Colorism in Americanah by Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie released her most recent novel, Americanah, in 2013. Although I’m more than a year late reading the book, I think it’s worth writing about the issue of colorism as it appears in the story. Colorism in Americanah doesn’t rely on the standard melodramatic pity party or blame game. Instead the novel has a rather matter-of-fact tone on the issue, one that seems based more on observation than painful memories or emotion. I guess the story itself is so interesting and well-written that the discussion of colorism doesn’t seem forced—it just seems real.

The public has discussed Adichie’s writing in connection to colorism before. People complained and even started a petition when filmmakers decided to cast the very fair skinned actress Thandie Newton in the lead role of Half of a Yellow Sun (the movie version of Adichie’s novel by the same title). Protesters claimed that the casting decision was an instance of colorism because Newton does not resemble the typical Nigerian woman.

I have not found any direct statement from Adichie about her opinion on the casting for that movie or on colorism in general (if you find something let me know!). In the novel Americanah, however, it’s clear that Adichie is familiar with colorism, and she seems to understand it in both an American and a Nigerian context. (Adichie grew up in Nigeria and currently splits her time between Nigeria and the United States.)

The novel is ultimately a love story at heart, but because the two main characters each spend significant time in America or England, issues of race and colorism are frequently brought to their attention as well as the reader’s.

I said earlier that colorism in Americanah is depicted as a realistic part of the story rather than seeming forced or cheesy. Here’s an example of that.

While in school in Nigeria, the main female character Ifemelu has a close friend named Ginika. Ginika is described as “the second most popular girl” in school. She has caramel skin and wavy hair that falls “down to her neck instead of standing Afro-like.” Ginika is voted “Prettiest Girl” in school every year, but she claims it’s only because she’s “half-caste.” Because the students think Ginika is so pretty and popular, they try to match her with the handsome and popular guy Obinze. But Obinze falls for Ifemelu instead.

Adichie allows us to see colorism (people’s biases about skin color and hair texture), but she doesn’t resort to the typical girl fight between the dark skinned Ifemelu and the light skinned Ginika. Instead Adichie shows that close friendships can exist across the color spectrum. Adichie also shows that colorism doesn’t always play out when and how we think it will, because despite what other characters expected and wanted, the dark skinned friend ends up dating the popular guy. And he treats her well.

Adichie also portrays the practice of skin bleaching among some Nigerian women. In describing Ifemelu’s boss, the narrator says, “it was easy to tell that she had not been born with her light complexion, its sheen was too waxy and her knuckles were dark, as though those folds of skin had valiantly resisted her bleaching cream.”

In her American setting, Ifemelu writes a blog post titled: “Why Dark-Skinned Black Women—Both American and Non-American—Love Barack Obama.” In the post, Ifemelu explains how light skin is valued above dark skin in many contexts, but especially in America. So of course the main argument of the post is that dark skinned black women love Obama because he loves a dark skinned black woman. She says, “He knows what the world doesn’t know: that dark black women totally rock.” And in the typical humor of Ifemelu’s writing she tacks on a last sentence that says, “Oh, and dark black women are also for cleaning up Washington and getting out of Iraq and whatnot.”

I appreciate this honest, direct, and explicit statement about colorism. But even in its directness, it’s still an organic part of the story, it’s still true to character, it’s still funny, and it’s still well-written.

The novel contains several other instances similar to the ones I’ve pointed out here, but I recommend reading Americanah yourself to discover what else it has to offer on race, colorism, culture, immigration, love, and more.

Who is to meet the challenge?

“Africa has had such a fate in the world that the very adjective ‘African’ can call up hideous fears of rejection. Better then to cut all the links with this homeland, this liability, and become in one giant leap the universal man. Indeed I understand this anxiety. But running away from oneself seems to me a very inadequate way of dealing with an anxiety. And if writers should opt for such escapism, who is to meet the challenge?”

—Chinua Achebe

The Brango Show Discusses Colorism

Straight Talk by Dr. Kirleen Neely

Straight Talk CoverStraight Talk by Dr. Kirleen Neely is a children’s book for girls 8-13 years old. The story depicts a mother’s conversation with her two daughters about the historical and social influences on people’s perceptions of natural black hair.

The story begins with the familiar ritual of combing hair and the girls’ anxiety about having to endure the ordeal. After the girls ask their mother for a relaxer so that they could have “good hair,” the mother realizes that the girls’ perception of their hair has been negatively influenced by others outside the home.

The mother then has an open and candid discussion with her daughters about the history of black hair from the continent of Africa before the slave trade up to the present.

The book ends with the girls realizing that their hair is special and so is the time spent with their mother while getting their hair done.

Straight Talk Preview

Colorism Healing promotes the idea that reading and writing should be an act of self love, especially for young people, and because Dr. Neely has previously written about hair shaming for Colorism Healing, I’m truly excited to share the continuation of her work in the form of literature.

Learn more about Dr. Neely and Straight Talk by visiting her website here.

Colorism Impedes Us

“we were speaking of the hostility many black black women feel toward light-skinned black women, and you said, ‘Well, I’m light. It’s not my fault. And I’m not going to apologize for it.’ I said apology for one’s color is not what anyone is asking. What black black women would be interested in, I think, is a consciously heightened awareness on the part of light black women that they are capable, and often quite unconsciously, of inflicting pain upon them; and that unless the question of Colorism–in my definition, prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color–is addressed in our communities and definitely in our black ‘sisterhoods’ we cannot, as a people, progress. For colorism, like colonialism, sexism, and racism, impedes us.

