Letter by a local Kenyan:
The Color Divide
By Julie Masiga
Just recently, the Ministry of Health announced a ban on smoking in public places, including among others, residential areas. Ignoring the contradiction, I do believe it’s about time somebody regulated another area of public nuisance in the residential domain. Television commercials. And one genre of TV ad in particular, the kind that promises to ‘restore the vibrant color of youth.’ One commercial suggests that one way to brighten up your day is to lighten up your skin. Another claims that a certain skin-bleaching product has now been infused with Ayurvedic herbs, as if to say that ancient Indian medicine somehow places a stamp of approval on light as opposed to dark skin. As far as I know, the enlightenment sought by Asian gurus was a process of the mind not the pigment. Nevertheless, if we take our cue from the blatant advertisement of skin-bleaching products on the local market, we find that we live in a black African society that places a premium on light skin. Never mind that in 2001, the Kenya Bureau of Standards announced a Product Ban via a Public Notice that outlawed the sale of cosmetics that have a bleaching effect on skin. Anyone selling the banned products should face prosecution as prescribed under the Standards Act. The banned cosmetics, including among several others, Palmer’s Skin Success Fade Cream, Cleartone, Venus, Black Opal and Clere, contained mercury, hydroquinone, oxidizing agents or hormonal preparations. These substances have been found to cause damage to the mouth, kidney, liver and even the brain. Ultimately, prolonged use can lead to death. However, a cursory glance at several supermarket shelves in the city revealed that all the products mentioned here are back on sale. Indeed, a few new members have joined the flock, for example, Naturally Fair, a product that lightens the skin through an ‘oxygenation action’, Fair & Lovely, which contains the ominous sounding ‘titanium dioxide’ and Fairever, which comes branded with a ‘no hydroquinone, no mercury’ label, presumably to boost consumer confidence in the bleaching industry. Obviously, the business is back with a bang. Not surprising, given that it is a multi-billion dollar industry that crosses continental divides.
And in keeping with international trends, here in Kenya the market for skin lightening agents has persisted. “You have to hold back the years,” one woman says, “when I was young I would just wash my face and people would comment about brown I was. Nowadays, I need to use something to even out my skin.” Here ‘even out’ is a euphemism for ‘bleach’, as is the word ‘fair’ when used by manufacturers. But from one woman who looks upon light skin as a barrier to the aging process, to a young girl who believes that it is a mark of beauty. Despite her chocolate brown good looks, Stella Mugendi is fully subscribed to the conventional standard of beauty, which dictates that light is right. “Guys don’t notice you if you’re dark, even if you’re pretty,” she says, “if I could make my skin lighter I would.” And with some skin bleaching products retailing at as little as 10 shillings, she probably can. In fact, at that price, she is well within the group targeted by the local industry. To further illuminate this near obsession with light skin, are the comments from a former model who explains, “Men started looking for me from a very early age just because I am mixed and my skin is very light. They would say I looked like a mzungu.” On a similar note, recently I accompanied the reigning Miss Kenya, Cecelia Mwangi on a charity mission to the Kibera slum. Her beauty compliments her golden skin and not the other way round but regardless, she stood out like a beacon of light, one time attracting the passionate remark, “You are so beautiful!” from a passerby. But there are some who disagree with the light, lighter, lightest theology, well ostensibly anyway. Frida Maua, a female friend and colleague, has this to say; “I find brown people lying a lot. They look good from far but when they come closer they are not pretty. Dark people might not look good at first but when you get to know them you start seeing they are beautiful.” Referring to the light skinned population, Lauryn Kazai says, “They think they are all that but they ought to imagine themselves dark, the mirror would even reject their faces.” Sound familiar? I’ve been guilty of a similar sentiment myself, and such is the sentiment among many women, albeit mostly the darker skinned variety; women born into dark skin and therefore forced to live in it. Much like closet romantics who masquerade as feminists, they are card carrying “black is beautiful” activists but wouldn’t mind being a few shades lighter. As self-denigrating as that sounds, it’s no wonder that many of us fantasize about being yellow yellow. Here’s why; behind every aspiring yellow yellow there’s a man who wants to see the light. According to Isaac Odida, a young man just starting out in the hospitality industry, “[Light girls] look flyer and you get a lot of respect from the boys…[light girls] get more attention.” He qualifies that statement however by adding that, “But it doesn’t really matter, I’ve been there done that and it’s the same difference.” Isaac’s perspective suggests that light skinned girls are a kind of prize, a mark of achievement. You could draw a parallel with star athletes in the celebrity sports world, the kind who’ve made the money, gotten the fame and married the leggy blonde with the ample bosom. Steven Njoroge, a thirty something businessman, puts in his two cents worth, “Light skin is for play, dark skin is for life, besides I’m light myself, why would I want to settle with a light woman?” So as if it were not bad enough to objectify women as a species, it would now seem that light skinned girls have been singled out for unique objectification as a sub-species. We might all be Barbie dolls in the male play pen, but the lighter ones get to go out and get played first. For Ken Shipiri, a gentleman on the darker side of the color spectrum, “Light women are prettier and they look better in makeup…I’m dark myself, so I prefer light skinned women.” Ken believes that if dark women bleached their skin, they would be more beautiful.
