Navigating life as a woman in the world today is interesting. From Nigeria to Timbuktu, it’ll amaze you how similar all our experiences are. Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their experiences on everything from sex to politics right here. This is Zikoko’s What She Said.
Every Wednesday, women the world over will share their takes on everything from sex to politics right here.
For this week’s What She Said, Margaret*, a 24-year-old woman talks about being dark-skinned girl and how colorism has affected her professionally and in her relationships.
What’s your earliest memory of being treated differently because of your complexion?
Kindergarten. I had a classmate that used to call me ‘poopoo girl’ and told people not to be friends with me because I was black like poopoo. I had an uncle who used to pick me up from school back then, so I told him about it and he asked me to report to the teacher. At first, I didn’t want to because I was shy. But I summoned the courage to one day. The classmate said I was lying and my teacher laughed it off. That was the last time I brought it up. The girl didn’t stop calling me poopoo girl.
She thought she was smart. Poop isn’t even black. Haha.
There were other instances even as a child when I was treated differently by extended family just because of my skin colour. For context, my parents aren’t light skinned, but they’re not as dark as I am. They have a high caramel complexion. My siblings though are very light skinned, but me on the other hand, I’m dark, dark. Relatives would make careless comments about my complexion and how I didn’t resemble anyone in the family. One even told me that it would be difficult for me to get married.
My cousins ran with the fact that I didn’t resemble anyone and started to joke that I was adopted. I knew I wasn’t adopted, because I look exactly like my mother. But I started wondering if my father was actually my father. Maybe my mother played some funny game. I think there was a Super Story that year about something like this and that just influenced my thinking. I eventually managed to move past that.
I think the next real time anything happened was university.
Wait before then, I just remembered that stuff went down in secondary school. I went to a very snobbish secondary school. And I was often passed up on opportunities to represent the school. I didn’t know it was because of my complexion at first, but it eventually dawned on me.
The most obvious one was a staged school picture we took in a studio. It was going to be used in a newspaper and on the front cover of the school year book. My class teacher picked me and someone else from my class to go for the shoot beforehand. So I was dressed really neatly that day. When we got to the venue, out of all the people they picked, they told me and one other girl to step aside. No one told us why. Months later, we eventually saw the year book and it clocked that everyone used for the shoot was light skinned. The other girl that was told to step aside was just as dark skinned as I was.
That must have hurt.
It did. E pain me oh, but I let it go eventually. It’s not everything you tight for chest, yeah?
I guess. So university…
I had a lecturer who said at the front of the entire class that he was offended by my complexion.
What the fuck?
And asked if I was abiku. Hahaha. I’m laughing now, but it wasn’t funny oh.
I was so hot in the neck that I had to excuse myself. I didn’t have any real insecurity or esteem issues as a teenager, but after this thing with my lecturer, my self-esteem sank. I hardly ever went back to his class, which made me carry over the course. I didn’t care. It was at this point that I actually became conscious about my complexion and how it could affect me. And well I discovered that colorism was a thing. I had to start accessing every relationship I had been in or opportunities I had been rejected for to see if there were any subtle signs of bias. Of course I came up with nothing at the time, but that wasn’t the end of it.
After the class, someone came to sell me creams. I declined, mostly because my mother has always been anti-bleaching. We had this neighbour that used to bleach. Perhaps because she was no longer bleaching — not sure how it works — her skin had become quite discoloured. So my mother would insult her and castigate her. I think about it now and then and wonder, what if she had no choice? What if she weighed all the opportunities she had lost due to being dark skinned and decided to bleach her skin. Because, omo, me self, I won’t mind bleaching right now. I’m this close to…
The thing about my experience (or maybe with colorism generally) is that you might not really know that it’s happening. It’s very subtle. Like I’ve had boys tell me I’m pretty for a dark-skinned girl and accepted it as a compliment. But what does that even mean? So I guess it’s the accumulation of my experiences.
What’s stopping you from bleaching?
If I’m being totally real with you, it’s money. I’m currently too poor to afford the kind ‘skin-lightening’ creams that will give me what I want — and to afford it consistently. Then the second thing is living with my parents, I don’t want them to notice immediate changes and start accosting me. I want to do this when I’m more financially independent.
Do you think becoming lighter would affect the quality of your life?
I’m pretty sure it would improve it. Positive. I’ve had conversations with lighter women who can’t relate to anything I’ve just said. They even think I’m reaching.
Has this affected you professionally?
Not really, but I’ve seen the full-effect of light-skinned privilege with some of my colleagues who are lighter. Like, being given preferential treatment just because.
I did have an experience recently where I interviewed for a job. It was a video interview and I think I did well. I had to do a test after this. I passed that one too. At the final stage, I had to go into their office for a chat with someone on the team. That’s when everything scattered. I think I did a good job and didn’t mess up this part. However, I didn’t hear from them for almost a month, despite my check-in emails. When they eventually got back to me a few weeks ago, they said that they’ve decided to go in another direction. I don’t know if I’m projecting, but the question of whether seeing my complexion physically played any role in this haunts me. They might have their valid reasons, perhaps a stronger candidate, but I still wonder.
I’m sorry to hear that. Not knowing probably sucks more.
It does. I just wonder how many black women experience colorism and do not know.
What about your relationships?
Thankfully, I’m dating someone that has sense. But in the past, I’ve dated people who’ve joked about my complexion and made me feel small, sometimes subtly. And when I tell them, they say that I’m too serious. I dated someone who’d only watch white porn and porn where the women were lighter. When I asked him about this and suggested some of my favourite pornstars, he said that if black women (I know he meant dark-skinned women) aren’t good at sex, how much porn? That rubbed me off the wrong way and I broke up with him once I saw an out.
Any final things you’d like to add? Perhaps something you wish I’d asked?
I’m just eager to see people’s thoughts and comments on colorism and importantly, read other women’s experiences. There’s some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone…
*The subject submitted a pseudonym