Growing up as a dark-skinned girl in Nigeria is a very traumatising experience unless, by some strange miracle, your parents and everyone you come in contact with are progressive Nigerians. That is an impossibility because there are only about 1,000 of us and 500 in Lagos. Everyone from your parents to your extended family members to friends to random strangers on the street will seek to help you solve what they perceive to be a problem. God help you if you, a teenager, have acne as well. Here are some things you probably heard while growing up dark-skinned.
- Don’t you bath?”: Children and teenagers can be vicious because what else will inspire one to not only think this but also to say it out loud? Worse still, when adults say it to literal children. It is heavily implied in these interactions that a lack of personal hygiene makes a person very dark or have uneven skin tones. Pshaw. What is hyperpigmentation? What is a sunburn?
Morolake said, “The constant comments on my uneven skin tone hurt. I have like 30 different shades of brown on my body. I like to think of it as a melanin-themed rainbow.”
Sisi’s most hurtful colourism memory was inspired by a fellow dark-skinned girl who had no doubt internalised the harmful things that she had heard.
“A friend once took tissue paper and wiped it across my face and told me I was so dark because I was dirty. The tissue paper was dirty, obviously, because it was afternoon and I was sweaty. I’m no longer mad at the person but the thought of that event still makes me sad because she’s dark-skinned too. I wonder who made her believe people are very dark because they’re dirty.”
- “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl”: The ultimate colourist insult. The “Miss Congeniality” placatory bouquet while the winner wears their crown. Like the “beauty and brains” compliment, it isn’t a compliment at all. They’re saying it’s a novelty to be pretty as well as dark-skinned.
Taiwo said, “When I was in Nigeria, I’d get comments like “Wow! Your skin is so shiny, your own black is fine, not dirty black”. Those compliments always bothered me because they imply that the default for black skin is ugly and dirty.”
After moving to America, Taiwo notices that the dynamics of race and skin-tone are even more complicated.
“Now, I’m in America and the pecking order for beauty is very different. Black women aren’t high on the scale of preference, talk-less of dark-skinned black women.”
Raheemat also observed that, “In pageants in my school (and we have many of those), light-skinned or not-too-dark women win everything. They also do this thing where they make entirely new categories to pander to us. “Miss black and beautiful” as if all the contestants are not black women. Why do you have to create a new category? Why do you have to classify my beauty separately because I’m darker?”
- “You’re ugly”: Many of us have heard this in one variation or the other. Secondary school was particularly tumultuous for dark-skinned girls. Passive-aggressive remarks and outright disrespect were crosses to bear.
Bimbo’s cross to bear was the constant comparisons to her mum and the insults they inspired. “My mum is light-skinned and I am dark-skinned, so you can imagine all the comments I heard growing up. “You’re not fine like your mummy, you’re so dark” meanwhile, my mum and I look very alike. A family member once said (jokingly of course) that I’m ugly, unlike my mum. Painful stuff.”
- “Won’t you do something about it?”: The profferers of solutions are some of the most annoying colourists. They’re never without one or two unsolicited opinions on how to fix it. They’re often persistent, rude and snug because they genuinely feel like it is their responsibility and like they are doing you a favour.
Many people inadvertently develop actual skin problems or start to lighten their skin. If you do lighten your skin, these same people will shame you. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Lola’s colourism account shows just how vicious teenagers could be. Her experiences strengthened her resolve and her love for her skin. “I think I experienced colourism the most in secondary school. I had idiots call me ‘blacky’ or make jokes about me and my significant other at the time (who was light-skinned) & they’d call us ‘eclipse’ or something stupid. I have had people talk about being dark in front of me, as though it were a disease. I have also had people, especially men, compare me to my light-skinned friends, saying that they are finer than me because they are lighter. If I was insecure and decided to bleach my skin because of their foolish remarks, it would be these same idiots that would talk poorly about my skin and how the colour has changed. I love me & God forbid I change the colour of my skin to please idiots :)”
- “I just don’t like dark-skinned girls”: Ever had a man randomly burdens you with their views on things you didn’t ask them about?
Ayo says, “One time I was talking to a friend and he started talking about his preferences, which were light-skinned girls, UNPROVOKED. It felt really weird because apart from the fact that I had no interest in him, it was uncomfortable given the fact that I’m dark-skinned and had never thought there was anything wrong with my skin tone before then. Funny thing is that he was dark-skinned himself which made the entire thing feel so unreal ‘cause how can you speak all that trash when you look exactly like what you don’t want?? It was probably at that point I realized that colourism was more prevalent than I’d thought, especially around me.”
- “Why do you look angry?”: The angry black woman trope is doubly unfair to dark-skinned black women. People will stop you on the road and demand that you smile at them “so that you will look fine”. You’d walk on the streets and receive a few insults before reaching your destination. This tweet I came across perfectly sums it up for many of us.