In My Skin

by Dorothy Kigen

Ilustration by Naddya Oluoch.

Iam biracial:  mixed, half-caste, mlami, mzungu-mwafrika. My features make curious people ask me: What are you? Where is home? Where are you from? My response depends on who is asking, why, and when; but usually, I simply say that I am Kenyan. If pressed to be specific (Are you sure? You don’t look Kenyan. Are you married here?) If I’m not offended by being interrogated this way, I elaborate that my father is Kalenjin, my mother Hungarian. Even so, “are you Kenyan?” is a question they ask me very often. I want “Kenyan” to be enough, I want that to be all that needs to be said, but it is not.

I recall the discussions that followed the London Olympics opening ceremony in 2012, where the Kenyan team was led into the stadium by a swimmer named Jason Dunford who, though Kenyan-born, is no representative of the term Kenyan as many understand it, that is, as a matter of race and ethnicity.

Ideally, the world would indeed be post-racial and we would all see beyond race and colour.

Though I wish this for the sake of my own comfort and sense of belonging, I suspect the same impulse is at the heart of a lot of apologist racist and ethnicist rhetoric.

Indeed, the terms “post-race” and “colour-blind” are often used in defense of behavior that some find offensive, and it’s usually white behavior: An American’s faux-pas, a race incident usually involving an expatriate and locals, or a complaint about behavior of white patrons of Art Caffe — “Yeah, but he’s not being racist.”  It is strange how ready we can be to deny racial prejudice, how optimistic we can be when confronted with the shadows of our histories.

It’s not comfortable to admit, but that’s it: I want race and ethnicity to not matter because I want to live unscrutinized, uninterrogated. Light skin in Kenya is hypervisible. It comes with its own set of stereotypes — that she must be stuck up, spoiled, shallow, weak; and if the skin in question is so light that it suggests foreignness, specifically a caucasian foreignness, then one is quickly summed up as a gullible target, a mark whose pockets are ripe for the picking. Sometimes I come up against the former, sometimes the latter. I have been told I have no right to my own surname, that I am a half-breed, and a violation. It always hurts to hear such. Such spurious claims embarrassed me when I was younger, and they anger me now. I am angered by every put-on twang, every colour-coded label; I’m unable to take them as anything other than an insult. These things are said to me over and over again.

Yet, with this anger is also the knowledge of certain advantages. I was always vaguely attentive to so-called light-skin privilege but was, of course, much more sensitive to the disadvantages. To be human means that that which hurts is remembered far more vividly than that which helps. So here I am, unhappy because of a nebulous residual guilt during a primary school history class where I learnt about the evils of colonialism and felt somehow complicit; unhappy because I sometimes find myself in the company of people who think my opinions on issues about black femininity, Africanness, or nationality are never valid because of what the colour of my skin signifies to them. It is frustrating to be constantly misrecognised, but it happens for reasons I started to understand differently after I started thinking deeply about feminism: reading, mostly online, the articles and critiques of contemporary culture, the tweets and discussions with the women behind the tweets. It is this that enabled me to really consider the larger systems in which we all exist, trapped.

Living with one particular form of oppression teaches you the syntax and the patterns of it, opens your eyes to see the imbalances of power and how it works, as well as how oblivious to the system those favored by it may be. A lot of feminist conversation online is sidetracked by people demanding to be taught, to be told exactly why they’re wrong. For this reason I believe a lot of formative discussion has to take place in the absence of men, so that less time is wasted trying to point out what is so obvious to everyone else — the numerous small inequalities, the little multiplying damages that never cease wearing us down — and focus on what we really need to work out — the forces that motivate them, and what is to be done about them.

Any feminist who has men in her life — and this is most of us — has probably expended a lot of energy and time engaging in #NotAllMen conversations – patiently explaining that yes, not all men, but in actual fact, enough men.

The patriarchy is a gender-based system of oppression I understand, one whose nuances I see clearly, having lived each day mired in it. I see male privilege clearly, and see that the beneficiaries of this privilege do not readily accept that it exists. They do not want to accept that being dealt a certain hand of cards can in fact make you a part of the problem, whether you intend it to or not. I see this easily. Because of this, I am learning to see the imbalances of power built into colourism.

Colourism is an expression of racism which normalises certain physical features, designating them as signifiers of higher forms of humanity, an essential purity that is unattainable by those who look different from the norm. In Kenya, the cachet of light skin is undeniable. Ng’endo Mukii’s short film Yellow Fever explores the efforts many women go through to become desirable, which light skin ostensibly guarantees. The implication is that desirability is performed for an audience — in some cases one’s dissatisfied self, a self that desires to be desired — and how does one learn to be unhappy about her skin except by the people she desires continually rejecting her because of it while they cherish those who look different?

Light, lustrous skin and  long, flowing hair — men, we are misled to believe, will love us if we possess these. Thus,  the fetishisation of mixed-race babies, particularly little girls. Some men have told me they want my skin or hair for their daughter, so that they will have their own pretty little things decorating their life. Not necessarily for their sons, though.

Vera Sidika — “Kenya’s Kim Kardashian” so-called — is very frank about her decision to lighten her skin, and how this decision improved her ability to earn money. She has said as much in local and international interviews and on the reality show Nairobi Diaries. The marketing of the show was, in fact, centred on her, with teasers and clips of her comments on the same issue. Sidika was widely criticized for this in another one of those perplexing situations where society condemns the results of the demands it places on women.

On January 31st, @Dexxe shared a series of screenshots showing a casting call posted to Facebook for aspiring TV show hosts and the commentary that followed beneath the post.  The very first requirement specified “a light complexion, African or mixed race”. The post went on to defend this requirement in the comments: “Has it occurred to you that the target audience goes wider than just for black Africans? [… ] It is actually the light skinned, mixed race, and white models who get fewer opportunities for ads […] only for some Pan-African or global ads.” By their own admission, the lighter models get potentially more lucrative opportunities. Similarly, in a country known internationally for running, Skechers sells athletic shoes using stock photos of light-skinned people, with nary a Kiplagat or Jepkosgei in sight.

Bleaching skin is often harmful to one’s health. It is a social practice that raises many underlying issues. Still, we only condemn the women who do it and not the society that creates and sustains the perception that light skin is inherently more valuable than dark skin.

A pretty face, slim waist, thick thighs — you are not supposed to work towards attaining any of these ideals, it seems, but should be born with them. Surgically enhanced women are demonised. The use of cosmetics is described as women “lying” to men or “false advertising”.

Colourism is harmful to the women who suffer under and struggle with it daily. It is particularly insidious as another way to pit women against each other, another way to insult and tear each other down, one more way of alienating us from each other and from ourselves, so that we are forced to try to find inconstant comfort and support from the very people and institutions that perpetuate the system that demeans, damages, and destroys us.