Colorism: Our Ugly “Ism”

“Colorism is defined as prejudiced attitudes or prejudiced treatment of people based on the relative lightness or darkness of their skin in comparison to others of the same race.”

 

The continued existence of colorism among African descendants is proof that our collective woundedness is deep. There are few topics that engender more division and hurt among Africa’s children than our hue.   In the US, there was the infamous “brown paper bag” test. Flunking this test in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s meant that an individual could not be a part of certain Black fraternities, sororities, or other realms of black upper class life, and that person’s overall physical beauty was called into question. As sad as this practice was, it was a residual of slavery and its psychological destruction, so on some level, I understand why blacks in the West still struggling with this issue. Likewise, in the West, the standard of beauty as glorified in “Vogue,” “Elle,” and “Cosmopolitan” does not reflect the exquisiteness that exists in Kingston, Lagos, or Baltimore.

When I was a student in Senegal, I was surprised to learn that my lighter skin seemed to signal to Africans that I was “metisse.” I recall explaining that both my parents are Black and that for African-Americans, unless one biological parent is non-black, the “one drop rule” is unquestionably applied. It then struck me that I was in a place where people did not see or acknowledge the constant reminders of historical subjugation and rape that brought about the dilution of dark skin. In my younger years, I assumed that dark skin and being black in Africa was a simple reality. Time and experience have taught me otherwise.

A Malawian woman recently told me that the doll test was given to little girls in southern Africa, and the results were identical to those of African-Americans girls. When asked which doll was pretty, these beautiful girls overwhelmingly chose dolls that did not resemble them. In West and East Africa, skin-bleaching products are in abundance, and their usage does not seem to be on the decline. I have been shocked and saddened by conversations I have had with women in this region regarding dark skin and what constitutes beauty. In the US, conversations about the standard of beauty usually argues that as people of color do not control media outlets, images of African, Latina, and Asian feminine beauty would not be reflected. I would submit that discussions about colorism in Africa must be addressed from historical and psychosocial perspectives.

The reasons women in Senegal choose to bleach their skin are myriad. However, there is one sentiment that seems present when one queries these women – “I am not beautiful.” It is as if these bleaching creams bring with them the promise of desirability, prosperity, and a “happily ever after.” As one of the main criterion of being a woman in Senegal is to achieve « wife status, » it seems imperative that a woman must meet a nebulous and foreign standard of beauty.  Sadly enough that standard seems to be equivalent to the one with which women throughout the Diaspora are faced – “light, bright, and almost white.”   I can neither confirm nor deny whether the vast majority of men in Senegal aspire to have a female partner who resembles someone of mixed descent. I have been told repeatedly that “fair skin” is a trademark of desirability. I have heard that there are some who believe that a woman of mixed race brings “good luck and fortune.” Whether these perceptions are prevalent or not is not as troubling as what women believe and think about themselves.

I recall having a conversation with a female acquaintance, and we were discussing colonial history and the status “signares” held in this society. These were Mestizo Franco-African businesswomen who wielded immense power as they owned land and slaves. Their status was due to their “local common law” marriages to Portuguese and French colonialists. These women created a distinct culture in St. Louis and on Gorée Island. During our discussion, this woman made reference to being “lighter” than some of these “signares” descendants. The manner in which she referred to her light skin seemed to imply that by being “lighter,” she somehow held a higher social status in Senegal. As I listened to her retelling of an encounter with a St. Louisianne, it struck me once again how Africa’s children often unknowingly carry many scars related to their blackness. I have heard very few discussions about the nature of the relationship between white male colonialists and these signares, but even today, the unchallenged belief that having a colonial master’s blood in one’s veins accords a superior social standing still reigns.

Billboards for skin depigmentation creams found in Dakar.

Billboards for skin depigmentation creams found in Dakar.

In Senegal, the attempt to achieve lighter skin and to be beautiful and desirable is actually putting female lives at risk. Recently, a local newspaper, Sud Quotidien, claimed that more than 60% of Senegal’s female population uses skin-bleaching creams. The side effects of corticosteroids in the blood stream can affect the heart, not to mention the obvious correlation between these products and skin cancer. The use of skin depigmentation cosmetics is not restricted to a certain class or a particular education level.


I asked a local dermatologist about this practice, and she indicated that there have been awareness raising campaigns, talk shows and crusades to preach about the dangers of “xhessul.” (Wolof term meaning skin depigmentation).

