NOT JUST SKIN DEEP
With her Netflix documentary, Skin, actress and producer, Beverly Naya, explores the complex relationship between Black people – in this case, specifically Nigerian women – and colorism: From societal discrimination to skin bleaching and with that, the mental hurdles that many women must go through in making peace with their identity, in its entirety. In this conversation with Sonia Irabor, Naya breaks down the journey to Skin; the reception from the public; the discourse it has sparked, and much more.
Before we dive into the documentary itself, I want to start from some version of the beginning in terms of your own relationship with your identity, skin and with the idea and concept of beauty. When did you come to realise that the colour of your skin mattered more to society than you may have initially understood it to be?
My journey with colourism was never really about my personal experiences with it. As a child, like I mentioned before, I got bullied for various reasons. For example, having crooked teeth, bad eczema amongst other issues. And although I had fixed those issues when I got older, it really affected my self-esteem and how I saw myself and my beauty. I didn’t realise that it had affected me until I got to my early 20’s and had to go out into the real world and interact with people that weren’t just friends. I had to form new relationships for work, for business, [and so on], and that’s when I began to realise that I was really affected by what I went through as a young teen and my self-esteem was damaged. When I moved to Nigeria, I realised that I just didn’t have any sense of identity or any clear vision of who I was as a person and where I was going, I just felt really insecure in myself. So, even if people would compliment me or praise me for my looks or achievements, I just didn’t believe whatever they would say to me because I hadn’t dealt with my mind and I hadn’t dealt with the trauma of what I experienced as a child. SoI realised that I needed to work on my mind and myself. I needed to find myself in order to live a more authentic and happy life, that’s when the journey of researching colourism began.
Can you talk a bit more about that research and how it led you here?
When I initially started the journey of self discovery and wanting to be a better version of myself for me, I felt like I needed to do an anti-bullying campaign so the plan was to go to various secondary schools, universities around the country to educate young children and teach them about the importance of self-love and why it’s wrong to bully other children. That was the initial plan, but then one day, I was online and I stumbled upon a quote by a slave master in the 1700s, his name was Willy Lynch. He wrote a letter to other slave masters giving them advice on how to manage their slaves and he said; “divide the black slaves by complexion and rule them for 300-plus years”. It was a long letter but that quote stood out to me. It just really struck a nerve and I thought to myself, what the hell? I realised that that mentality is still plaguing the black mind today, which is why colourism still exists. The more research I did on colourism, the more facts I acquired and the more statistics I had caused me to realise that colourism is a major issue in Nigeria and it’s something we’re not talking about enough, sadly. And as a result of this, a lot of women are deeply affected by it and considering the fact that I’m naturally passionate about anti-bullying, it was very easy, early on, to understand that colourism is a form of bullying; you’re targeting people because of their physical appearance and they’re not in control of that. I just became very passionate about the cause. Initially the plan was to do an anti-bullying campaign but then, I figured that I wanted to educate people on colourism and the ills of colourism and combat it in our society. That’s when 50 Shades of Black was born. So I decided to kill two birds with one stone with the campaign and then that eventually led to the documentary.
Going back to your own healing, do you feel like your move to Nigeria sort of emphasised your need for it or did it influence in any way, the healing process that you went through?
It emphasised it. It’s so weird because when my friends from London watch this documentary, they always say to me, “I’m so shocked, I didn’t know that this is what you were going through” and interestingly enough, I didn’t know either until I moved to Nigeria. It was a really difficult transition for me in the beginning because I’m from London, that’s all I knew at the time and then [I had to make] the move to Nigeria where it’s a completely different culture and way of doing things. I often felt like, because I am “foreign”, people would deliberately choose to misunderstand me and therefore, I needed to make a conscious effort to [prevent this]. So I formed an alter ego, I became a people-pleaser; I just wanted to be liked. I wanted people to not judge me without knowing me and I also wanted to adapt in the best way possible but what I didn’t realise was that it was really feeding into my insecurities and I just became a shadow of myself. I no longer recognised myself for who I was and I just felt like I had reached a point in my life where I had desperately tried to please people so much and failed because people still had reasons for not liking me and they would gossip and say mean things behind my back, in the blogs, etc. And it really took a toll on me to the point where, when I went back to London on holiday, I didn’t realise that everything I was going through in Nigeria had affected me and I slipped into a depression. That was my first and, thank God, my last experience with depression.
Delving into the documentary, there was a moment that stood out to me because it similarly portrayed a woman wrestling with an internal battle. It was the moment with the woman who was mixing the shea butter in the market. You asked her a few questions, one of which was about whether she would bleach her skin again, if given the chance to go back. She had this quiet, personal moment before she started to cry. I don’t know how much of a conversation you had with her after that moment but I’m curious as to what was said?
