The Devil in Our Skin

by Maya Mutesi | Oct 1, 2017

In Rwanda, the word “igikara”(dark-skinned) is said dismissively, with a lot of weight sounding through its pronunciation. “Akayobe”, the exact opposite, is said in good nature, and so lightly pronounced.

My mom is of a lighter complexion than my dad and it was common for people to say things to me like: “You’re lucky you’re not dark like your dad, that would be unfortunate…” I never thought too much of such comments. I remember going to the rural areas, visiting distant relatives and young kids calling me and some of my brothers “muzungu”. When they saw my dad, it would register that we aren’t anywhere near white. In Rwanda, it seemed to be a general affirmation that lighter people were prettier, richer and well-mannered. All of this became clear after a conversation with a friend who had just come back from America, telling me there was a conflict and tension between light-skinned and dark-skinned African Americans. I was quick to judge, and blamed them for being hateful and silly for regarding someone of their own race as different because of their skin-tone!

Then I got to thinking. I realized we were no different in Rwanda and Africa; sure we were not fighting about this issue but it was as prominent an issue. Only it was under a different light. We, in Rwanda and most African countries were on the other extreme of this problem. We had been, like our ancestors, mentally colonized, convinced that our cultures were primitive and that our skin color did not meet the misconceived beauty standard. Consequently, our society praised light-skinned individuals, envied metises and wished we were white. We put our own standards aside and looked up to western culture for beauty ideals.

This got to a point where women and men bleached their skin heavily in the hopes of becoming “beautiful”. A lot of research was done in Africa to try and explain this new cosmetic blockbuster.

In an interview with the BBC:

“Congolese hair stylist Jackson Marcelle claimed he has been using special injections to bleach his skin for the past 10 years. Each injection lasts for six months. He told the BBC: ‘I pray every day and I ask God, ‘God why did you make me black?’ I don’t like being black. I don’t like black skin’”

Now you tell me what’s worse: discriminating, fighting and hating each other because of our skin tone, or cohesively obsessing with white skin to the point of: discriminating, harming ourselves and devaluing ourselves. What’s the lesser evil?

Shockingly, this tendency to dislike darker skin is not only common amongst Africans and African Americans. In South Asia, most of the population is dark skinned and yet film industries and modeling agencies seek the lightest people to feature in their work. The Indian caste system for the longest time and up to now associates lighter skin with upper class, considering it a symbol of wealth and prosperity. What perplexed me the most was a conversation I had with a Japanese friend; I was complimenting her on her looks as she is absolutely gorgeous, to which she said “no, not really”. She went on to add “I’m not fit, and I’m dark…” I hope you can understand why I was thrown aback; even the Japanese people have impractical notions of light vs dark skin. I laughed at her, concluding that she was silly to think she was dark.

Colorism and the shallow attributions that have been made towards dark skin, have influenced many generations in America. The Colorism ideology in the United States stems from slavery where the closer a slave’s skin color was to white skin, the better. Light-skinned slaves who were often house-slaves received better treatment in comparison to dark-skinned slaves who had to work in the fields. In fact, throughout slavery the belief that lighter-skinned blacks were best suited for intellectual and skilled tasks was common, as assignments among bondsmen intersected with skin color. Hence, historically lighter-skinned blacks were the first to go to school amongst the black community. This changed gradually over the years — but perhaps not entirely.

Western entertainment often portrays dark skin as something that needs to be fixed. I came across a study that showed the positive relationship between low self-esteem and skin-bleaching in African countries. In 2008 according to a report by the World Health Organization 77% of Nigerian women, 59% of Togolese women, 35% of South African women, 27% of Senegalese women, and 25% of Malian women used skin lightening products on a regular basis. The consequences of skin bleaching products are huge, yet all these women felt the need to transform themselves for society, for men and for higher social class. Do the choices made by western entertainment have something to do with these false perceptions? I would say with conviction that they do.

The famous South African musician Nomasonto Mnisi said in an interview with the BBC: “I’ve been black and dark-skinned for many years, I wanted to see the other side. I wanted to see what it would be like to be white and I’m happy. […] Yes, part of it is a self-esteem issue and I have addressed that and I am happy now. I’m not white inside, I’m not really fluent in English, I have black kids. I’m a township girl, I’ve just changed the way I look on the outside.”

A colonized mind-set has been part of our heritage for centuries; ways must be found to decolonize the mind and foster self-esteem among Africans and African Americans. Maybe if we were all to become blind, if we were created without eyes or color-blind, maybe we would live in a much happier world.

I pray for an era in which we’ll be free from neglect, disrespect, ignorance, bullying and discrimination. An era in which we’ll marvel at each other’s differences.