When thinking about this article I went and did some research on the perceptions of black beauty. What I discovered is something I already knew: black people in my society and many around the world favour lighter shades of dark skin as compared to darker shades. This is called colourism. But what I also discovered was that in almost every discussion where someone was speaking about the importance of realizing that black is beautiful, they seemed to mention or cite Lupita Nyong’o as an example of the media accepting or beginning to appreciate dark-skinned people as beautiful. This at first was something that pleased me, encouraged me that something had changed. Until after reading a couple of more articles I asked myself, is Lupita the only beautiful dark-skinned woman in the world?
I do not want to preach to the choir about the origins of colourism and how it came to be. But we must understand that our perception of beauty is for the most part as a result of social conditioning that dates back to colonial times. The white man in his quest in establishing dominance over the black man, created a system where the dark-skinned man was deemed ugly and inferior as compared to the lighter-skinned, mixed-race black man. This pyramid that placed dark-skinned black people at the bottom has seeped into our society and is very much a part of what we think and believe today. It is a system that has for a very long time simmered and festered and we cannot continue to tolerate or accept it anymore.
The people I have encountered in my life seem to think that being dark immediately means that someone is ugly. I agree that beauty is subjective as are all aesthetic features. But for some reason, many people rally behind the idea that a person with dark skin is not beautiful as compared to a person with lighter skin. Such perceptions are embedded in our minds as children.
I remember growing up we would play this game called Sarura Wako (Choose Yours) where we would all stand in a circle and one person who would go into the middle of the circle and call out the attributes of the person they deemed beautiful who would be standing in the circle and then eventually walk up to this person and pull them into the circle. In almost all the cases I remember the girl or the guy in the middle saying wangu mutsvuku (my beloved is light-skinned). This was almost the standard thing one had to say when they stood in the middle of the circle.
Such mental conditioning stuck with me even when I was in high school. One of my closest friends used to be bullied and called names because she was dark-skinned. Fortunately, my friend developed a sharp tongue and she started to ridicule back those boys who would make fun of her. But what about the thousands of dark-skinned boys and girls who were not like my friend and had to endure name-calling and bullying because of their skin tone?
Tokenism won’t cut it.
I am glad that finally someone with celebrity status and influence is speaking out about her struggles growing up as a dark-skinned girl. I am glad that Lupita has given hope to so many dark-skinned girls who had abandoned dreams of being models, actresses and singers. I am glad that Lupita is gracing magazine covers which had for so long only been a privilege enjoyed by brown and not black women. But Lupita is not enough. I shall not be silenced or eased because one black girl is now being allowed into the ‘Beautiful people’s club’ because there are still so many more young men and women who are being sent away at the door. Especially in Zimbabwe, where we seem to not even have caught on to the Lupita wave if the backlash and name-calling of the recent Miss Zimbabwe is anything to go by.
The problem is that we are not free. We are enslaved to Western beauty ideals. TMZ, CNN and MTV continue to hold our minds captive and we continue to voluntarily allow them to. Furthermore, it is not only this modern-day neo-colonialism that is holding us prisoner, but it is also the remnants of colonization. Such systems continue to shape the way we view beauty and the way we judge people. We need to start rejecting the set standard of beauty that is being offered and peddled to us by other people.
We must accept our own shades and hues as beautiful and commercialize them in our own country and in our own way. We must celebrate women like Emily Kachote because indeed, they are beautiful and we should laud many more women who look like her. We should tell our children that they are beautiful merely because they are and that despite what they may see on TV, their eyes, noses and natural hair are perfect the way they are. We must embrace those qualities that the West has tried for so long to reject and ward off as ugly. Only then can we as a society come to realize that dark skin is magnanimous in its entirety. It exudes strength and grace. It graces the bodies of bold, brave and beautiful souls who every day wherever they are, continue to shine regardless of the shadows cast upon them.