Yeah, we had a conversation and we had a compelling moment afterwards, but we just felt like it was stronger to not put it in the documentary. One thing about Skin I really like is that it comes across as art in the sense that it’s thought-provoking; it allows people to have deep and honest conversations about what they’re seeing and what they’re experiencing. And that moment is my favourite part of the documentary and that’s what that moment allows. It allows you to watch it, think, and have a full blown conversation about what you’re witnessing and what that moment could possibly mean, that’s what we really loved about it and that’s the reason why her answer is not in the documentary. But yes we do have what she said, however I have chosen to hold on to it for now. I’ve been asked tons and tons of times and I’ve deliberately not answered because I just think it’s more powerful if you let people form their own opinions and conclusions. That’s like helping the conversation and pushing it forward which is what we want people to do.
The filmmaker Mudi Yahaya provided some very interesting insight into the innate and historical racial bias built into film and photography via Kodak’s Shirley card, but the historical aspects of this conversation seemed to be largely shadowed by the voices of the present… as it were. Was that a deliberate choice?
So there were a few scenes that we removed from the documentary, the extended version. No, it wasn’t intentional, there were just scenes that we decided to remove for a couple of reasons. One, the length and two, it was just important to kind of deal with the issues we have right now. In the first version of the documentary, the William Lynch letter is actually at the very start but we changed it because, like I said, we want people to really think deeply and understand things in a way that causes them to want to research and learn even more. My main motivation for the documentary was to inspire people. It’s always been to inspire. The main reason why I started the campaign was because I wanted to inspire people and that was as far back as 2014. So that has always been the main motivation and I wanted to focus on that. In as much as the documentary gives people knowledge on what colourism is and educates them, I think the core of it all is to teach people about self-love and empower people in such a way that they realise how their choices can negatively or positively impact their future. And I think out of the thousands of messages, comments and reviews I’ve seen, that has been the most common response to the documentary and I think that’s mission accomplished. I also have received messages from several women who have said that, because of the documentary, they have chosen not to bleach their skin anymore. They’re transitioning and they’re going back to their natural complexion and I feel like that’s really what it is about for me, pushing that message.
Did you, during any of your interviews, feel strongly opposed to what was being said and did that in any way influence your line of questioning or did you feel it was important to allow the subjects to speak without any sort of interruption?
I didn’t agree with some of the things that a couple of people said but I allowed everyone to express and own their truth. That was very important to me and it was aIso the only way I was going to get vulnerability. I can’t allow my opinions or emotions to influence how the interview goes. That wouldn’t be a wise move. For me, it was just having my questions and allowing each question to be answered as authentically as possible. That was basically it and then based on what’s said, that would motivate the next question that’s asked. It was important for me to just let our interviewees express themselves and their truth.
And with the young girl in the school, talking about wanting to be lighter and being so specific about the colour that she wanted to be. I think having this conversation with kids is always very enlightening but also upsetting. I wonder how much you held back from sharing your own thoughts with her.
When the little girl said she wasn’t “black black”, I really felt the urge to make her see differently in that moment, which I did once we stopped recording. One thing I did [on screen] was that I purposely asked her why she felt that way because I already knew that she would never be able to answer that question. It was important to show that because I need parents to understand how fragile a child’s mind is and how children just unintentionally absorb all kinds of information without realising that it influences how they see beauty as they get older. In that moment, that little girl was unable to express why she doesn’t like black skin and in the next scene, you have Hilda Dokubo saying that in her culture, white masquerades represent purity while black masquerades represent evil. Let’s say this little girl’s mum is Hilda Dokubo and every [holiday], they travel to their village to celebrate an occasion and right before her very eyes, she’s witnessing how the white masquerade is being celebrated and adored and how people are scared of the black masquerade and running away from it. Now, she looks at the black masquerade and looks at her complexion and sees that she’s closer to that colour and automatically, without realising, she’s saying to herself, “If people are running away from that and calling it evil and my skin is closest to it, then my complexion represents evil.” She opens a magazine and she sees a light-skinned person portrayed as beautiful and a skincare company advertising bleaching products for dark skin. She’s watching her favourite cartoon on TV and the colour of the villain is black, while the innocent person is white. This information registers and it reinforces what she experienced when she went to the village. This is why she would never be able to answer because it’s information that she’s received unconsciously and she hasn’t developed the ability to filter that information yet because she’s still a child. So from her perspective it’s like “okay, [my dark skin] must represent something that’s evil and I don’t want to [be seen as] that, so I’m just going to say that I’m not that black so you don’t think that I’m evil.”
Many of the women in the documentary spoke about patriarchal influence on their decisions. So talking about the man I’m seeing likes me this way or if I get married and the man wants me to continue to bleach, I will… I thought that was a very interesting and unintentional thing as well. It got me thinking about how we’re having the conversation offline. Did you notice more about the way the conversation was had before you started the documentary versus after?
Yeah I did. The responses I got were unexpected. The two things that stood out to me the most were, the fact that most of them said they would like to go back to their original complexion. And then, the second was the reasons for bleaching. That was shocking as well. Although I kind of did have an idea, I just didn’t think it was to that extent, the health risks alone attached to bleaching should be enough to discourage you but no, it was more about what the man wants and them bleaching because that’s what he wants. Also, the economics of the situation, where people attribute lighter skin to wealth.So those were the moments that shocked me the most.
