BY SIKA OSEI
“Why are Ghanaians so dark?”
This was one of the first statements thrown at me when I first got my break in the industry. It was from a Producer who was barely two shades lighter than me. And, though she said it in a light-hearted manner to the amusement of others in the room, I couldn’t help but hear the shadiness and slight superiority in the statement. It was when she added “Na lie, not my portion” and snapped her fingers over her head that it dawned on me that my dark skin in this industry was a necessity but not necessarily the preference.
My first big break in my career
Was partly because I was dark. I didn’t know this at the time. I truly believed that my talent, charm and loveable bubbly personality, and solely that, had landed me the job. But that myth was quickly shattered once I truly begun to understand the fickleness of the industry I had chosen to be in. Yes, I had been given a great platform to showcase my ability and gift but it was part of a bigger marketing scheme to showcase inclusivity on TV and I had to accept that business was business. And to be a part of the media industry is to understand that what is trending or popular at any particular time was what was promoted by the media.
As a diplomat’s kid
I had the privilege of travelling, living and experiencing other cultures and broadening my worldview. And it was clear from an early age that being the only African or the darkest person in the room, most of the time, was always going to make me stand out. I embraced it. I understood the occasional stares and the sometimes annoying and funny line of cultural interrogation. But it was often from a good and positive place and never an attempt to make me feel inferior. I also understood that it was not Africa. So, imagine my shock returning to the continent I called home only to be made to feel un-preferred because I was dark.
On several occasions
I had heard, “Lighten up, it will help your career” – and why not? This is no doubt a well-proven formula. If the news that you’re ‘toning’ or ‘bleaching’ doesn’t double your followers on social media (popularity in any shape or form being the ingredient to getting opportunities these days), then the countless “face beats on fleek” pictures by artists who want to work on you would.
I can’t begin to share all the occasions earlier on in my career I pleaded for make-up artists not to make me 2 shades lighter or the utter shock on their faces at such as unusual request. Some would say, even today, it’s just easier to do light skin girls, their foundation colour is readily available. One artist even laughed at the fact that she needed to use black as contour because I was just so dark.
The funniest was when on some sets they needed ‘extra light’ because of my colour especially when I was standing next to a lighter skinned person and in doing so I was giving them extra work. I guess, thanks to the hashtag #MelaninOnFleek and the advocacy and tenacity of many in the industry, both home and away the perception is changing. But to what extent?
On most occasions
Experiencing colourism is a reality check: teachable moments to motivate self and accept that, in life and in this industry, I will not always be the preferred choice. But this doesn’t taint my worth or talent in any way. Other times, I just shrug it off as ignorance and lack of exposure because being dark is neither a choice nor a burden for me. It never has and never will be. So when I say that I choose not to be affected by colourism, it is not to down play its obvious existence and negative impact on the industry, but to suggest that it’s a by-product of a bigger issue we need to solve and that is of a society with an alienating culture as a result of general lack of self worth and identity, and the lack of confidence in just being us, without the need to copy the west etc.
For me it’s one of the many stumbling blocks in my chosen profession, including not being sexy, fashionable or popular enough. Talent and hard work alone just does not suffice. We are just in a society where you are just not enough and if light-skinned people who we claim have an upper hand can be discriminated against in some circumstances for not being African-looking enough even if they are, then the issue goes way beyond colourism.
I applaud Lupita Nyong’o for what she stands for and how she has helped commercialise dark skin, but she can and will never be our saving grace because she can never embody the vast diversity of the entire dark skin race and why should she? And yes, much has been done to elevate dark skinned beauty in the commercial space and create awareness for the need for diversity in media but if many dark skinned girls will be honest, when we say #MelaninOnFleek, it’s also a way of convincing our own selves that we are enough and it’s about time we didn’t have to prove ourselves in our own industry.
I look forward to the day we stop constantly putting unfair unattainable standards on ourselves in an attempt to make ourselves feel enough and embrace diversity. If it’s not your skin, it is about the size of your bum or the hair on your head, not forgetting the clothes of your back. It’s the constant need to put people in a box to force them to conform and feel validated when really validation should come from the effort you put into your craft and in growing the industry. Let’s see what people truly bring to the table beyond what we look like and let’s allow people to nurture their talents that will move the industry forward.
Photography : @omidephotography
Makeup : @ibilolatiwo
Muse : @sikaosei