Nuul Kukk is a conscious raising campaign to fight against skin bleaching. http://www.nuulkukk.com/index.php/en/

This particular movement advertises images of gorgeous Senegalese women proudly wearing their birthday skin and highlights the dangers of skin-bleaching. These types of home-grown campaigns give me hope. One of the things that I have become keenly aware of in my line of work is the difficulty and importance of insuring that messages germinate at the grassroots level instead of trickling down. Somehow a trickled down message often equates to a watered down message or one that evaporates while on the way down. Ordinary, everyday women are bleaching their skin and are endangering themselves to become what they believe men find attractive. What shape or form does a conversation take to deal with the internal message of hatred of black skin? How do we un-intellectualize our exchanges about long held beliefs that are destroying us physically and psychologically? I know the real work has to happen in the hearts, minds and souls of Africa’s children. I have not come across too many women of the Diaspora who have not been affected in some way by colorism. And yes, this “ism” affects men as well, but in a very different way because a woman’s perceived beauty and ability to attract is linked to her worth and her overall femininity. African-American women tell stories of being called “black as an ace of spade,” “high yella,” “red bone,” “black as night,” and the hurtful, derogatory list goes on. Likewise, I have come to understand that similar disparaging terms exist in Wolof, Creole, Swahili, and Patois.

I stand convinced that we bare the responsibility of telling our children, and especially our girls, that being beautiful is about being secure in your authentic self. Beauty comes from knowing that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” When our children’s foundation comes from knowing that an Infinite, Loving, and Ingenious Creator thought them into existence, they will walk in their beauty daily and proudly. As a people, we do not need more skin-bleaching creams, botox, or face lifts. We need a mind lift! Bob Marley said it best when he soulfully and lovingly sang, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds!”

I would love to hear your thoughts about colorism, how we acknowledge it, talk about it, and more importantly, heal from it.

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Being Female in the African Diaspora: The Hardest Place to Be?

“Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.” Lois Wyse

 

A couple of weeks ago, a male colleague and I were having a discussion about gender roles in Senegalese society. I so appreciate this man, who loves his wife and who is committed to creating a just world in which male and female children can live “on earth as it is in heaven.” I told him that as Americans, the hardest thing for us to talk about honestly and truthfully is race. But in Africa, my perception is that gender is a most difficult matter to address with love and openness. This is not to say that gender equality has been achieved in the West. By no means. However, there is a space to argue, analyze, and criticize patriarchy. I am still searching for that space in West Africa.

As a proud graduate of the first college established to educate women, Mount Holyoke College, I see the difference between a woman who has been educated in an all women’s environment and one who has not. This is a not a critique of co-ed education. Nor am I suggesting that single sex education is for all women. There is an awareness and a power that is present when women join as a collective in sisterhood. And when females join together in single purpose, particularly education, everything changes, and patriarchy is challenged. Boko Haram knew this. The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan know this. And at the grassroots level, men are acutely aware of this when they walk into their living rooms and a group of women are together – even if it is for the sole purpose of discussing the selected book of the month. Women have power.

Sadly enough as soon as we start talking feminism or gender equality, the assumption is that women want to take power from men or that they want to be men. Mary Wollstonecraft said it best when she said, “I do not wish women to have power over men; but over themselves.” I do not know too many women who “usurp authority,” but I know plenty who want the power, the option, and the ability to choose. When I speak with Senegalese women individually, we both talk about the injustice, the antiquated traditions, and the pain women endure in this society. However, when in the collective and where there should be sisterhood, I perceive judgment and competition. I have too often witnessed women’s harshness, jealously, and suspicion.

I do not want to portray my sisters here as trite or caddy. There are brilliant, committed Senegalese women who are working on various fronts to create a more just world. But I do question whether we are telling our girls, on this continent and on the one that I come from, that they are priceless? Are we talking to girls about themselves – outside the context of boys or men? Are we discussing the importance of loving oneself unconditionally? I know in Senegal a woman would sound like a lunatic saying, “I love me! I love being with me! If I’m single, I’m whole! If I’m married, I am whole!” In my estimation, that message doesn’t translate well in French, in Wolof or in this cultural context. I assume that I would be told that the notion of “I,” “me,” the individual, is very western and as the Wolof expression goes “you are not your own.” You belong to a family, to an ethnic group, to a community. I just keep asking how can a community be healthy, if the individual members are ailing. I know that our sisters in the US are suffering from the same low self-esteem and the syndrome of defining themselves in terms of roles. However, there seems to be a vocabulary for women to have these types of discussions and to delve into ourselves, into our passions, and into our healing. There is a language and a safety zone for a woman “choosing” to remain single and “opting” to not have children. Opting out of marriage and motherhood do not seem to make women any less female in the American context.