—Alice Walker

7 Ways to Fight Colorism with Technology

There are plenty of ways to fight colorism in our everyday lives, and technology is obviously one of my favorite.

Technology, when available, is a great tool for fighting colorism because it engages your creativity, promotes media literacy, and connects you to people and information around the globe.

Here are 7 ways you can use technology in your daily life to help heal colorism.

1. Research your family history.

Researching your family history is a way to deal with personal struggles related to colorism because it can give you a better sense of self. By reconnecting with your roots, you gain perspective on where you came from, where you are, and who you’ve come to be up to this point.

If relatives join together to research their history, it can foster healing, growth, and bonding for the family. If your family has a wide spectrum of skin tones, hair texture, and facial features, this could also explain and encourage discussion about those differences.

Ancestry.com is my personal recommendation for a great way to start researching and documenting your family tree. Many local libraries also have special genealogy sections that are free and open to the public. However, there’s nothing like sitting and listening to the older relatives impart their own knowledge about the family history.

But even the old fashioned oral histories can be recorded and shared through the use of modern technology, which is probably a good idea so that stories remain long after the storyteller is gone.

2. Start or sign petitions.

The online tool for petitions that I’m recommending is Change.org. This site comes with lots of features that allow you to search for or get notifications about causes and issues you care about. It also helps you create and spread the word about your own petitions.

Some of the more popular petitions addressing colorism have to do with casting, such as the Straight Outta Compton casting call and the casting of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone.

However, there are many other worthy causes pertaining to colorism and other issues that you can throw your support behind with a simple “signature.”

3. Download or stream movies, shows, videos, or songs.

I choose Netflix for watching movies and some shows. When I first signed up, I searched specifically for movies made by and about people of color in all countries. I created a really long queue of such films and watched them one at a time.

I’ve also streamed television shows and movies on Amazon. I discovered it when one of my coworkers was showing her students the movie Roots on Amazon Instant Video.

I buy songs either from iTunes or Amazon. Unfortunately, there are many songs I haven’t been able to access due to country restrictions.

Also consider subscribing to YouTube channels that post thought provoking, inspiring, or relevant content.

Because we have a little less control over what airs on television or what’s featured in movie theaters, the internet is a good alternative source for media that is affirming and that tells the often untold stories.

Obviously, the internet is also filled with a lot of “bad” stuff, so you must put in a little extra effort to sift through some junk until you find some gems.

4. Share positive posts, especially about people of color.

Okay, this seems so easy, yet we don’t do it enough, probably because we allow so much junk and negativity to clutter our social media timelines that we don’t see nearly enough good stuff. I know I’ve been guilty in the past for focusing on the sad, troubling, or controversial posts on Facebook and Twitter. But we’re making changes, right?

Sharing (or retweeting) positive posts starts with populating our news feeds with more positive, productive, inspiring content to balance out the other stuff.

Follow people who post non-junk and be on the lookout for an inspiring story or motivational quote to share. If you’ve found great content suggested in tip #3, share that too.

Notice I say SHARE, not like, favorite, or even comment (although these things are good to do in addition to sharing). If we want to spread the positive stuff, then liking, favoriting, and commenting aren’t going to help as much as sharing or retweeting.

Also look out for actual photos and images of people that main stream media don’t publish often, or people who represent a type that was once invisible (and still drastically underrepresented) in main stream media. Share those.

5. Buy products.

You’re probably going to buy a book, or a T-shirt, or a doll, or jewelry, or a piece of artwork at some point, right? You can search online for retail products that affirm the heritage, skin tone, hair texture, or features that you have, or that your children have.

There’s now a line of nude colored bras for black women.

You can also search for these products to help you and your family become familiar with, comfortable with, and appreciative of people’s differences.

Many small, local, minority owned businesses have online retail options, so you’re also not limited by transportation or location.

6. Create collages.

Because main stream media does a poor job showing positive images of people of color, especially those with dark skin, we must be more proactive in surrounding ourselves and our children with such imagery. Creating collages is a great way to do this.

I made this collage with Photovisi. It’s super simple because it’s all done online and there are very few features to distract and confuse you.

collage photovisi ways to fight colorism with technology

I used a slightly more complex Collageit program to make this one. Collageit requires downloading software from the internet, which should be done with caution. But overall, I love the features!

ways to fight colorism with technology Collageit collage

I used stock photos and photos from Creative Commons to create these. Learn about other collage makers here.

7. Create Songs or Videos.

The first thing I recommend is that you create a YouTube channel. Simply sign up for a free YouTube account if you don’t already have one. This is easier to do if you already have a Gmail account.

YouTube will allow you to capture, create, edit, and share your video. You can keep the video private and only share it with people you choose, or you can make it public for anyone to see.

If you want fancier videos, there are plenty of video editing programs you can use to create the video and then upload the finished product to YouTube. Such programs can be pretty pricy, though, so I recommend using those only if you’re serious about your video making. You may also find free access to video editing software through school or another institution or organization.

These seven tech based ways to fight colorism are simple and fun places to start. Explore these strategies, and your sure to discover even more creative things you can do.

How do you use technology to spread positivity?

Selma Director Ava DuVernay Talks to Melissa Harris-Perry

As a fan of Selma, I was eager to see Melissa Harris-Perry’s interview with director Ava DuVernay. And now I’m a fan of DuVernay herself. Although she didn’t win a Globe, she’s definitely winning hearts!

In this interview, which aired the morning of the Golden Globes, DuVernay is effortlessly intelligent, creative, passionate, and talented. Go ahead and swell with pride at seeing this black woman’s brilliance on full display!