Throughout my childhood, I was force-fed a single story about beauty. In her now famous TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defines “The Danger of a Single Story” as such. Instead of seeing other cultures and people as possessing multiple diverse experiences, the single story we receive about these cultures reduces them into a simple stereotype.
I have failed to take note of the systems of oppression that occur on a daily basis because they have been normalized in my Nigerian culture as well as ingrained in that of America’s. For example, my family here and in Nigeria love toning cream, or “skin beautifying milk,” as they call it. The desire for white skin when one is dark-skinned is the direct result of living in a world that privileges whiteness as the standard for beauty. As a result, those of us who are people of color wind up placing each other in a hierarchy of beauty based on the tone of our skin, with dark-skinned people at the bottom and light-skinned people at the top, creating a system of called colorism.
As a result, colorism produces colonized mindsets that perpetuate Eurocentric ideas of beauty that targets women of color who fail to meet these standards. In addition, colorism directly contributes to internalized racism, creating a destructive space for prejudice against people with darker skin tones, and this system gets perpetuated between people of the same ethnic or racial background. For example, after being called a “blackie and nigger bitch” for the majority of my childhood in New York, I travelled to my home country, Nigeria, only to have those American nicknames replaced with Nigerian ones that meant the same thing, such as “eku dudu” or black rat.
In my high school feminism class, we studied Audre Lorde’s work, mostly in Sister Outsider. One essay in particular piqued my attention because I was able to understand racist oppression as part of a larger system. Lorde mentions in her essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” that the word “master” alludes to the social hierarchy in which wealthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual men are considered the master because they are the quintessential human. In an effort to maintain this power structure, the “master” has certain tools to preserve their power and domination. Lorde mentions that one way the master uses these tools is to erase the “creative function of difference” in the lives of women.
One of the main ways in which women are placed in this hierarchy of difference is in physical appearance. The patriarchy uses this to its advantage by categorizing women in terms of skin color, which results in a racist social hierarchy. This hierarchy is reinforced in the images we see all around us, including in the media both online, in film, and in our political and social arenas. For example, I have increasingly noticed that none of the TV shows I watch feature women of color who look like me.
In Adichie’s “Is Obama Anything But Black?,” she mentions that: “Race is not biology; race is sociology. Race is not genotype; race is phenotype. Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look. Not about the blood you have. It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair.” Because of this “master” narrative, the quintessential beautiful woman has Eurocentric features that includes light skin. Having light skin is associated with having mobility in the social hierarchy, leading to success and prestige. Ultimately, white skin determines whether one is considered a”lady.”
I started my research for this piece by looking at the childhood images that I have seen throughout my life as a young black girl. I now view these images from a feminist perspective. I now see the princess as the damsel in distress who needs the saving of a masculine hero. I also see the absence of dark-skinned girls in these narratives. In addition, I now see that light-skinned women are hyper-sexualized, while darker- skinned women are also hyper-sexualized while also embodying racist archetypes such as the mammy, mistress, best friend sidekick, or Black woman only useful to provide service to those above them.
Our society has created a culture of punishing “bad girls,” or girls who stray from the mold of correct femininity that dark-skinned girls fail to fit into every time simply because of their “blackness.”Darker-skinned women are therefore seen as dangerous and animalistic because their skin does not grant them the characteristics of a so-called “lady.” Ultimately, hyper-sexualization is a form of violence against all girls, and for girls of color, as this violence comes in the form of racist sexism and sexist racism.
As a Nigerian teenager, I have been pressured to use skin lightening creams, but fortunately, the products that some of my family members use always feature a picture of a hyper-sexualized light-skinned woman that has always discouraged me from using these products.
In Nigeria, light-skinned women are referred to as “oyinbo“and are perceived as better than the rest. In 2015, the New York Times reviewed a 2008 study in which they found that approximately 75% of Nigerian women purchase and use skin bleaching creams. In the same study, it was also found that many Nigerian women maintain the belief that “women with light skin are the most beautiful,” pushing many women to de-pigment their skin despite the multiple health effects. This issue has also become prominent in Asian and Middle Eastern countries as skin bleaching creams comprise a large portion of their markets as well.
As humans, we adopt ideologies of oppression from the moment we are bred.We accept the distorted experiences, images, and portrayals that are presented to us as “normal.” This is what made me believe that it was okay for me to not see women that look like me portrayed positively in the media. I misinterpreted my feelings of inferiority as normal. Throughout my time in my high school feminism class, I began to examine the ways in which my mindset has been corrupted by a culture influenced by a hustle for colonization and domination.
Doing the work of intersectional feminism requires us as a society to free our mindsets and to make the next generation of children realize that sexist colorism and racism and all other systems of oppression should not be perceived as the accepted norm.