As a young African woman, I am deeply troubled when I hear little black girls speak so negatively about their physical features in comparison to others. I may not be a mother yet, but I am certain that it would break my heart to hear my little girl speak negatively about her looks simply because she is black. The worst for me is little girls who say that they are “too dark.” I get it, the media floods our minds with specific standards of beauty, but my question is how does a black mother raise her daughters in manner which allows them to love themselves and their heritage in world which in which discrimination is a norm?
I look back at how I grew up and I have to admit that during the ten years that I spent with my mother before she tragically passed, she tried her best to help my sisters and I to love ourselves. She was an activist for African gender equality, so I get why she wanted us to love and value ourselves as African women, but I can’t help but remember how influenced I was by my school friends and television programs despite my mother’s many efforts. No matter how hard she tried to instil confidence and African pride inside me, I had a hard time embracing my roots and three of my physical features: my course hair, my flat nose and most importantly my dark skin.
As a child, growing up in suburban South Africa in a multi-cultural semi-private primary school, I was exposed to different races, cultures and of course, physical features. Not only was I often the “darkest girl of the class”, but I was also the darkest of my two sisters. Now I know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but back them things were different for me I wasn’t sure why.
I was bullied because of my skin, called names such as “black by nature,” and I watched as the light-skinned black girls appeared to be popular and “liked.” I was only a kid and I didn’t understand why my dark skin was seen as something so negative. I don’t remember ever speaking about it to my mother because she had light skin and I probably felt like she wouldn’t understand the struggle and pain, but I do remember that I desperately needed something to help me feel more accepted and appreciated by my peers despite my skin tone. I turned to sport and academic excellent, but despite the popularity I gained through those, I still felt empty because of how many peers bullied me about my dry dark skin. It scared me for many years and it is only now that I am beginning to appreciate and love myself. The fact still remains that from a young age my peers felt that dark skin was negative, and therefore they bullied me for it and in return I grew up with deep insecurities about the way I looked despite all my mother’s positive words and life lessons.
Nowadays, things may have slightly changed in comparison to the early 21st century, yet after conducting informal interviews with black nursery and primary school girls in late 2015, I found that the problem of colourism amongst little black girls is still a real and deep issue. The level of self-hate seems to have increased with the evolution of technology and the media and it saddens me deeply. Despite the many efforts of many people to create black cartoon princesses, black dolls with dark skin and more, the impression that “light is better” stills reigns in the lives of little black girls. The reasons are countless, but what do black mothers have to do to help their offspring? What could my mother have done to prevent me from wanting to marry a Caucasian man in the hopes to have light-skinned babies? What can future mothers do differently to raise a generation of black girls who love themselves?
Colourism, which is a form of discrimination based on skin tone, is a real issue amongst adults, but what hurts the most is that is a real issue for children as young as four years old. As mentioned before, the reasons are countless, but the same question remains: what can a black African mother do to empower and encourage her black African daughter?
By Stella Mpisi
The author, a Congolese-born (Democratic Republic of Congo) South African woman, is a writer, poet, blogger, songwriter, motivational speaker and colourism activist.
Follow her at @AuthorMpisi