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Conflicted: Identity Crisis

Avatar Student, Writer, Scientist, Kenya's Ambassador to Tunza Eco-Generation and W.Y.A. member.
Yvonne Wabai
Member since November 8, 2015
  • 31 Posts
  • Age 23

Pearl Thusi. You might know her as Dayana Mampasi from the hit show Quantico. My skin colour has a certain semblance to hers, but may be lighter or darker depending on the time of year.

Pearl Thusi. You might know her as Dayana Mampasi from the hit show Quantico. My skin colour has a certain semblance to hers, but may be lighter or darker depending on the time of year.

I grew up in a small village in Central Kenya. In this very specific village, dark skin was adored. Now, if you're reading this amidst racial tensions and colorism, you might be thinking, "Yes! Dark skin should be adored! Dark skin is beautiful!" And I agree with you. Dark skin is beautiful. This is why I prayed to the Lord every day that I would wake up having darker skin and when that didn't work, I tried applying Kiwi on my skin. Confused? Let me explain.

I am not dark-skinned. I am a light-skinned African. To many, this is a paradox. "Light-skinned African," they say as they laugh, "Girl, you must be mixed. Africans are dark, that's just how it is." Normally, when people say this, I go into scientist mode - I am a scientist - and explain to them the science of colour and how it is that there are light-skinned Africans like me. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Allow me to go back to the beginning.

I was born in the city. When I was 4-years-old, my brother and I were left in the care of our maternal grandparents in the village as our parents had hit a rough patch and they needed to look for greener pastures elsewhere. It was a wonderful arrangement. With unlimited amounts of unpolluted air, arable farmlands that produced high-quality food, plenty of clean, fresh water, a roof over our heads, a variety of schools to attend ,and wonderful people. Life in the village was glorious. (I had to put that in for the people who hear/read 'village' and 'Africa' and immediately think 'terrible'.)

A few days into our stay in the village, I began noticing that people were looking at me a little bit differently than they were looking at everyone else. At first, I couldn't put my finger on it, but as soon as they started calling me 'light bulb' and 'kamzungu', I started to get an idea of what was going on. You see, 'kamzungu' is the Kiswahili term for 'lil whitey'. Coupled with 'light bulb', you can see what they were implying.

I hated being called 'lil whitey' and/or 'light bulb' because they were misrepresentations of who I really was (and still am). Aside from implying that I was, to some part, white, those nicknames also implied that I wasn't one of them i.e. that I wasn't African - Kenyan, to be specific; Kikuyu to be more specific. People regularly told me that I would me more beautiful if my skin were darker and that I should have kids with a dark-skinned man so that our babies would be beautiful. I tried explaining to them that I was fully African, but alas! Not according to my skin, I wasn't. Seeing that I couldn't change their perceptions, I decided to ignore it and just live my life. However, as soon as I began attending school, it came to my notice that that wouldn't be possible. No one would ever believe what I said as long as my skin supposedly told a different story.

At 14-years-old, I started attending high school in the city. It was a prestigious high school and all the rich kids went there. These kids had traveled all over the world and they had seen many different cultures and so I was sure that they would see me for who I really was (am). Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Even they saw me as 'lil whitey'. Some even called me 'half-caste', a term that was used to refer to biracial and mixed-race people. To add onto that, while in high school, my parents' ship came in and we moved to the suburbs. The particular area we moved into was quite multicultural and there were all sorts of people there. We lived amongst fellow Kenyans, Ugandans, Sudanese, South Africans, Americans, Canadians, French, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans, among others. I realize that these are mostly nationalities but that's just to give you a picture of how diverse it was; I am aware that there's a difference between nationality and ethnicity. This multicultural suburban society brought other issues in itself. Don't get me wrong, I loved it, but I started feeling out of place when some kids ran behind me as I was coming from the shops and they kept screaming derogatory terms used to refer to Asians. I pointed that out to them and asked them to stop using those terms.

At 18, I entered university. The scenario there was quite different. People praised me for being light-skinned. All of a sudden, being light-skinned was something to look up to and to achieve. The fetishisation of light skin in my country had begun. Many people, especially girls and women because the pressure to be light-skinned was on them more, were doing all sorts of things to get their skin to be lighter and some of those things were quite dangerous, e.g. using skin creams mercury-containing. Many males started chasing after light-skinned females because it would be the ultimate status symbol to have a ligh-skinned female by your side. Before the fetishisation, I was considered to be a person, even though it was an outsider. The fetishisation made it so that people who looked like me were not considered people anymore, but rather objects to acquired, trophies to be displayed.

It was also at this point that I stumbled across an article detailing the struggles of dark-skinned women in the U.S. and I didn't know what to do with that information, despite the fact that the same was starting to happen in my country. I couldn't tell people to not be colorist because they would just respond with, "You're light-skinned! What do you know about colorism anyway?" I couldn't, and still can't, talk about my struggles in a society that thinks that those struggles don't exist and that I should be proud to be 'exalted'.

I am now 21, and not much has changed in my country. Dark skin is still the standard of beauty in my country. Light skin is still being fetishized, although, thanks to the #teamdarkskin movement, the fetishisation has gone down a little. People still consider me to be biracial/mixed, which brings me to the point of this essay: I am confused about my identity.

Of course, I know who I am. Contextually speaking, I am African. Kenyan. Kikuyu. And I know that. I have always known that. It's just a little bit hard to not forget that when people are constantly screaming in your ears that you're something different. Also, the facts that I have read some articles of the struggles of biracial/mixed race people and that I have met some biracial/mixed race people and that my struggles identify more with their struggles, don't make it any easier. Additionally, I get nods of solidarity from biracial/mixed race people, Africans, Asians, and Caucasians; and that's not necessarily a bad thing but it does make me confused. Every time I get a nod from a non-African, I can't help but think, "Wait, do they think I'm one of them?" I then make it a point to let them know that I am African/Kenyan/Kikuyu.

I am of the school of thought that someone else's beauty does not take away your own. I don't want people who look like me to feel bad about looking like me, and I don't want people who don't look like me to feel about not looking like me either. The first step to ensuring this is to talk about it, which is why I am writing this essay now. Thankfully, for my country, it is not too late. There is still time for us to nip this in the bud. To quote a phrase that has gained popularity in recent years, "Beauty comes in different shades."

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