Blacks obsessed with white? Author stirs controversy with new tell-it-all novel

A show of hands represents those who have witnessed racism on campus during the Black Thursday rally to protest recent hate crimes at San Jose State University, Thursday Nov. 21.
“For the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white,” reads a quote from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.

Cynics could easily say Fanon, a French West Indian psychiatrist, perceived blacks as desperados running away from their actual identities. But the current development in the beauty industry in Africa vindicates the author.

Recently, there has been a hot debate in the mainstream and social media in Kenya regarding the strive by women to have lighter complexions.

The desperation by some women has gained irresistible momentum such that even carcinogenic products are used to lighten skin complexion.

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Igoni Barrett explores how being white accrues more benefits than having a dark skin in his satirical novel Blackass.

The central question is: do we, on one hand, blame those who change their skin colour or rather whose skin colour changes or conversely the society that values lighter skin pigment?   

Furo Wariboko, a lead character in the book, experiences a shifting identity in his life. The narrator reveals in the opening of the book, “Furo Wariboko awoke this morning to find that dreams can lose their way and turn up on the wrong side of sleep.”

He wakes up and discovers that he has miraculously turned white, except for his buttocks which symbolises his inability to rid himself of the vestiges of his past. The buttocks become a source of insecurity and he struggles to hide it from anyone who comes close.

Shocked at his new developments, Furo proceeds to his interview as scheduled. He meets Arinze who is also surprised that a white man has offered himself to work in his company.

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Excited, he offers him a lucrative job that Furo accepts wholeheartedly.

Later, he lands many other better opportunities due to his skin colour as employers shun the blacks. Narrator says, “A White man in Lagos has no voice louder than the dollar sign branded onto his forehead.”

Furo’s luck in getting a job mixes up with his struggle to accept the new identity.

He cannot go back to his family because of the complexity of explaining his transformation. The matter is made worse when a character Syreeta whom he sleeps with discovers the black buttocks and laughs at him. And narrator remarks, “He knew that so long as the vestiges of his old self remained with him, his new self would never be safe from ridicule and incomprehension.”

Barrett satirically depicts the racial injustices and politics of the skin. Even among the blacks, there are those considered as “other” and pushed to insignificance because of their intensity of their skin colour. The darker you are the more you are rejected. There is an obsession on the external appearance of a person and privileges are based on such surface images.

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Revelations by many women who have had their skins altered to look white or as some put it, ‘kutoa tint,’ has received backlash from conservatists. But who is to blame? Could women been forced to change their looks because of the privileges that come along with the changes like in Furo’s case?

But Barrett is not the only one puzzled by the obsession of skin colour in judging human beauty. Caribbean writer Derrek Walcott in his play Dream on Monkey Mountain explores the subject in a perfect replication of the African experience.

Makak, a character in the play, believes he is ugly and useless; he is black as coal and condemned to working as a charcoal dealer. When he goes to a stream, he stirs the water while looking away so that the disturbed water does not reflect his face.

Remarkably, Makak’s self-hatred is so extreme that he considers himself worthless. He has a friend, Moustique who has a physical disability. One of his legs look like letter ‘s.’ Makak claims that himself and Moustique combined is equivalent to minus one. By extension, some women have also done the same: ‘stirring’ their skin with poisonous products to look less dark and appeal to the consumer society.

Here in Africa, Uganda’s Okot P’Bitek examines the subject in his Song of Lawino and Song of Ocol. Lawino, the first wife of Ocol laments that her place has been grabbed by a woman whose mechanical beauty has stolen Ocol’s heart. Clementine, the second wife to Ocol applies make-up that makes her skin lighter in complexion unlike Lawino who retains her natural appearance.

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Could the ‘crafted’ appearance of Ocol the reason why Lawino is losing her ground? Could the programmed notion of beauty based on western ideals be pushing African women into desperate measures to look stunning?

And the whole vicious debate on colour is captured in a judgement in Fanon’ Black Skin, White Masks, “When people like me, they like me ‘in spite of my colour.’ When they dislike me; they point out that it is not because of my colour. Either way, I am locked in to the infernal circle.”  

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BooksBlack SkinWhite MasksFrantz FanonRacismColourism