And having your mum and grandma as part of the documentary, why was that, in particular, so important?
The director, Daniel, and I thought deeply about how we wanted to tell this story. I’ll be honest with you, initially I had no intentions of being in the documentary. One, because I did not think I was ready to be that vulnerable on camera as myself and two, it’s always been about focusing on this conversation and allowing it to be what it is without having me as a distraction but Daniel felt like it would be more personal and it would resonate better with people if I was able to share my journey and story as well. He felt like it would allow people to understand the documentary better and it would resonate more deeply with people. And although I did kick back. [Laughs]. I fought it as much as possible because I really wasn’t comfortable with the idea. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it would actually be a stronger documentary. He also came up with the suggestion of me going to visit my grandma and he made a valid point: heritage is important. Part of having a sense of identity is understanding your heritage and if you understand your heritage, where you came from, your background and who you are, then it would influence a lot of your decisions and how you see yourself which is important. Now, if you don’t have any sense of identity, how do you hope to make decisions that are good for you?
Watching the documentary, which I’m sure you did numerous times, were you ever able to view it simply as an audience member? And, if so, what was your takeaway from watching the documentary?
Like you’ve mentioned, I’ve watched the documentary too many times to count [Laughs]. But the first time I truly watched it as a viewer was when it came out on Netflix. That was the first time I truly appreciated the documentary, it was a very humbling feeling for me. And my take away from it as a viewer is that it’s so important for us to love ourselves and teach young people about self-love and self-empowerment allowing people to understand what colourism is and the effects it has on our society. Two parts really affected me. It was the little girl when she spoke about black skin and what Mudi Yahaya said. That’s always been one of my favourite moments in the documentary because he talks about the fact that everything is changing, pop culture is constantly changing, what people like, what’s desirable is constantly changing, so how long are we going to keep up with what’s going on in the world and what is deemed desirable before we just accept and love ourselves as we are? Because that’s really all we have. In the quest to adhere to these beauty standards that do not truly exist, we lose ourselves, and I found that profound and powerful to listen to him say again. I also cherish the moments with my grandma as well. One thing I didn’t like about myself in the documentary was the fact that I thought I was too emotional but then again, that’s who I am. I intended to be less emotional but yeah that was easier said than done [laughs]. The moment with my grandma kind of touched me and I understand why because it was like the icing on the cake for me. This entire journey and being in the presence of my grandma and listening to her talk about so many things, a lot of the things we couldn’t put in the documentary but hearing her talk about her history, her culture and everything else was beautiful, it was a conversation that I’ve never had with my grandma. And to be in the village for the first time experiencing that with my grandma just resonated in a way that I never expected. So when I watched it on screen, although I had already had the conversation with her, I appreciated it even more, it was just a really powerful moment for me.
May I ask why you made it a point not to be emotional on screen?
I was scared to be that vulnerable on camera and I had made the decision, before shooting the documentary, that I [wasn’t] going to be emotional on camera because I just didn’t want to come across as weak [laughs]. That was my biggest concern but what I realised was that it was inevitable. As soon as the questions were asked, I was forced to think back and I was forced to kind of deal with issues that I wouldn’t have wanted to deal with on camera. But it was worth it because by being vulnerable, I allowed other people to be honest with their own emotions and what they were going through so I’m happy that I made the right decision in the end, my vulnerability showed strength. It was a nerve wracking decision though, especially being in the public eye, because you don’t want people to trivialise your vulnerability or treat it without delicacy.
And finally, returning once again to your own healing; having pushed this conversation and campaign for years, and now, having made the documentary, have these moments and these accomplishments furthered your journey to healing?
I’m just in a very good space. Like I said, I trained my mind to see the good in every situation and to recognise my worth and to recognise my value as a person. So now I’m just truly confident in my skin and comfortable as well. And yeah, it’s a constant effort, you have to constantly be willing to discover yourself and be aware of who you are as a person and your value. You must have constant words of affirmation for yourself. But my mind literally absorbs information in a way that is healthy and I don’t need to do it consciously anymore. When I was younger, I had to do it consciously but now it’s completely subconscious, it’s just how I receive information. If I hear something negative about me, I have the choice to read or not read. What I used to do when I was younger was care too much about what people thought about me so if something was negative about me, I would want to read it and after reading it used to make me feel so sad and miserable to the extent that I would start trying to fix whatever that person said was wrong with me so that I could be liked which led to me feeling like I didn’t know who I was. But now, because I’m so sure of who I am as a person… there’s a difference between constructive criticism and straight up negative vibes, now my brain is able to filter all that information and understand what’s for me and what never was. So now, if I receive information, if it’s positive, my brain absorbs it, if it’s negative, my brain rejects it. It just happens on its own, I don’t really have to process anything in the way that I used to when I was younger. So my mind’s in a very good place now. I mean, of course it takes constant work, it takes constant effort. It’s just basically daily exercises and allowing yourself to truly be whole and working towards it. So yeah that’s basically where I am right now but obviously we’re a work in progress, we never stop learning, we never stop growing into the human we’re destined to be.