Where is the space for the Senegalese or African woman to choose? I appreciate that family is highly valued on the continent. I understand that marriage is a means of uniting families and communities. In urban Senegal, marriage is also status. Everyone understands that the former “mademoiselle” is now a “Madame” to be revered. I get that children are viewed with pride as they insure posterity. I am wondering more about the girl who wants to continue her education beyond the socially expected child bearing age. What does it look like for a Senegalese woman to refuse polygamy because she knows that in a modern society, this practice wreaks insecurity for the entire family – even if the man purports to be able to “treat all wives justly?” More importantly, where is the place in Senegalese society for women to support a wife who refuses to accept a polygamous arrangement? When are women able to exercise control over their bodies in terms of deciding when to engage in sexual intercourse, when to conceive, or when to stop having children all together?

What I find fascinating, contradictory, and extraordinary about Senegal is this. This is the land of Leopold Sedar Senghor, Cheikh Anta Diop, Mariama Ba, Ousmane Sembene – Senegalese of the highest intellectual caliber and Senegalese who have made lasting contributions to the world. They were part of the reason I first came to this country as a student. But in modern Senegalese society, I long to hear the voice of the sisters saying “Ca suffit!” (That is enough!) I long for a new negritude movement with a feminine flair. I long for a space where women support, love, and cherish one another. I hope that Senegalese feminine society becomes a place where little girls see that their worth and their value are not determined by their ability to attract and keep a man. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with keeping the outside polished or being à la mode! But I am questioning whether the same amount of pressure is placed on women to focus on self-improvement, self-awareness, and self-love as on the external.

One of the things that happens when you live away from your home country for an extended period of time is that your perception of your native land is often idealized – or your images of home are from a time long past. I still remember when we were teenagers that my best friend made an observation about our family. She said that being female is celebrated (in our home). The fact that my mother, my sister and I had a voice and that my father was not threatened by this, never dawned on me when I was growing up. We were taught to be respectful and to honor our parents, elders, and authority. However, there were plenty of discussions and disagreements in our home about the meaning of Scriptures, politics, racism, and the like. One of my father’s fondest memories was when he told three boys that he and his two daughters would take them on in a game of street football (That’s American football for the non-US reader) and would win. I still see my father running into the in-zone and slamming the ball on the ground in victory. I am not convinced that my parents realized then that they were giving their daughters permission and courage to question and to formulate their own ideas about the world and their place therein. The notion that we could possibly be limited by our gender never entered our thinking.

My sister circle is composed of women who love fiercely, live compassionately think critically, and challenge without reserve. These women are of African, Latin, Asian, and European descent. They are Christian, Muslim, spiritual, seeking, and skeptics. This is the circle of women I know best. These women walked me through heartache, unemployment, and disappointments. These same women rejoiced with me when love and a baby came in my 40s. So when I hear these misogynistic, hateful, vulgar songs written by men, I wonder who are these women they are talking about. When I see the hyper-sexualized, scantily clad women in American music videos and even on the streets of Dakar, I scratch my head and ask, “Where do these women come from and who allowed them to lose their way?” What is my role as a woman, sister, mother and friend to these sisters? I then ask where is our collective outrage at how we are defined in modern society? When did we sell our image for basement prices? bell hooks has been criticized recently for questioning the extent to which Beyoncé had control over the photo that appeared on the cover of Time magazine and went on to call Beyoncé a “terrorist.” (Context: hooks argues that she sees a “part” of Beyoncé as “a terrorist especially in terms of the impact on young girls.” She explained that “the major assault on feminism in American society has come from visual media and from television and videos.”) What does it now mean to be female in the US and in Senegal?

One truth is evident: patriarchy is alive and well in the Diaspora. Women on both sides of the Atlantic struggle with remembering that they are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” I remember a time when old southern Black folks would look at child gone astray and would conclude that “somebody ain’t pray that child over.” I concur with our elders in this regard. We stopped praying our children, both girls and boys, over. We stopped letting them hear us say aloud that “you are made in the image of a Loving and Majestic God.” We ceased telling them how we got over and started telling them how to get over.

