I am a black female who has always been aware that I am ’pretty for a dark-skinned girl’.
I know that only because I have heard the phrase countless times. It took me many years to fully grasp why my beauty had to be qualified as an apology for my complexion. As a child, I was affectionately called ‘blackie’ by most of my family, and as I have got older, I have garnered other slogans such as ‘black beauty’ and ‘hot chocolate’.
I get it. I am pretty. A dark kind of pretty; different from the generally and widely accepted pretty. Not as good as one, but pretty good for the other.
My suspicions were first roused when I wasn’t allowed to be the princess in my fourth grade school play. Although I had memorised the script and aced the audition, the mixed-race girl (who didn’t audition), but fit the ‘look’ was awarded the part, even though she sulked and cried everyday during auditions, and had to be placated with biscuits and juice.
I was lucky enough to grow up blissfully ignorant.
However, they were confirmed, when, at fifteen, I was secretly offered bleaching cream by a helpful relative who advised me to start looking into lightening solutions as I was becoming a woman.
Despite all this, I was lucky enough to grow up blissfully ignorant that there was anything wrong with my skin. I have always been drawn to other confident, beautiful, strong women because that is simply how I see myself, either by virtue of how I was raised, or completely by accident. I knew I was dark, but I didn’t see it as a disadvantage, or a hindrance. I will admit that something about that changed when I moved to America for university.
I had never been in such a racially charged and hyper aware colour-struck society before. In Africa, it seemed that I encountered patches of ignorance that I blamed on colonial mentality and white hero worship; in America, and specifically, amongst black people, it seemed critically important to know exactly where you fell on the colour scale and what it meant. In America, I became a dark-skinned girl.
I was repeatedly told by boys, even those darker than me, that I was ‘pretty for a dark-skinned girl’. It always seemed important to men to let me know, if they were interested in me, that I was the exception to their rule. It became the norm to spend lengthy amounts of time with people who would one day squint up at me and say, ‘You know… you’re actually quite pretty’, as if they bothered looking past my darkness for the first time. Once I realised I was firmly anchored at the bottom of the dating pool, I became accustomed to hearing the word ‘preference’ casually thrown around to justify behaviour that felt a lot like prejudice.
I started to feel uncomfortable in my skin.
Once the can of worms was open, it seemed I could never go back. Even in Africa, with the permeation of African-American culture from movies and music, we were also learning to reject darkness in favour of looking more ‘exotic’ and fitting in. In black America, light skin is desired above all else, and for women, it is the golden ticket to fulfilling your dreams of perhaps dating a rapper or athlete, getting a record deal or snagging an acting role. I started to feel uncomfortable in my skin. I didn’t see myself, or women who looked like me on television or in the magazines bar one or two current exceptions to the rule.
The standard of beauty for black women excludes a large population of the demography. I got accustomed to being offered lightening or brightening products at spas or beauty counters, as well as suggestions on fixing ‘dull’ skin. I got accustomed to the superhuman quest of finding make up that suited my skin tone. Dating in these conditions was also a challenge. I got accustomed to mostly not being the ‘type’ of a lot of guys I met.
Like dark chocolate, dark women were also an acquired taste.
I got accustomed to my lighter friends getting more attention than I did. I met men who were attracted to me but refused to pursue it. I even met men who were in love with me, but not in love with the idea of a dark wife or dark-skinned children. I knew that I didn’t look like the required status symbol and I understood that in this world, I was a niche. Like dark chocolate, dark women were also an acquired taste.
Then I thought of what kind of person I would be, if I allowed other people’s insecurities permeate my consciousness. If I took on the burden of hating myself so other people wouldn’t have to do it for me. So despite the discrimination, I continued to love myself anyway.
I learned to feel sorry for those who are yet to be emancipated from their mental slavery, and those who are so brainwashed by colonisation. I laugh when people tell me how dark my children will be because I am married to a dark-skinned man; Instead, I can’t wait to meet them. I learned that the paper bag rule still exists, but now it is a coward that calls itself preference.
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