both emotionally and psychologically. Our girls will then grow up trying so hard to fit into the unrealistic ideal of what is considered beautiful in today’s world.