However some men don’t bother to dress their preference for light skin in the garment of philosophy. I came across a light skin vs. dark skin debate on an African website. “The truth is that most guys prefer light skinned girls to darker ones whether we admit it or not. I don't know what to attribute it to but most guys are naturally attracted to fair skinned girls,” said one man. And this from another male, “I must admit that I have a certain "thing" for yellow ladies just as all of us tend to prefer more beautiful ladies.” And finally, one gentleman had this to say, “No man hates black skin, but I personally prefer white women to black women.” The last commentator throws a spanner in the works because where the first two have what seems to be a purely cosmetic preference for ‘yellow ladies’, the last one doesn’t mind dark skin; he simply prefers the white individual over the black individual.
The so called ‘white man’s burden’ was to civilize the primitive and brutish African. In the post-slavery, post-colonial era, the black man bears the burden to ‘un-civilize’ his mind, removing the false notion that only white is right. In the late 1950’s, John Howard Griffin, a white man in segregated America, darkened his skin and entered the world of the Negro in America’s Deep South. He then published a novel titled Black Like Me in 1960 documenting his experience. In the novel, Griffin asks a ‘fellow black man’ what he would consider to be the biggest problem facing the race, the man had this to say; “We work against one another instead of together…you have to be almost a mulatto (mixed race and very fair skinned), have your hair conked and all slicked…then the Negro will look up to you.” “[The white man] uses this knowledge to flatter some of us, to tell us we are above our people, not like most Negroes.” This manipulation of a race has its roots in slavery, when light skinned blacks were ‘house slaves’ while the ‘darkies’ were put to work in the fields. The yellow yellows were considered good enough for the more gentile household tasks while the dark skinned slaves were relegated to the back breaking and menial kazi ya mkono. So the white man raised himself up as the standard of sugar and spice and all things nice. To be in good standing, black folk not only had to act white, but look white. Curly, natural hair was straightened, then short locks extended and ultimately, dark skin lightened.
In Kenya, being mixed race is an automatic stamp of beauty. So called point fives are considered aesthetically superior regardless of the symmetry of their features. We tend to describe beauty or lack thereof using skin colour as a focal point. I recall asking a friend about a girl he was seeing. In my opinion, they were totally incompatible, but among his several, thoroughly politically incorrect reasons for dating her was the fact that she was light, short and slim. Of course the height and weight issue opens up a whole other can of worms! But it would appear to me that we’ve already gotten enough flack for being black from external sources, it baffles the mind to think that we would subject ourselves to more abuse internally. The ‘house slave’ mentality has left an indelible stain on the black psyche. Colonialists used it to great success to divide and rule the African people. In Rwanda, they elevated the fair skinned Tutsi minority over the dark skinned Hutus. In Angola, it was the light skinned mesticos over the largely dark skinned population. Right here in Kenya it has been alleged that the Kikuyu can attribute their skin tone and entrepreneurial talents to the fact that many are of mixed heritage. But it is not only black people who struggle with their pigmentation. In India, pale skin is a sign of caste superiority while dark skin relegates a person to the lowest class of humanity. Similarly, in Latin America - refer to any ‘Mexican’ soap – the lighter skinned, fair-headed sorts are automatically upgraded to the higher echelons of society while those on the darker end of the spectrum are considered lowly and best suited to lives of servitude.
While the African predilection towards fair skin has historical undertones, our obsession with it as evidenced by the easy availability of skin bleaching products on the local market, is reinforced by current standards of beauty. We are surrounded by beautiful images and beauty tends to come in a light skinned package. From way back in the day, models on the covers of Viva and DRUM Magazines, and women featured in cosmetic commercials set the yellow standard. Nowadays it’s the girls in the rap videos, the girl who gets the guy on TV and in the movies and the models on international catwalks where dark skin, like that of supermodel Alek Wek, is considered acceptable only insofar as it is an exotic novelty. We have readily and without question assimilated the “light is beautiful” ideal.
As the black man said in Black Like Me, “…you have to be almost a mulatto, then the Negro will look up to you…[then] you’ve got class. Isn’t that a pitiful hero-type?” Indeed. The real issue ought not to be the color of your skin, but as one man put it, the color of your mind.