In the conversation of beauty and how it is understood, I am beginning to think that we are burying all our energies on the ‘challenges’ of having dark skin and forgetting to also look at the challenges that light-skinned African women might be facing. Some time back on Victoria’s Lounge on NTV, there was a discussion on the question of skin colour. A guest on the show said that one of the challenges of having a light skin tone is always having to prove yourself – to show that apart from the light skin, you also have a brain. I did not quite get the point (because if you are a woman, there is always the need to prove yourself ) until about two days ago.
A certain guy helped me put the point into perspective. A mutual friend at an event I was attending introduced us and as we got deeper into the chat, he started telling me things about his job. His sentences were full of the words “light skin”. This said ‘light skin’ cannot get anything right at work. At first, I thought this –light-skin- was a nickname he had given to a co-worker. Then I started to think that he liked her so much to speak so much time talking about her. He also told stories on various scenarios with ‘light skin’ in them: in the mat, he wanted to tell one to keep her phone well because it could be snatched, and the ‘light-skin’ thought he was hitting on her because she could not think well and in their class, back in the university there was also a ‘light-skin’ who always asked questions the lecturer had just finished answering.
I had to stop him and ask precisely what ‘light skin’ meant in his context of use. Then I got the shock of my life. He told me light-skinned women are not exactly brilliant and he uses the phrase ‘light skin’ to refer to them in that sense. I will write about the debate that ensued another day because if I put it here, it will mess up my subject for the day which is, beating stereotypes. As soon as he said that light-skinned women are not brilliant, my mind went to all the light-skinned women in my life who are extremely intelligent. But this conversation made me rethink the whole question of stereotypes. Africa is a continent where people are dying of hunger (yes, that stereotype exists to date), Nigerians are drug peddlers, Kikuyus love money, and the University of Nairobi girls are prostitutes (Remember Shebesh? )… I could go on and on.
Stereotypes eat into us, at the very core of our humanity and completely taint our view of reality, often to our very own disadvantage. Just to be clear, to stereotype, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same. Lola Akinmade writing on the importance of breaking down stereotypes says that stereotypes are born when we apply a personality paintbrush to an entire culture based on our experiences with just a few individuals. There can be no overemphasis on the danger of stereotyping and it is something that we all need to break away from.
The billion-dollar question, therefore, is just how does one avoid making decisions based on preconceived judgements and therefore work without prejudice?
Remember that there is never a single story about anything.
Quoting from Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk: THE DANGER OF A SINGLE STORY, appreciating that there is never just one narrative about anything would be a good place to start. When you remember the exceptions that you know, then you are in a better position to suspend judgement that would otherwise come based on some preset unfair judgements. J. William Breslin on breaking away from subtle biases opines that one method that you can use to stay away from stereotypes is by remembering that you too can be a victim of these preconceived opinions. Therefore, it is better for one, in trying to manoeuvre around the subject of stereotyping, to look at someone as an individual rather than through the lens of gender, ethnic identity or nationality.
2. Practice tolerance
Remember that you also have weaknesses. These weaknesses are not written in your stars or more specifically on your ethnic or regional identity. When we stop seeing ourselves as the perfect people, then we will become more tolerant of the mistakes of other people and realise that everybody depending on their mood or feelings, would refuse to pass the salt across to you when you are having lunch at a fast-food restaurant. This has nothing to do with how light-skinned or dark-skinned that person is or what county they are originally from. Some people are good and others are bad. It is all in the heart. Even blood which is supposedly ‘thicker than water’ is just iron and platelets in all instances.
3. Commit to reason
Sometimes, it is underrepresentation that informs our biased thinking. You only met two girls in a matatu who could not speak proper English and yet they claim to be in a university in the country. Is that sufficient evidence for you to now say that university girls cannot speak proper English? I am sure that even deep down in your heart, you know that you are deceiving yourself.
4. Remember that it’s not choice
So you still believe that stereotypes are good things and insist on propagating them against your neighbour, please remember that it is never anyone’s choice. To be born white or black, Samburu or Turkana, Kenyan or Chinese is not a choice that someone makes. It, therefore, reflects very poorly on you if you insist on making judgements that are based on unfounded things.
I have a persistent thirst to know things and that has pushed me to read a lot of books and ask questions including stopping strangers on the road to ask them questions about the inspiration behind their hairstyles… Apart from the madness, I am generally a very bubbly, reasonable and energetic person.