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The Politics of Skin Color in Gambian Society And Beyond





A person’s skin colour goes a long way in determining their status in contemporary African society. This sad reality, defined by some as “colorism”, is evident in The Gambia where a man eligible for marriage seeks brides that are very light complexioned and potential brides favor grooms that are not only socially and economically prominent but also easy on the eyes, as far as skin tone is concerned. For all our talk about the evils of racism and inequality in South Africa, Europe and elsewhere, Gambians, like many other African societies, have long succumbed to the fallacy that “lighter is better”.
Gambians clamor to befriend Lebanese and other light-skinned friends as proof of their “standing” in society. They bleach their bodies to look like the glamorous white looking models that are broadcast in the media, thanks to globalization. They pray their kids are born light so that the “advantages” that can be garnered by this characteristic won’t slip away thus leading to their conscious objective in seeking partners who meet their “beauty standards”. It is such foolish self-hate that motivated the legendary and very dark complexioned James Brown to coin the phrase “Say it loud I’m Black and proud!”
Black women are the epitome of beauty and sensuality on Earth and although the lighter ones are also striking in their looks, it is the dark complexioned ones that are absolutely glamorous in their physical properties and who tend to be under-appreciated a lot of the time. In fact, until last month, some historians had steadfastly refused to acknowledge that Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, was of African descent. It shows the refusal to give credit where it is due as far as the contribution of Black women to beauty is concerned.
This has had an adverse effect on the self-regard of Gambian women, abroad and at home. They opt for artificial hair weaves instead of braids and what they end up looking like is not an exact representation of true beauty that is comfortable in its own skin. There are some, a small minority that still opt for the dreads, braids and Afros that the more racially progressive women of the 1960s and 70s wore with self-conscious pride. They are the last holdouts in an era where the ladies of our communities feel they cannot define their own physical features on their own terms.
Gambian men also unwittingly contribute to this neurosis. The premier example is the so-called head of state Yahya Jammeh, a very dark-skinned guy, who couldn’t find a pretty enough spouse within his borders but ventured all the way to Morocco to betroth a very light complexioned North African woman. If one where to be a fly on the wall during a conversation between Gambian men on what attributes they would love most in a woman, a lighter complexion would be atop the wish list. Gambian men fantasize about women with mixed ancestry. To them, this is the ultimate “trophy wife”. The wife that is so naturally “gifted” that she does not have to subject her body to the harrowing chemicals that are constantly applied in the process locally known as “Xhesal”.
In the US, there was an outcry by African American groups over a Revlon commercial starring the singer Beyonce Knowles due to the obvious altering of her skin tone to make her look more Caucasian than African American. This protest was led by parents of young children who were rightfully concerned the subliminal message was that Black men and society in general prefer women that looked like the digitally altered pop singer as opposed to someone like Grace Jones. In The Gambia, starting in primary school, rich, light skinned kids tend to hang out with their kind, they date within their social grouping and the exception to the rule is this: if you’re dark-skinned and want to join this exclusive community, you’d better be extremely smart or filthy rich. The maids and watchmen don’t count. They have no choice but to stick around.
Lighter pigmented Gambians tend to be richer than their darker counterparts (exceptions should be made for the Fulani population which as a homogeneous group tends to be fair skinned). They get more favorable treatment in education and at the work place. They tend to be more popular amongst friends. They suffer less from mental health ailments. They are treated with more respect by visiting tourists or dignitaries, especially from Western horizons. The police are more likely to let a fair skinned offender go with a slap on the wrist than a browner culprit. Studies have even shown that in a gathering, lighter complexioned individuals are more likely to have their jokes laughed at than their opposite hued peers. These are not made up facts but rather the conclusion of various studies such as Human Behavior in the Social Environment from an African American Perspective by Letha A. (Lee) See.
The prevalence of such pigmentocracy within Black societies has been referred to as the “Brown bag test” where a person’s color has to be lighter than a brown bag for induction into prestigious sororities, universities, churches and other institutions that carried considerable prestige. In fact, film maker Spike Lee was so disdainful of the practice he satirized it in the 1988 movie “School Daze”. In the religious sphere, lighter complexioned marabouts are given more credit than their blacker colleagues especially if they claim to have some “Arab” ancestry or hail from Mauritania and other environs with a vast North African population.
Staying on the theme of the arts, sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest most popular Nollywood stars are of mixed parentage. They are obviously light skinned and have African women going nuts over them. One is Majid Michel, of Ghanaian and Lebanese Parentage. Another is Ramsay Nouah of Israel and Nigerian descent. And let’s not forget the hugely beloved by the ladies Van Vicker, of Liberian, Ghanaian and Dutch Parentage. There was a time in The Gambia when young girls inspired by hit movies such as “Sholay”, mimicked the traits and behavior of the “white actresses” on the silver screen. Such has been the lack of affirmation for all things really black that it has taken on a sinister role in our self-perception as Gambians and Africans.
Of course, people don’t choose who they are (plastic surgery and other artificial measures notwithstanding) and these view points are not meant as an attack on the fairer-skinned members of our peace loving and tolerant community. Rather, a conscious effort should be made on parents especially those of impressionable girls and boys, that the durable keys to success are high self-esteem, hard work and excellence in academia and play, and a sense of self-respect and duty to the societies that they are members of; not perceptions of “beauty” or skin color. Skin tone politics will always play a role in The Gambia as it does in Cuba, an ally of the APRC regime, which claims equality but practices racism in the allocating of sparse resources. A potent measure that could dilute this blemish on our collective self-perception could be the pointing out of dark-skinned heroes such as Cheihk Amdadou Bamba Mbacke (Khadimu-I Rasul), Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth and that great liberator of Haiti Toussaint L’Ouverture.

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