“I can remember being in the bathtub asking my mom to put bleach in the water so that my skin would be lighter and so that I could escape the feelings I had about not being as beautiful, as acceptable, as lovable.”
“She’s pretty for a dark-skinned girl … What is that supposed to mean?”
“They used to say, ‘You stayed in the oven too long.’ ”
“It was so damaging … it made it seem like we weren’t wanted; that we were less than.”
“The racism that we have as people amongst ourselves is a direct backlash of slavery.”
These are the words spoken by the women of varying complexion in the documentary, “Dark Girls”. Hearing them reminded me of just how much “self-hate” was evidenced by the black community that surrounded me when I was growing up. Their words also evoked so much feeling concerning my own journey toward “self-love”.
I remember being repeatedly told, during my upbringing, the story of how my mum walked into Jet store (in Johannesburg) with me on her back as a baby, and a black woman my mother didn’t know had come up to her and told her what an ugly child I was because: “look how dark she is!”
I believe my mother had told that woman where to get off, but that isn’t what stayed with me so much as the fact that I was dark and that that meant I was ugly. The fact that my mother told the story at all demonstrated that it had stayed with her too.
I grew up in a society in which, even though most people were quite dark, it was generally “known” that lighter was more beautiful. A popular Sotho wedding song sung when the township community was escorting the bride to the groom went, “… the child looks like a coloured”. Looking like a mixed-race woman was supposed to be the bride’s goal – for her wedding day, at least! When a person was dark, people exclaimed, “Umnyama ngathi iShangani!” (S/he is so dark, it’s as if s/he is Shangaan – a cultural group of people who were stereotyped as being “blue-black”).
“She’s pretty … for a dark girl …”
I’ve heard that before. I’m ashamed to say, I’ve even said it before.
Lighter was just more beautiful. A “dark beauty” was the exception – one who’d met a very high standard that I don’t recall being told I’d attained. I remember thinking (during my gap-year in South East England, after high school) that living in the north made me more beautiful because, it was so cold and grey and I was covered up so much of the time, that I lost two or more shades of darkness. I can’t deny even thinking – at some stage, long before I met Dan – that marrying a white guy would at least be good for my children ’cause they wouldn’t turn out so dark, and they wouldn’t have my “kaffir hare” (the South African equivalent of calling my kinky hair texture “n1$@!r hair”). I’d been told throughout my childhood that this kind of hair was less desirable than coloured or coloured-looking hair.
These notions are old and, regrettably almost universal within the African diaspora (and I’m told that they carry over to most brown people groups). White supremacy, man! I remember reading Toni Morrison’s book, Paradise, some years ago, as an undergraduate studying postcolonial literature (which quite jarringly opens with the words, “They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.”) The book vividly and painfully explains the socio-political roots and reality of these sentiments in black America. Reading V.Y. Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa around the same time, I remember being struck by how deep into the imperial past these notions go.
They evidently persist. The claims that it is “scientifically proven” that black women are the least attractive of women of all races and that “kinky” hair is “unmanageable”, bad hair and even “abnormal” keep rearing their ugly heads. Even my beloved, dark-skinned seventeen-year-old nephew describes himself as being overwhelmingly attracted to light-skinned black girls over darker-skinned girls. It makes me very sad. I say to him that he should ask himself whether the light-skinned girls to whom he is attracted would seem beautiful to him if they were dark (i.e. does he actually think them to have beautiful features). Mostly, they are just riding on the “mystique” that comes with their light skin.
It has taken me a long time to come to think that, dark as I am, I might be beautiful and that, kinky as my hair is, it is ok. And the struggle ain’t over yet. (I’m thankful for Dan who affirms my multifaceted beauty every day.) Should Dan’s and my children (especially if they’re girls) turn out to be as dark and as kinky-haired as me, I hope and pray that I will be able to make them feel so beautiful and special that it doesn’t matter what the world out there tells them! But, I know I can’t do it alone. Something out in the world around us has got to give.
It’s encouraging to know that there are role models in the making. I’m cautiously excited about Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave). Introduced by the awesome Alfre Woodard, Lupita delivered a remarkable speech recently, at Essence Magazine’s 7th “Black Women in Hollywood” dinner, when she accepted an award for her “Best Breakthrough Performance” in “12 Years A Slave”.
I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: “Dear Lupita,” it reads, “I think you’re really lucky to be this Black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.”
My heart bled a little when I read those words, … I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin. And my one prayer to God, the miracle worker, was that I would wake up lighter-skinned. The morning would come and I would be so excited about seeing my new skin that I would refuse to look down at myself until I was in front of a mirror because I wanted to see my fair face first. And every day I experienced the same disappointment of being just as dark as I was the day before.
A couple of years ago, Dan blogged about a shop patronised by almost exclusively black customers in Cape Town selling only white dolls. He wondered at the deleterious effects such racially lop-sided representations of beauty were having on little black girls’ idea of beauty and their own self-worth. Lupita’s words capture it more poignantly than Dan could ever do, having never experienced it himself.
Lupita herself needed a role model to help her see herself as other than ugly.
And when I was a teenager my self-hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no [consolation], she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful. And then … Alek Wek.
Alek Wek … She was the first notably – indeed, extraordinarily – dark, African supermodel. When she became popular while I was in high school, our black brothers – and I must admit that we girls joined them – called her Alek Wack. So “White-washed” were our ideas of beauty that we couldn’t fully see that we were perpetuating prejudice … against ourselves.
A celebrated model, she was dark as night, she was on all of the runways and in every magazine and everyone was talking about how beautiful she was. Even Oprah called her beautiful and that made it a fact. I couldn’t believe that people were embracing a woman who looked so much like me, as beautiful. … when I saw Alek I inadvertently saw a reflection of myself that I could not deny. Now, I had a spring in my step because I felt more seen, more appreciated by the far away gatekeepers of beauty. But around me the preference [against] my skin prevailed, to the courters that I thought mattered I was still unbeautiful.
Courters like my nephew and the guys I liked and hung out with when I was his age.
But, Lupita herself – with her beautiful dark skin and natural hair – is contributing to changing that. She concludes by sharing her hope that she can help girls like the one who wrote her to discover that they are beautiful as they are. And, that “There is no shame in Black beauty.”
Wary of her becoming a hyper-exoticised vision of beauty in the way it feels like Alek Wek became, I share Lupita’s hope. I look forward to the day that “black beauty” will be a universally accepted and celebrated reality, not associated with a horse, but with women of African descent. Perhaps one day, we can even immediately imagine just the word, “beauty”, referring to a woman who is black.