As An Eritrean Woman, Softening My Views On The Negativity Of Colorism Is Something I Can No Longer Do

The battle on both the inside and outside.

Photo Credit: Anna Boyiazis

| December 03 2018,

9:46 pm

Recently, I was in Addis Ababa sitting in the well acclaimed Effoi’s pizza parlor, chuckling at the menu as my eyes gazed upon the pulled pork pizza named “Diaspora.” Though I cannot be sure, in that moment I could’t help but link the name choice with the cultures general abhorrence for pork. In my head, I chuckled some more whilst taking bites into my vegetarian pizza that fed me to my heart's content.

Diaspora. That’s the label we have been given here, and that is the label given to us there.

I’m sad to admit that I have always felt displaced whilst managing my dual identity. On one side, I am a British Londoner, and on the other I am an Eritrean woman who’s parents come from two villages with several syllables between them.

On my trip to Addis, one moment that stood out for me the most was whilst I was at a hair salon with my cousin. We both complemented a hairdresser with rich chocolate skin. She shook her head, chuckled and said, “I am not beautiful. I am too black,” in a matter-of-fact tone. Though I am no stranger to the experience of hearing Ethiopian and Eritrean people make colorists comments, I realized it was the first time I had heard it in English. Previously, I had always heard in said in Tigrinya (my native language), and perhaps that was how I was able to compartmentalize it. I had put it into the box of other dated and ignorant things I had become accustomed to hearing in Tigrinya.

“Sorry?" I questioned, as my heart sank. “My family told me I am too black, they all have skin colors like you two” she responded whilst smiling profusely, almost as though it were in efforts to reassure us that we still had a chance at being beautiful.

Again, hearing it in English really shook me to my core. Hearing it in the language in which I use to fight for people’s rights and to share my views was powerful. In her suffering, I felt displaced and I felt extremely narcissistic for it. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel for this woman’s self esteem, it was also just so incredibly sad that I couldn’t transfer to her a different point of view. I felt extremely unsettled by the fact that this beautiful woman did not have access to the different beauty standards I did to realize that she is gorgeous beyond belief.

When I think about why I feel displaced in my culture, I feel it most because I do not subscribe to a lot of the ideas that are so shamelessly passed around. I am saddened that surrounding the very lackluster tightness on human rights, there is a rigorous and sturdy tightness on the idea of beauty and how a woman ought to look and be. I was sad that as I drove past copious amounts of young women standing on the corners of the streets as a sex workers, the biggest topic at hand was the lightness of your skin and the love of petite frames. If not for my British, Western experiences, I wouldn’t be so sensitive to these matters. In the same breath, it causes me so much confusion to view my own home to be the root of such flawed views as I battle the daily discrimination of being a black woman in the UK. How can I be so infuriated at the unconscious bias and microaggressions I experience at work when my culture practices overt acts of aggression and I am, for the most part, complicit. To me, my mild reactions to colorism is my idea of being complicit.

Whilst drinking coffee another day, an older lady made a passing comment about the air in Addis Ababa “not being the type of air that darkens your skin” as a highlight of her trip to Addis Ababa. Whilst anyone with half a brain can see and understand that air has very little to do with how much you tan, I shrugged off her comment and gently responded to her in Tigrinya whilst I took another sip of my coffee. I didn’t challenge her, nor did I  question what she meant. Speaking Tigrinya took me back to my dormant self — the one who doesn’t challenge or question problematic ideologies. When it is in Tigrinya, I do not fight back as hard. When I am my Eritrean self, I always feel disarmed.

The Diaspora community sits on the cusp of two conflicting worlds. We are made to feel like outsiders in the homes that we have created for ourselves, so we march, project and push for more. But when we return back home to our “real” homes, we are faced with issues that conflict with the values that having access to education has equipped us with, so we reduce ourselves, soften our views and sometimes stay mute for fear of standing out. Most times, speaking up against these issues is what further sets us apart. It is what makes us the name of pizza at Effoi’s. The unfavored alternative.

So here I am, a child of the diaspora sitting in London on a Thursday night not sure who I am. But one thing the trip has taught me is to fight the same fight I fight in the Western world when I am around natives of my home. How can I attend Black Lives Matter marches whilst sitting mute whilst my aunties talk about how “dark” somebody is, how “coarse” somebodies hair is, how we are not “Tselim” (black), like the rest of Africa?

It is only when we start these journeys and we bring our two different ends closer together that I believe we will feel less so displaced and rather we will view ourselves as being layered, multifaceted human beings.