Thursday, June 20, 2013

Embracing Darker Shades of the Rainbow


What do you first see when you look into the mirror?  This was the question a former counselor of mine asked me several years ago. At the time I was going through an identity crises and my confidence was low. After doing this exercise two things came clear for me. Firstly, I am a woman and secondly, I am a person of color. Looking at myself gave me a glimpse of the souls of my ancestors. I am of mixed ancestry and choose to acknowledge all of heritage. On the one side, I recognize the color of skin that is equated to privilege but also the struggles and hardworking nature that these ancestors embodied. On the other side, I recognize the struggle to move past societal oppression based on systematic and institutional racism. I am honored to have the physical traits of my ancestors as reminders of history, however I am increasingly worried about how women, especially women of color are interpreting their physical traits. Colorism is still a huge deal globally. Soledad O’Brien of CNN recently talked about this in her ‘Black in America’ series. In one of the recent segments she featured the elusive ‘brown bag test’ and the ‘doll test.’ Many girls of color often chose to play with white dolls and responded that they were prettier and better than their ‘ugly’ and ‘stupid’ dolls of color. In 2013 this is troubling. Growing up, I was either too light or too dark, depending on who I was with. Everyone had an opinion of my background and I tried to ignore their comments. Looking back I realize that it was/is society’s problem and not mine. I was taught to love myself from the inside out.

In Africa today, where I live and work, skin color is a big deal. In Kenya, I am often called half-caste and told women would ‘die’ to have my color.  Here in Somalia, I see many beautiful young ladies carrying scars and skin discoloration on their faces, scars that women all over the world carry. The industries that are profiting from these creams and concoctions, especially in the Global South, bombard women of color with images of ideal beauty, equating beauty to whiteness. In fact in the Global South, it is rare to see non-airbrushed women with dark hues gracing billboards and media outlets. In India, they even advertise whitening body wash for the vagina area. As if the face is not scarred enough from using whitening creams/concoctions, we need our vaginas to be white as well? As disgusting as this is, it is not a new phenomenon and is not going to change anytime soon as long as social inequality and the industries are profiting. In fact many celebrities of color are even taking part in this; Sammy Sosa and BeyoncĂ© are two celebrities accused of skin alterations.

Most recently in the U.S. a Cheerios advertisement caused enormous controversy as it portrayed a racially mixed couple and their mixed daughter. This was shocking to me as it was from a major corporation. I have no allegiance to General Mills, but I congratulate them for portraying a rising demographic of American society, particularly my family, and standing by their decision to do so. I am also evermore happy to see images of people of color in the media. Seeing reflections of oneself has an impact on the self worth and confidence of people of color, especially for women and girls. Of course it cannot replace the discrimination and heal the wounds of the past but it can make a way forward. 

 As I mentioned earlier, I was taught to love myself from the inside out by my grandmother. This did not happen right away and sometimes I still struggle with it. Learning to love yourself is a long journey that requires small steps. The beauty of womanhood is that we are all made differently. Everyone should understand the back-story of their skin to put who they are into perspective. Through self-realization start making it a habit of loving the skin that you are in. I make it a habit to genuinely compliment my friends on how intelligent and beautiful they are-inside and out. Women and girls do not hear this enough. We should all make this a habit, especially for all the young girls out there. Adolescence was a period of time that molded my journey to womanhood. Shaping the self-worth and confidence of your young women should be a major priority. Aside from being positive role models and providing encouragement, women can lead by example by taking good care of their skin. Setting examples is important.

I love the skin that I am in, even in the face of the industries that keep feeding me the opposite message. I would like to pose a challenge to all women of color. Next time you look into the mirror, look into your eyes, try to see into your soul and begin to accept the shade of skin that you are in.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

‘Ancestor in Training’

2013 Heller School Graduates Assemble
On May 19th I accomplished a goal that I was not aware that I had. The thought popped into my mind the moment my name was called and I walked across the stage to receive my Master of Arts Diploma in Sustainable International Development from the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. It was the culmination of 3 years (including the application process) of a goal that came about my second year of Peace Corps service in Morocco.  On graduation day I felt an enormous sense of pride to have made it. For me when I make goals, they seem very unreachable, initially at least. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to them. When I decided grad school was on my radar I did not really know if finishing a grad program was. Fear came up and had planted a real ugly seed that lowered my confidence. The seed grew into a hideous plant that often nagged me during my first year, which almost on several occasions led me to believe I would not make it through. During the beginning of our ceremony I realized this was true for all my colleagues and was beaming because I felt proud of us and myself. Our goals had to undergo change and adjust in order to be realized. This is a lesson I take looking ahead. I had naively anticipated my journey through grad school to be quite linear, albeit negatively, when in actuality the process was one of high ups and low downs and filled with every emotion imaginable. 

Our commencement speaker, Vartan Gregorian, president of the philanthropic Carnegie Corporation of New York, deemed us ‘ancestors in training.’ While some of his speech contained typical graduation elements, I was floored by two questions he asked, “What have you done to deserve your ancestors?” and “What will you do as ancestors of future generations?” I am still thinking about these questions and my new title as an ‘ancestor in training.’ I am now back in Somalia working under a new project and I can look back on the last 3 years and know that I have all the strength of my ancestors but in order to become an ancestor I have to adjust my consciousness. Many of my goals were not on the radars of my ancestors, protecting the environment to name one. I realize that I may not achieve these goals in my work or personal life but in pursing these goals (however bumpy the road is) and actively working towards them I will hopefully be able to deserve the title as ancestor when the time comes.