As I reflect on the notion of gender and identity, I ask myself how can the bond of sisterhood be repaired among women. What are the steps that must be taken to heal our feminine souls so that we recognize and honor the Spirit that dwells within us? Until we address our brokenness, how can we have ownership of our bodies, our minds, our person, or our image?

“Living in Between”

Arriving at Goree Island

Arriving on Goree Island

As a result of growing up in a southern home where we were often considered a bit different by our contemporaries, it is no wonder that I would choose to live my life abroad. My parents, who grew up in segregated Texas, raised their children to remember who they were, where they came from, and that we are where we are because of someone else’s sacrifices, struggles, and triumphs. I am so grateful for those lessons, and I consider myself blessed to be an African-American woman who is comfortable enough in her skin to live anywhere and to call any place home.

But Africa has always held a special place in my heart. Like most love affairs, this rapport has had its valleys, its summits, its joys, and its heartbreaks. The reasons for which African-Americans choose to live in Africa are myriad. Some, like me, have careers in the development field, and therefore, live and work abroad. Others have opted to flee racism, capitalism, materialism, and the “rat race” in hopes that the Motherland would caress them and hold them to her bosom. I know some come seeking Africa’s gold because they have done enough research and risk analyses to know that African investments often yield the greatest returns. I love how no matter where we are, the sisters and brothers always find one another. We know one another by our swagger, by the look that comes along with being descendants of those who loved us through slavery, through Jim Crow, through Civil Rights, and to the White House! We greet each other abroad-like we do at home-because we SEE ourselves.

As a person of faith, I know that I am here “for a time such as this.” Even when I first step foot on the continent in 1990, I do not recall thinking that I had reached “paradise” or “home.”  I did not put the burden on Africa to embrace its daughter – though I thought that would happen automatically, because in my mind, African blood ran warmly through my veins like the Senegalese men and women who were around me, therefore we were kinsmen. Much to my surprise, I was often referred to as “toubab” (Wolof term denoting a foreigner). I could live with that term if it were not the same term that was used to describe my fellow Caucasian travelers. It was at that moment that Africa showed me that in this context, identity is bestowed – not proclaimed by the individual. As a student studying in Senegal, I spent a lot of my time arguing the merits of my AFRICAN-american-ness in vain. I talked about the similarities  between southern African-American and many West African cultures. These elaborate and well thought out monologues fell on deaf ears. A male university student closed our debate when he said, “Show me your passport, and I’ll tell you what you are.” For him, the issue of race, identity, and belonging were really that simple, and I was not a citizen, a daughter, or a sister of the continent.

One of the many beautiful images on Goree Island.

One of the many beautiful images on Goree Island.

Almost 25 years later, I walk the fine balance of belonging and not really belonging. I live in between worlds. I love living in West Africa. I love the convenience that life in the US provides. I love that Senegal is peaceful. I still appreciate that in the US, I can call the electricity company and get service without leaving my home. I can even expect electricity to work consistently – provided that I pay my bill on time. I am grateful that my family and I live in a place where family is still valued and where I can be a professional female who’s also a wife and a mother, yet still have time to reflect because all my free time is not spent on domestic duties.

Texans often think that the state is a country unto itself, so the notion of choosing to live away from the state baffles many. However, when I lived in the US for a two year period, I realized that I did not fit in there anymore either. My worldview had changed after being away for so long. The American political nonsense turned my stomach. The abuse of religion horrified me. Ignorance and intolerance seemed to become an acceptable way of being.  And it struck me that though many Americans knew the system was corrupt, empty, and problematic, the ability to change it, seemed impossible – and the attempt to do so even un-American. During that time in the US, I longed to be in a place where I was in between. Now I know that my life is about the journey – not the destination. I no longer need to have all the answers or have a perfect plan. I shed that American tendency some time ago as Africa taught me that we really have much less control than we think.

As an adult who still has a curious and adventurous spirit, I hope that I have the opportunity to continue to live and explore other countries and other ways of being. Mark Twain said it best: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. I take comfort in this truth when I think about the fact that my husband and I are raising our Black son abroad. All kinds of questions arise.  Are we raising a child who will be comfortable in his skin? Will he know that he is “fearfully and wonderfully made” so he can just be, because His Creator has made it so? Will he find his voice among African men, as well as with the brothers back home? Will he know, like his mom, that people who know who they are, can live comfortably anyway? Will he stand assured that the best place to be is comfortable in one’s own skin?