I was nine years old, when I first understood that individuals could change the color of their skin. In the streets of Nairobi, I would hear girls speaking of ” Fair and Lovely”, a skin cream that lightens complexions, and is highly esteemed to make one more attractive. I always wondered how this phenomenon would compete with the scorching African sun. Being Somali, and being born in Nairobi, my cultural perceptions have always been in intertwined. Unfortunately, Shadeism, the discrimination between lighter and darker skin complexions divides and personally conflicts individuals within African-American and ethnic communities across the world.
The idea of Shadeism, also known as Colourism, welcomes the belief that lighter skin and Caucasian features, are more attractive and easily accepted by society. I feel that Shadeism is a form of self-hatred that continues to stifle the flourishing of cultures due to ethnic desensitization, which is a direct result from the pressure and competition to conform to the Western ideals.
Shadeism is believed to stem from colonialism, as white slave masters would have sexual relationships with African slaves. The children born had white DNA, and slave masters would award them certain privileges such as working in houses, instead of the cotton fields. This form of privilege is apparent in Shadeism today, as African-Americans believe gaining employment; education and wealth are only accessible to those who are accepted by the white majority.
Similarly, in Africa, “bleaching” the act of skin lightening is most prominent in areas struck by poverty. The presence of white minorities in Africa, who live more privileged lifestyles, increases the desire for members of lower classes to escape poverty. In addition, African culture believes males are the golden ticket to a secure lifestyle, and as African men perceive white men as competitors, they opt for women of lighter complexions. African women comply with this vicious cycle and would bleach their skin in order to gain benefits of class privilege.
I believe the emergence of shadeism , can no longer be attributed to a colonial past, but to a colonial mentality. The inferiority complex that black individuals have suffered from, places the burden of achieving self-empowerment by segregating themselves from their own ethnicity. They are compelled to assert their identities, furtively, by taking to personal means and choice due to the fear of politically disturbing a society that believes in the absolution of any form of racism. This poses a challenge to individuals who fight for the protection of cultures, and advocate for minorities, as black individuals continue to pride themselves on the ability to protect their self-made identity.
Oprah Winfrey featured the issue as a topic of discussion on her talk show ” Oprah’s Life class” where audience members engage in debate on a wide array of lessons. This self-help program airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network known as OWN. Oprah educated viewers on Shadeism and featured Iyanla Vanzant, an inspirational speaker, who provided critical insight into this social issue. Together, they facilitated discussions among audience members of different cultures and skin complexion.
As both dark and light skin individuals spoke on Shadeism, new revelations left me in awe. Light skin audience members expressed that they feel victimized by African-Americans of darker skin . They explained the hostile receptions they receive from darker skin individuals who believe they are less ” black” due to the privileges they are born with. This discovery highly differed from the #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin memes and ongoing discrimination that I noted on Twitter. From this, I realized the plight of dark and light skin individuals was strikingly similar: both ethnic groups were vying for solidarity, unity and a chance at acceptance that they could give each other.
Shadeism continues to reinforce individual survival amidst Western norms, but why does this issue exist in developing countries and is entrenched in cultures that encourage communal responsibility? Why must children grow up with confused identities due to bleached skin and potentially suffer from the harmful effects? Why aren’t they given the choice to either assert their culture or assimilate into a pervasive Western life on their own terms?
Because racial profiling exists, and openly practicing traditions is viewed as backwards. The influence of shadeism and the ideal to conform to western society has marginalized cultures that feel a lack of political , social and economic accommodation. In reality individuals only compete to survive in Western society, and the act of shadeism is the validation that fuels self-preservation. On the other hand, individuals living in developing countries aim to create Western norms and hope to secure themselves under these fabricated privileges. Culture, language, the sentimental aspects of one’s identity is ultimately lost in the superficial race Shadeism has instigated.
Fortunately, now living in Canada, I am able to reflect on this social issues that threatens diversity. As a Somali, who was born in Kenya, I am susceptible to shadeism from both cultures, at different extents. I feel Shadeism does not need to know of western norms, as evident in long history of Somali traditions deeming lighter skin women more attractive. I have understood that acts of shadeism such as bleaching, do not require western boundaries proven in Kenya, where individuals strive to emulate Western lifestyles.
However, I know that Shadeism needs one thing; honesty. Victims of shadeism must acknowledge that this issue exists. They must be able to be honest with who they are, and step away from the facade of self-convincing. Individuals such as myself, who have not experienced shadiest must build solidarity through positive voice to encourage honesty among those afflicted with this dangerous phenomenon. We must speak and feel important enough to be listened and never silenced by society’s norms- only then , we can positively contribute to the growth and strength of diversity.
Guest post By: Bilqees Mohamed