I was born and raised in Rwanda, and I am light skinned. For some reason, most people do not expect me to be from Rwanda due to my skin colour – which is crazy because I have met Rwandans lighter than me. Ever since I can remember, people have often made comments in relation to my skin colour.
“You look foreign, do you speak Kinyarwanda?”
And it is not the questions that made me uncomfortable, or the pressure that I felt that led me to respond in Kinyarwanda to prove how native I am, it is rather the comments that usually followed;
“You are very light and beautiful, what lotion do you use?”
This lady once even told me that my acne would make me ugly if I did not have fair skin. If I’m being honest, I always found it strange that most Rwandans made being fair skinned the epitome of beauty. I also recall, when we were young, most schools in Rwanda obliged girls to cut their hair, but if you were of mixed race, you would be exempted from said rule. As if to say their beauty holds such weight due to their skin complexion. I have also met people that are obsessed with themselves as babies because they then had fair skin. Today, you will also often hear women giving each other compliments like;
“You have gotten lighter, what have you been doing?”
And other times, you will hear them making comments that the other party will inexplicably find offensive, like;
“You have gotten darker!”
When we speak of colourism (a prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group), we often use it to accuse men who prefer light skinned women over dark skinned ones. I agree that there is something profoundly disturbing about black men who prefer light skin women, especially when they were raised by dark skin women. But for our current daughters or our future daughters, for the women in our mirrors, we ought to clean our own backyard. We women idolise being fair skinned, and because of this we consciously or subconsciously tear each other down for not fitting into the mold. Sometimes I wonder if it stems down to colonisation that impacts how we view ourselves. Without knowing we assume that the closer we get to being white, the better we are, the more beautiful we are, the more unattainable we are.
I used to blame movies, books, dolls, for revolving around white girls and not making room for other girls of other races, now, I realise we too have not accepted the various shades that beauty comes in. In 2011, the World Health Organisation (WHO) concluded that 40% of African women bleach their skin, which means that at least 40% of African women are convinced they are acquiring beauty by whitening their skin. In countries like Rwanda, these whitening products were banned due to how harmful they are to skin. And while that forces most women to quit this tiring journey, it takes away their ability to choose their preferred skin colour.
Granted, we are in a better place than we were yesterday. We are progressively acknowledging that dark skinned women are equally beautiful, with current trends suggesting that the darker you are, the closer you are to a career in modelling. More melanin is somewhat a trend now. A season. We refer to them as chocolate, or use phrases like the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice. I understand that it is a personal affair to accept oneself as one is, but I think we owe it to ourselves to at least change how we perceive beauty. We owe it to future dark and brown skinned girls. For them to be born into a culture fully accepting of them. We are not beautiful because we our skin is lighter, we are beautiful because we just are.
“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future, and renders the present inaccessible.” – Maya Angelou
*Salha Kaitesi is co-author.