Black beauty in a world that cherishes light skin

Beauty is not just about skin colour, but society makes it seem so

In Summary

• Colourism is prejudice based on skin tone, usually with a marked preference for lighter-skinned people

• The Star spoke to some of those subjected to these social standards at a time discrimination is in the spotlight

Hildah Wambui, 24, narrated her experiences with colourism to the Star
BLACK QUEEN Hildah Wambui, 24, narrated her experiences with colourism to the Star

Hildah, 24, was out with her friends one night when one of them, who has a light complexion, started criticising a girl walking by because she was dark.

"When she realised I was there, she said I was different because I was beautiful even though I was dark," she said. 

On a separate occasion, another friend made a similar comment, stating one of her sisters thought Hildah was her favourite friend because she was "pretty despite being dark".


Next was a boda boda rider who was trying to make advances at her.


"I was in campus and it was around 7.30 pm," she said. "He came running towards me then stood in front of me and said, 'Ah, nlikuwa nimedhani ni mrembo, kumbe si mweupe (I thought she is beautiful but she is not light-skinned)'."

She has had to endure comments like this for as long as she can remember. 

"I started really noticing it when I was in high school, but it was there way before. When I was a kid, I remember people would always say how pretty my cousins were and I was the smart one," she said. 

Hildah's mother has a light complexion, and when she would come to school for meetings, people would always compare them.

 "They would always tell me how I'd be much prettier if I was light in complexion. This one girl once told me if I was as light as my mum, I would have been beautiful," she said. 

Hildah says she has had to listen to girls describing beautiful girls as being light as a major factor. 


"At some point, I felt ugly and I would start considering bleaching my skin because hearing comments like those all your life eventually gets to you," she said.

"But my mum, she tells me I am beautiful despite what anyone's standard of beauty is."



For Cate, each time she would accompany her mother anywhere, people seemed to be shocked that they were related.

Cate, now in her early twenties, had to grow up hearing comments about how she did not look anything like her mother.

"Basically my mum is light skin and my dad was dark. My two siblings took after my mum and are light and I look like my dad, who passed away when we were young," she said.

"So growing up, I would walk with my mum and people would be like, 'Hata hakai mtoto wako' (She doesn't even look like your daughter)."

The comments began to bother her and the more she heard them, the more isolated she felt because she did not look like the rest of her family.

When she was old enough for high school, things became worse.

"I would hear people say how beautiful and hot light skin girls were and because I had a dark complexion, I believed I wasn't," she said.

Cate convinced herself that it was okay for her to not be considered beautiful or hot.

"With time I would hear boys say they love 'rangi ya thao' (light-skinned complexion) and a lot of people would tell me I was cute but never beautiful. So I told myself it was okay to be a five on a scale of 10," she said.

Her mother would also constantly remind her that she was beautiful because she noticed her daughter had been affected by people's comparisons.

"When she would tell me I am beautiful, I felt it was out of pity so I never believed her," she said. 


Jeff* (not his real name) describes his childhood as rough because of how much he got picked on. 

"I remember growing up in Parklands and my 'friends' in the hood would pick on me because I was black and they even gave me a really awful name," he said.

The 35-year-old was also picked on because he was taller than his neighbourhood friends. 

As a defence mechanism, Jeff started spending most of his time indoors or he would go visit his friends from school or sometimes have a solo exploration of his neighbourhood.

His life at school and his life at home were complete opposites of each other. "In school, I was the cool kid and I would get into a lot of trouble," he said.

"I was always bullying other people. I got into fights and was very braggadocious. I was always in trouble with my teachers and it reflected in my grades."

This behaviour went on until he was in year six and got a new deskmate and friend.

"We became close, we still are to date, and he helped me understand that being odd is not necessarily a bad thing. He helped me gain confidence in most things that I did and shortly after that, we became so cool all the girls wanted us," he said, laughing.

It was during that time that he first heard a girl describe him as tall, dark and handsome.

"Those words completely changed my life and after year six of primary school, I quickly started to gain confidence in my body size, height and skin colour," he said.

"Today, I am very much okay in my skin and thinking about it, I actually would never have liked to be any other colour." 

Colourism is not just an American phenomenon; skin bleaching cream is sold in majority black or people of colour countries throughout the world
Colourism is not just an American phenomenon; skin bleaching cream is sold in majority black or people of colour countries throughout the world


Colourism is the prejudice based on skin tone, usually with a marked preference for lighter-skinned people. 

While Jeff's confidence was boosted by his friend, Hildah worked to find hers within herself.

"I ignore it most of the time 'cause it mostly comes from ignorant people, but sometimes I call it out as soon as I see it," she said.

"The other day, some friend of mine told me, 'Unaringa sana na ungekua light-skin?' (You are boasting a lot, what if you were light-skinned?) Normally I'd let that go, but I called him out on and handed him his ass."

Hildah added it's so ugly when you have to hear such comments and especially from family.

"Sometimes they are too ignorant to realise their standard of beauty is simply a construct they've had fixed on their brains mainly from mainstream media," she said. 

"People out here are going to try to rank you and tell you what to think of yourself, but it's only your opinion that should matter. Beauty is more than a skin colour."

For Cate, she started admiring people who she thought looked like her and told herself as much as she could that she was beautiful. 

"When I was buying movies, I would look at the ones where the characters had darker complexions, such as Genevive Nnaji and Jackie Appier," she said.

"I would wait to watch the news just to see Lilian Muli and I would look at them and say if people think they are beautiful, then so am I." 

Still, she found it hard to believe she was as beautiful as her siblings, even though she had started to feel beautiful in her own way.

 "It took me dating a man who had lived abroad to know that I was beautiful. I know this may sound vain but this man would look at me and he couldn't believe that I would even give him the time of day," she said.

"He would always brag to his friends about me and made me feel beautiful, and since then, I never doubted myself."

Cate encourages parents to tell their children how beautiful and handsome they are from a young age. 

"And comments like 'You do not look like a member of the family' should be addressed instead of being laughed at," she said.

"Black girls should also embrace their magic and not try to look like other people because this can cause low self-esteem due to disappointment.

"Also, for girls who say light-skinned men are weak should stop. It's not a good thing to say."

Edited by T Jalio

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