Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o knows all about colourism. In a 2014 interview with Glamour magazine, she spoke about experiencing it when she was growing up.
Her most vivid memory of it was when, as a seven-year-old Standard Two pupil, her teacher asked her where she was going to get a man darker than her to marry her.
Colourism, which is described as discrimination against darker skin amongst people of colour, isn’t new. It goes back to the colonial era.
When African slaves got raped by their white masters and gave birth to light-skinned babies, these children were seen as better and given preferential treatment.
Modern Africans seem to have internalised these messages, and skin lightening technology has become more sophisticated in an effort to keep up with educated but ‘health savvy’ young women who want to better their chances at love and life.
A look at our television advertisements and billboards shows you what is fanning the Kenyan woman’s appetite for skin lightening products: Light-skinned women are used almost entirely to promote products.
Light skin is equated with beauty. In Kenya, most people seem to either consciously or subconsciously think that light skinned women are ‘more attractive’ than dark skin ones.
But is this all there is to it? Does this misperception affect romantic and social lives only, or does it have an impact on our earnings and job prospects?
21-year-old Mercy Chemacia is a commercial model with Sanaa Casting Agency. In three years, she has lost out on countless opportunities because of her dark skin.
Her striking looks and passion do not seem to matter to potential clients.
“I feel beautiful in my skin but some people do not. Often, when casting for a show or a photo shoot, fairer skinned models are picked first. I am used to it now. The reason that is usually given is that their skin tone blends better with most colours,” she says.
When it comes to the media and television, Lucy Mwangi, the producer of a local television show, "Auntie Boss", thinks that the public is responsible for these perceptions.
Television, she reckons, is for beautiful people and that, for their target audience, equals light skin. The metric is simple: The lighter skinned the actress, the more popular she is.
“Issues of skin tone come up when we are casting. The audience just want to see a light-skinned woman even if she doesn’t say anything. Sometimes, the rest of the cast members, especially the men, will insist on a woman being light-skinned,” she says.
The worst part of it, she says, is that the younger generations continue to absorb these perceptions.
She was crushed a few days ago when her seven-year-old daughter who is a few shades darker than her wished that she was as light-skinned as her mother.
Janet Mwaluda, the producer of reality television show "Nairobi Diaries", has a slightly different opinion.
Janet, who is light-skinned, thinks that darker skin looks better on camera. When she was casting for her show, she looked more at what a character was bringing in as opposed to their skin tone.
“I think black skin is exotic but we can’t deny that there is an unfair bias out there. Light is seen to represent a higher economic status. That is why light-skinned women are referred to as, rangi ya thao (colour of a thousand-shilling note),” she says.
“I think it is unfair but it is what the market wants,” Reuben Willis, the founder Sanaa Casting Agency, acknowledges the average Kenyan’s obsession with fair skin.
In his near-10 years of casting models for commercials, he has observed the unmistakable preference for light skin. It isn’t the fault of the manufacturers either, he says.
“It is the market. People are more likely to buy a product when it’s associated with a light-skinned person. The advertisements are created according to market preferences, not the other way around,’ he explains.
'LIGHT' IS SUCCESS
Away from advertising media, one cannot help but notice that many female news anchors are light-skinned.
“Yes, I think it is unfortunate but it is true that being light skinned gives one an advantage on television,” says a popular television presenter who spoke on condition of anonymity.
She argues that while your skin tone might not necessarily be the basis on which women get hired on TV, a look at our local stations shows a clear disparity.
“I think this happens because women on television are seen as flowers. Light skin is seen as more beautiful thus light-skinned women are put on the screens.
Women should take this as a challenge and do more. This way, they will be seen for their abilities, not just their skin tones,” she says.
This unfair obsession does not stop with the media. A woman’s skin tone seems to be of significance in regard to whether or not she finally makes the climb up the corporate ladder.
Findings of a 2014 study by researchers from Francisco State University reveal an unconscious bias towards darker skin tones even in the workplace.
The researchers found that the word ‘educated’ is equated to light skin. Study subjects were shown photos of black people with various skin tones; when asked to remember the successful ones, they pointed at the photos with the lighter skin tones.
One might argue that it is completely natural for this to be the case in America, given its race history. However closer home, the same presumptions apply.
Rachel Agunda, lead HR consultant at Mnarani Management Consultants in Nairobi agrees that there is an unconscious bias against dark-skinned people at the workplace.
This bias, she says, is stronger when an applicant is seeking certain positions.
“It is easier for a lighter coloured person to get a front office job than their darker skinned counterpart, even with the same skills and qualifications. This position is usually seen as the interface between the public and the rest of the company. This may not be a conscious bias, just a preference by the employer to their business image. In some odd cases, we get clients who specify particular skin tone,” she says.
To counter this, she encourages her clients to give equal employment opportunities as long as a candidate can deliver on the job based on their qualification, has the right attitude and is able to fit into the organisation culture.
Then there is the other side of the coin. Because they are assumed to be privileged, light-skinned women are expected to shut up and quietly enjoy these privileges.
You are beautiful; what could you possibly have to complain about? They are asked.
“No one looks at what these assumed privileges take away from a woman,” says Pauline Maingi, a 28-year-old pension administrator with a regional firm.
As a child, Pauline was a cute little girl who people fawned over. For a long time, she took these compliments until she realised that they had nothing to do with who she was; they only had to do with her light brown skin and jet black thick hair. This hasn’t been her biggest challenge though: Her light skin has cost her money, literally.
“I only realised how much people equate wealth with light skin when I started working. Every time I went shopping, I got overcharged for goods and services because people assumed that I had a lot of extra money to spend. I have even been charged double the matatu price because of my skin tone,” she shares.
Former Miss Kenya Shamim Nabil adds that although she has not witnessed any discrimination in her job because of her light skin, socially, she has felt the burn.
“I have met people, especially other women, who disliked me at first glance because they assume I am privileged because of my skin colour. I wish people got to know me first,” she says.
The assumption of privilege others have of light-skinned women can makes one feel special but disliked at the same time. This has been true for Janet Mwaluda, the television producer.
“Both socially and as an entrepreneur, I have been perceived as having it easier for being light-skinned, a perception I must say couldn’t be further from the truth. I have had to work as hard as anybody else would to build my company. Assuming that I am privileged would be discounting my efforts,” she says.
Clearly whatever the colour of skin, there will be challenges to deal with.