Whether it is after a couple of months, weeks or days away from Addis I am always intrigued by the first compliments that greet me. The very first and most common one is always how my skin color got fairer which confirms the delusion that I must have rested well or had a good time. The other of course is the usual weight gain that symbolizes the same misconstruction.
The latter never worried me much in terms of effects on the society but the former always rang an alarm in my head. I have heard friends and strangers commenting on women and men applying chemical products to bleach skin and how discomforting it is as black people not to fully accept their blackness.
I understand that delving into this topic means going down various roads just to comprehend the general sentiment of the people when it comes to skin color. Given the fact that the celebration of the battle of Adwa has just passed it seemed like the right topic for this week.
What does blackness mean for Ethiopians?
It is commonly said and has become and distressingly common that Ethiopians do not consider themselves to be Africans. I wonder if the location of the country on the continent suffices to convince some people of the fact that it is indeed in Africa.
That being said the sentiment of feeling African and accepting one’s skin colors though they go hand in hand are two different aspects of the same problematic coin.
Therefore, coming back to the initial situation, I believe there is a need to address and assess what the tone of any given skin color means to Ethiopians. Though certain common sayings tend to glorify fairer skin tones and as undeniable as it is for these types of social norms to encourage skin bleaching I must admit it is not a sufficient reason to explain the love-hate relationship with the continent.
When looking at certain Asian cultures fairer skin represented a higher class, nobility, and royalty as it directly reflected one’s occupation. By this logic maybe it is assumed that the darker the skin the more it pronounced hard labor.
However, this logic becomes a fallacy when applied to Ethiopia for the mere fact that the various shades are independent of the type of trade the communities or groups are involved in.
Though the impractical logic of respecting fairer skin not excluding Caucasians has had me witnessing differences in treatment of customers, friends, and lovers it has also had me understand the degrees of varying struggles that two individuals with different skin tones go through.
Looking closely at the international stage, it is clear that the movie and fashion industry have only just recently started acknowledging and adding more people of darker skin tones.
Just recently, I had a dialogue with a friend of mine who expressed distress due to skin color and the varying levels of semi-racist comments he receives. It started off as a regular dialogue amongst friends where we shared experiences of growing up here in Addis through its evolution.
Commonly referred to as the Millennials or Generation Y kids, it’s been an interesting ride developing alongside a dynamic capital city. Along the boom and flag worthy developmental achievements the country has undergone tremendous change at the societal level.
We have witnessed the changes in clothing, hairstyles and entertainment options as well as noticeable shifts in mentality. While both agreed that change comes slowly and both acknowledged that change has come and is yet to come during this generation, it is also agreed that this specific notion of beauty, status, and worthiness of one’s appreciation and admirations has not changed at all.
I must admit that it is difficult to alter a mindset that is already anchored in tradition with sayings such as “Yetikur Konjo” (black beauty) which blindly implies that black cannot be beautiful and that it is a rare thing to admire.
Imagine what kids will think growing up if these are the types of comments they hear on a regular basis?
How about ourselves? What is our criteria for beauty and is skin tone ever a factor?
I have yet to have more conversations with my friend around this topic and I am sure you have your own set of comments and questions that I will await.
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