On the Basis of Color

In her book, Abyssinian Nomad, Maskaram Haile writes about her 9-month journey from Cape to Cairo. As I was reading the book, I shared some of her stories with my parents. I jokingly suggested I would embark on the same journey. My mom immediately responded, “They will kill you thinking you are Middle Eastern.”

It was not the first time someone compared me to a middle eastern or a foreigner in general. I have a very light skin tone which has led some people to believe I am an outlander. I am Ethiopian, and to the best of my knowledge, I don’t have a foreign ancestor. Yet, my African curly hair is not enough proof to convince some people of that fact. Children have stopped me on streets, service providers have attempted to talk to me in English and occasionally, I have been nudged and verbally harassed.

The most memorable moment for me, however, came a few months ago. I tutor a 9-year-old girl and her 13-year-old brother. One day the girl said to me, “You are very pretty because you are white. I wish I was like you.” She even went further and compared me with another lady with a light skin tone. Based on her 9-year-old logic, I was “prettier” because I was “whiter.” It shocked me to my core to be faced with the fact that this beautiful and smart dark-skinned, young lady deemed herself inferior on the basis of color. Luckily, the 2019 winner of the Miss Universe beauty pageant was a black woman. So I was able to show my student one can be black and beautiful. It was also a chance for me to make her aware of how beauty pageants nowadays shed some light on the knowledge of contenders on global issues, diverting the contests from being entirely about external appearance.

Where does colorism come from?
It is believed colorism—discrimination based on skin color and not race—is the collateral damage of European colonialism and slavery. White was the suppressor and black was the suppressed. And long after that time has passed, we still associate light skin color with power and knowledge. In the western world, darker skin color is connected with crime, being uneducated and being scary. People are more fearful of black men than they are of fair skinned ones. And within the black community, dark-skinned people may dismiss light-skinned people thinking the latter “are not entirely black.” Colorism exists here in Africa, too. Light-skinned individuals are generally more likely to be trusted and given responsibility.

Is there a logical base to colorism?
The truth is there is no scientific justification that skin tone has a causal relationship with a person’s intelligence. Skin color is controlled by many genes in our DNA and by the amount of Melanin (a group of pigments that control UV radiation penetration) in the skin. Some researchers have attempted showing a connection between light skin color and intelligence, concluding intelligence is controlled by the Caucasian traits individuals possess. They made the common mistake in data analysis which is to confuse correlation with causation. The actual causation lies in the simple fact that light-skinned individuals are less likely to be discriminated against and more likely to have access to quality education.

But Ethiopia was not colonized. Why are we affected by colorism?
We pride ourselves with this part of our history. We celebrate it and show it off to the world telling every foreigner we meet, “We are the only African country that was never colonized!” While we are busy feeding our egos and living in our ancestors’ reality, the younger generation is being brainwashed to believe the rule of thumb is, “Go white or go home.” No, we were not colonized. Yes, we have a diverse and rich history. But instead of re-living the same story come Adwa memorial day, how about we write a new one?

What are the effects of colorism?
Multiple studies have been conducted showing the effects of skin color on employment. There is also the risk of being questioned and harassed by police. Some people go as far as bleaching their skins to be lighter, which usually has a negative consequence on their health. More close to home, colorism affects emotional health of individuals. Women, being shaped by society to give high consideration for physical appearance, tend to have lower self-esteem and self-worth simply because they have dark skin.

How can we mitigate this?
Like every other global issue, colorism calls for an effective leadership strategy—a strategy that starts with the self and builds up. Most of us are confused about who we are. We are angry at the world for the times we were hurt based on our color. We are divided among ourselves based on the tones of our skins when our ancestral roots are the same. We have to start by first loving who we are—internally and externally. We should be proud of our African scientists, painters, writers, the list goes on, that come in all shades of color. We have to focus on the media and the stories our siblings and kids are exposed to. If all they see is white scientists and white media personnel, they are going to believe white is the default. But while social media activism and niche discussions are important in creating a conducive environment for change, we need unity. We need a “clear and shared vision.” We need agile leadership.

“United we stand, divided we fall”