The issue of colourism in Kenya

Colourism in Kenya is a widely ignored topic yet it is one of the most complex and sensitive issues that dark-skinned women have to deal with. But what is colourism? According to the Oxford dictionary, it is the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. Although we are in a predominantly black region, East Africans are obsessed with the idea that lighter skin is better, as displayed in billboards, music videos and every mainstream media platform. This idea has been internalized to an extent we are unaware of our biases when dealing with different shades of black. It is why we hear statements like, ‘rangi ya thao’ referring to the light brown, yellow tinted Kenyan thousand shilling note. My interpretation of the phrase is that someone lighter is equated to a thousand shilling note because it is the highest value note in Kenyan currency. Therefore light skinned people are deemed higher and more attractive.

Colourism and Colonialism

The concept of colourism can be argued that it stems from colonialism —  it is a colonial legacy, as it was socially implemented from European settlers through concepts of racial profiling. Colonialists established a social system that categorized people and services offered to them based on their skin color. This was the case in Kenya during colonization: schools, were divided into those for Europeans, Indians and Arabs, whereas most of the African children received industrial or agricultural education. When it came to workload, Europeans occupied prestigious positions in government, offices and were masters or Lords in the farms or military. Indians were in the construction sector, whereas the Arabs were more involved in business and trade and on the other hand, native Kenyans carried out manual labor like farm work. In Kenya, Europeans were on top of the hierarchy, followed by Indians, Arabs, and Africans at the very bottom. The impact of colonialism shaped the people, their ideologies, and practices, resulting in the current inequalities, rivalries, politics, and fantasies.

In his book Black Skin, White Mask, Frantz Fanon writes “When colonial regimes realized that it is impossible for them to maintain domination over the colonial countries, they decided to impose its rule through its culture, values, and techniques”. The colonial regime opted to use commodities and their abilities to influence subjectivity, identity, consciousness and a form of knowledge, as a result, products became the new way through which the colonizers would gain capital control. Frantz stated that, to assimilate and to experience the oppressor’s culture, the colonized had to leave certain practices and adopt the thoughts and ways of the colonizer.

Most precolonial magazines like Drum were edited in London and distributed to the colonies. These magazines pushed western ideas into colonized readers as the colonial editors presented beliefs about African people from their perspective. The lack of local magazine publishers or popular media industry led to dependence on British products and media. The imperial, colonial and post-colonial legacies played a key role on how skin complexion variations were presented in cosmetic advertisements. As a result, western influence including standards of beauty was transported into colonial and postcolonial Kenya.

Colourism still exists in Kenya

Journalist Yvonne Okwara openly spoke about colourism, more so at the workplace. She revealed how she was once dismissed as being too dark for television. Wrote on an Instagram post, “I have seen the privilege that light skin has accorded others. I have seen them get away with murder, when I have been held to a higher standard. I have been expected to be smarter.”

Back in 2019, during her interview at BBC Newsnight, Lupita Nyong’o shared her experience with colourism in Kenya. She talked about how she felt judged growing up because of her dark skin and the general expectation of having to ascribe to eurocentric standards of beauty. “I definitely grew up feeling uncomfortable with my skin color because I felt like the world around me awarded lighter skin…” She said.

Last year the online comedian, Elsa Majimbo on Naomi Campbell’s podcast also spoke of her experience with colourism in the country. “Here it’s a place where there is a lot of colourism. Lighter skin people are given more opportunities and are made to feel like they can succeed more. It happens all the time and I was made to feel just because I was darker, I was maybe less pretty, I had fewer chances of succeeding.”

Skin Lightening Industry

The idea that light skin is better than dark skin is one that exists in our spaces today and is fueling the skin bleaching industry. The assumption of one’s skin colour has placed lighter shades as ‘prettier’ compared to darker shades. Eurocentric beauty standards characterise lighter or whiter shades as more beautiful and prosperous, this has created a generation of Kenyans who are struggling to reach impossible and unwanted beauty standards.

A walk along Nairobi’s River Road and Eastleigh reveal several cosmetic stores openly selling skin lightening products. “Mafuta ya kutoa pimples na blemishes, karibu,” The sales women call out in the street alleys, loosely referring to the skin lightening creams as oil that will clear skin of blemishes. As a young girl I watched commercials of skin lightening products like that of Fair & Lovely and Clere cream, usually popped up during prime time — the media is complicit in pushing this narrative that being white or light-skinned is what beauty is. And we as a society have boldly and subtly contributed to perpetuating this narrative. Yes, we are all beautiful but light- skinned and dark- skinned women do not stand on a levelled pedestal.

To ‘heal from colourism’, and our society to continue to progress, uncomfortable truths need to be explored on this issue and we have to start unpacking our prejudices and biases against dark skin tones and challenge these colonial-based beauty standards.

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