Mocked for my dark skin, I long loathed myself and yearned for a lighter complexion. But now I fight colourism and defend diversity.
Discrimination against people with dark skin by others of the same ethnic group or society.
Charcoal. A word that defined the early years of my life. My classmates mocked my dark skin and convinced me it was a curse.
I remember getting bullied on the playground because apparently my skin matched the colour of the concrete beneath our feet. In my community, light skin was synonymous with beauty and social status while dark skin was representative of the ugly and unlovable.
On my bad days, I remember the ringleader, Alvin. He picked on me when no one else would. Once during a school assembly, a housefly landed on my skirt and Alvin quickly shouted, “Charcoal is smelling!” The rest of my classmates started to laugh at me. I couldn’t help thinking, I wish it were over.
Water, orange juice, milk, turmeric, hydrogen peroxide, sodium hypochlorite and hydroquinone — I mastered the ingredients used to make skin bleach when I was 15.
On Sunday afternoons, I would draw out a plan to steal some of the ingredients from the chemistry laboratory. I planned in anticipation of the day when I would snap and get rid of my ugly self.
I knew that on one fateful Monday, I would steal the half-full bottle of hydrogen peroxide that sat at the edge of the wall cabinet. On the next Thursday at lunchtime, I would carry a stool from the physics laboratory and grab the tin of sodium hypochlorite from the top shelf. This was the trickiest mission because the laboratory assistant ate only for an average of 15 minutes and 47 seconds. Yes, I studied him.
I was taught to hate myself. I despised the melanin that clothed my skin and the gap between my two front teeth. I hated the whites of my eyes and the texture of my hair. My society had successfully tricked me into thinking that I was worthy of self-loathing and unworthy of self-love.
Colourism is a hurdle to self-love.
One fateful day, I scrolled through my Instagram explore page and saw a beautiful woman owning her dark skin. Underneath the post, Atim spoke about the effects of growing up in Uganda’s colourist society. I spent time analysing her caption, trying to understand how she managed to find self-love and challenge the status quo.
It was a transition I couldn’t fathom, and so I reached out to her in search of answers. She promptly spoke to me about the beauty in our melanin and shared online articles that supported her claim. She gave me self-care tips that had helped her to love herself.
I tried to unlearn my self-hate. I started taking care of myself. I slept early, ate healthy and hung around people who made me feel loved. It took me a year and two months, but by April, 17, 2017, I was completely in love with myself.
But this journey hasn’t been easy.
Ironically, on April 17, 2020, an Instagram page called ig_ugliest_ tagged me in a post. When I opened the notification, I found a picture of myself. The caption read, “Meet the female Michael Blackson.”
This act of discrimination has been one of the greatest hurdles in my search for self-love. It taught me that loving oneself is like caring for a plant. Once you stop working, all effort goes down the drain. I had to remind myself that I was beautiful and worthy of love.
I am beautiful, and I want every dark-skinned person to know that they are beautiful as well.
To help, I bought a camera and took a course in photography. Hopefully, I can use this new skill to boost the media representation of people who are dark-skinned and showcase how beautiful we truly are.
Before I could accomplish my goal, I had a lot of reading to get through. I chose first to understand the root of colourism and the effect it has on other people in Africa. It could not have been just me.
Reading articles and watching documentaries, here are some shocking facts that I learned:
A 2011 World Health Organization study cited in an article published by the United Nations found that two of every five African women used skin-lightening products. In Nigeria and Togo the figure was significantly higher — 77% in Nigeria and 59% in Togo.
Many African women bleach their skin because they feel that whiteness is representative of purity and beauty. For many, light skin represents success and likeability in society. It is as if there were an unwritten social law that to be higher in the hierarchy of beauty, one must be white.
Skin lightening remains an aspiration for many dark-skinned women.
The finer the quality, the higher the price of bleach. For many women, “beauty” is only affordable at a very low cost. For this, skin lightening products are usually sold with toxic chemicals such as mercury and high quantities of hydroquinone. Diseases including kidney failure, leukemia, cancer and a skin condition called ochronosis can affect dark-skinned individuals who use such products.
Despite bans on skin-lightening products in several countries including Ghana and Rwanda, skin lightening still remains an aspiration for many dark-skinned women.
Experts such as Dr. Ola Brown believe that our societies must talk about the reality of colourism and the need to respect all shades of beauty.
With this in mind, I am working with experienced artists to share my story and craft a new definition of beauty. My most unique experience has been working with the Kenyan artist Alana Muchemi of my school.
Muchemi gathered people from all over Africa with different skin tones to highlight four shades of beauty. The photo shoot sparked conversations on Instagram and Twitter around colourism and the Euro-centric features of beauty that many African women seek.
As I embark on my artistic journey with an anti-colourism agenda, I hope that efforts such as Muchemi’s will save a dark-skinned Black girl from the clutches of self-loathing.
Three questions to consider:
- What is colourism?
- Why can skin-lightening products be dangerous?
- Do you think a ban on skin-lightening products would stop their use?