Shades of black

The words ndoni yamanzi seem to transform a speaker with the most basic grasp of isiZulu into a poet. When these words first entered my vocabulary, I was enchanted. It didn’t matter how many times I read them in a book or used them in a narrative essay, they always moved me.

Ndoni yamanzi is used to refer to a beautiful African woman with a darker complexion. It can loosely be translated to “dark beauty“.

Ndoni yamanzi is an acknowledgement of beauty. As a dark-skinned black woman, knowing that there is nothing wrong with me is important for my self-confidence. I’ve never felt envious of my fellow sisters with lighter skin nor have I been bullied for being dark.  However, many black women have to endure criticism and humiliation, sometimes within their families because of their skin tone.

Colourism is the prejudice and discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone and it typically occurs among people of the same racial or ethnic group. Before I expanded my knowledge on colourism, I first had to acknowledge that colourism is a thing. I thought it was a made up word when I encountered it in a magazine article. My cynical attitude however evolved into fascination as I grew to understand the impact of colourism on a woman’s self-image.

The prejudice that dark-skinned women have been subjected to has not only resulted in self-condemnation but has also created a wall between them and their light-skinned counterparts. This is a tragedy because black women as a whole not only continue to fight for their representation in the public sphere, but are also divided because of the notion that light-skinned women are more favourable and privileged. One only has to watch television for 5 minutes to understand the plausibility of this notion.

I recently watched an episode of Oprah’s Lifeclass where the spotlight was on colourism. I watched a young dark-skinned black woman admit to the audience that she believed she was ugly. No amount of encouragement, compliments or wisdom could break the shackles that had formed around her. Light-skinned women also highlighted that the grass was not greener on the other side. Many of them had also been the victims of verbal abuse and prejudice especially those of mixed racial ancestry. For them, their “blackness” is always in question, even within their families.

Not black enough

Teen Vogue magazine, recently drew criticism for an article on Senegalese twists. Senegalese twists are a protective hairstyle where the hair extensions are twisted instead of braided. Readers where unimpressed when a light-skinned model was used to show the twists. The debate that arose from this article highlighted two issues. The first issue is that media tends to favour light-skinned black women. This is known as “whitewashing” and dark-skinned black women often feel alienated and misrepresented in the forms of media that they subscribe to. The second issue is that light-skinned black women don’t feel “black enough” even when they have African ancestry.

Upon recognising the hurt stemming from both dark and light-skinned women, Oprah’s Lifeclass co-host, Iyanla Vanzant, stated that it was important not to delegitimise each women’s experience no matter where they fall on the colour spectrum but to be a witness to each other’s wounds.

If you were wondering, there is also a description for light-skinned African women that admires and celebrates their beauty by comparing them to the hue of beach sand (“muhle njengezihlabathi zolwandle”). One could easily assess this comparison and conclude that it places the light-skinned black woman on a pedestal. However, I choose to see both of these representations of dark and light-skinned women as the intrinsic relationship between beauty and nature. Both are ubuhle bemvelo or “natural beauty”.

Beauty shouldn’t lie in the tone of one’s skin, however, shallow perceptions of beauty dictate how women should see themselves. Most of us know this but the message is yet to come full circle.

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