The first time I word hear the term colorism would be as a high school sophomore in a college dorm with my Nigerian roommate, as we sat and discussed the burden of race. I remember tears streaming down both of our faces as we lamented about the struggles of being black women.
Before this conversation, I knew that darkened skinned people endured harsher experiences when it came to racism but I was never genuinely conscious of the racial privileges that I had in wearing a lighter complexion. She shared a story, of her sister who is also lighter skinned, how their mother rarely allowed her to go outside because of fear that her lighter complexion would be tainted by the harsh rays of the sun. Her sister began to believe that her lighter skin was better too and so whenever they argued she would say, “At least I’m lighter than you…” My friend began to believe that her skin was wrong and unwanted. I was taken aback by the intensity of the situation, but not completely surprised. In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Americanah she references this color hierarchy in the US as such: “…most of the American blacks who are successful as entertainers and as public figures are light. Especially women. Many successful American black men have white wives. Those who deign to have black wives have light (otherwise known as high yellow) wives.” With the history of colonialism in African countries, racism in the United States, and the general media continuously spreading “white-is-right” propaganda, to be surprised by my friend’s story was not to be conscious of the social constructs that run the world. Nonetheless, after our conversation, I was overcome with a general sense of helplessness.
Fast forward to my time here in Senegal 3 years later, where beautiful black women are the majority, and yet the standard of beauty remains the same. The lighter your skin, the more attractive you are. Soaps with skin bleaching properties and bottles promising to scrub away the melanin fill the shelves of most of the butiks which I have encountered. You can tell if a woman has used bleaching products because either her elbows will be drastically darker than the rest of her skin or her skin will be tainted a yellowish color. I have grown accustomed to seeing extremely light, washed-out faces (either due to bleaching creams or foundations five shades lighter than the woman’s actual complexion) and I have also become accustomed to seeing commercials, TV shows, and billboards with fair-skinned women depicted as the epitome of beauty. Yet there was one moment recently that particularly struck me. I was at my friend Zandra’s house, and I met one of her homestay sisters. This woman was beautiful, not just because of her jaw-dropping looks, but because her personality radiated light. She lectured me, as she had previously told Zandra, about the importance of eating a lot so that I could be “thick” and have a big butt and hips. I thought: this woman is so confident; this woman is telling me to go against the “thin-and-slim” norms of beauty, and I was beyond happy. I aspired to be as confident as this woman; to radiate beauty like this woman; to be so naturally comfortable in being— Or so I thought. She invited me to sit in her room, and the first thing I see on her dresser is a pinkish, white bottle with a white woman on the cover that promised, “Whiter [skin] in 7 days”. I then proceeded to examine her skin; her face carried that yellowish residue that these types of products sometimes left on its victims but I had previously not thought much of it because I was in awe of her character. I then noticed the discoloration on her arms, another wound from the skin bleaching. My heart broke.
While I no doubt have dealt with racism via microaggressions, I have always been able to talk about colorism at a distance. Because I am on the more privileged side of the colorism spectrum, I have not had to deal with such insecurities, especially within predominantly black communities. All that being said, when I saw this skin bleaching cream right in front of me, directly affecting someone who I had suddenly grown to admire, it hurt. To see the most influential women, mothers, and caretakers bend to the will of this colonial legacy was like seeing one’s father be referenced to as “boy” during times of slavery and Jim Crow. While Senegal is an “independent” country, the minds of many Senegalese people are still controlled by the colonizers.
It is hard to see women I look up to here be so controlled by this colonial notion of beauty. At the end of the day it does not take away from how strong they are, but it is rather a testament to how much work needs to be done in deconstructing colonial structures and making people genuinely free of colonial influence. Just because people are physically free, does not mean they are also mentally free. The French did a lot in colonizing Senegal(and some would argue that they still are) and even after Senegal’s independence up until now, the French have maintained a significant hold and influence on Senegalese. Colorism is just one small facet of social life here in which we can see the residue of colonization in Senegal.
The woman I have met here in Senegal are some of the strongest I have ever met. From Zandra’s host sister to my mom host moms Marem and mom Yaay Fatou (depicted in the picture) I am more than grateful for the lessons I have learned from them.