Glance at this photo. What are your immediate thoughts? Does it offend you? Why, or why not? Think about it for a second. Why are you or why aren’t you offended by this picture? Sure, it looks innocuous, but this harmlessly snapped image has had the Nigerian Twirraverse in an uproar for almost two days now, and the reasons aren’t so simple.
Eku Edewor is a British-Nigerian actress, model and television presenter. It is her façade that is front and center of two controversial images that have rocked African social media this week. Her photo shoot for the cover of ThisDay Style magazine and an accompanying spread depict her leading a procession to meet her betrothed on a beach somewhere in what we presume is Nigeria. For some, these images are painful reminders of the class and color issues that Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora – not just Nigeria – grapple with even today. Elnathan John, Nigerian satirist and author took to twitter to explain the psychology of the uproar from his experience and perspective. The diatribe in its entirety is worth a read. Elnathan is very fair (no pun intended) to those who feel that they have to resort to skin bleaching. He rejects the notion that self-hate leads 77% of Nigerian women to bleach/lighten their skin, and rather pins the trend on a need for survival.
I call these images Eku’s Ink Blots. People see different things in these picture based on their own lived experiences or witnessing colorism as it is experienced by others. If you are one of those people who say that this picture is absolutely offensive and smacks of intra-racism: you’re right. It does. And if you’re one of those folks who see nothing wrong with this image or the arrangement of the cast of characters here: you’re right as well. These pictures are a real (and in some cases, painful) reality of the world we exist in today as Black people.
Part of the reason we are so mad at these pictures, is because we are mad at ourselves. We are angry that we are still mentally chained to the color/caste system that was thrust upon us by our European enslavers. Once upon a time, there were 245 delineations to assign or describe Blackness in America based on a matrix of hair grade, skin tone, bone structure and racial mixture. South Africa implemented something similar during Apartheid, assigning citizens their races based on similar patterns. The result was the fracturing of a people group, with “coloreds” and “blacks” existing in one nuclear family unit – for example – but with each of those individuals afforded certain rights and privileges based on their racial designation – and usually with lighter skinned folks being easily accepted and favored by the oppressor. Fairer skinned blacks were given better clothes, better jobs and treated with a modicum more respect. This system has been replicated all over Africa and the Diaspora, and we still have yet to heal from it. So when we see pictures of a light-skinned woman being ushered to her prince by a bevy a dark skinned boys with her Luis Vuitton luggage balanced precariously on their heads, it causes a visceral, ancestral reaction within us.
For her part, Ms. Edewor has had to defend the images and explain them as best she can. She says the purpose was to celebrate her Nigerian heritage and that the children in the picture were there as family members to greet and help her through her procession. Okay, fair enough…but as anyone from a mixed race family will tell you, it’s impossible that eeeeeveryone in your family is going to be blue berry black while you turn out lily white. Don’t spit in our eyes and call it rain, Ms. Edewor! A more ‘realistic’ representation of the bride’s “family” would have been to have some diversity in skin tone amongst her helpers. Unfortunately, a part of our collective Nigerian/African heritage is that this picture smacks of classism and racism. It is eerily colonial mistress-esque.
For me, what has been most unfortunate is that Eku Edewor has been denied her Nigerianess because of her complexion. I don’t know how hard Eku rides or reps for Nigeria, but as a hybrid myself, I can identify with whatever internal crisis she may have experienced in the past/present by being rejected by a culture and people you call your own. This denial has only been compounded by her foray into the entertainment industry, where many assume she has only gotten to the heights she’s achieved by virtue of her skin tone. While I don’t know her and have never seen any of her work, but I doubt this is true. I’m sure that her skin color likely opened some doors for her, but it is her performance that keeps her in the game. That her skin color that she was born with affords her privilege is not her fault; it’s a system wide disease that plagues us all. It is the same illness of colorstrickeness that keeps darker skinned women from gracing the covers of magazines (unless they are high fashion editorials and exotic in nature) or in music videos. It is the colorstricken gatekeepers at the helm of banking, fashion, advertising and entertain that promote these attitudes and trends…and they largely affect women. As Elnathan John noted, you adapt to survive – even if that adaptation means risking skin cancer and liver failure. Once you are born in dark black skin in this world, society is quick to offer you a prescription for that existence.
Dress in muted colors.
Straighten your hair.
Bleach your skin.
Marry outside your race so your kids won’t be so ****ing black.
Anyway, in a week we will have forgotten all about Eku and her Ink Blot and moved on to something else for which to be outraged. I have a suggestion: Why don’t we talk about child labor? Why were pre-pubescent boys responsible for carrying her luggage? What, there were no big men around? Mmmm, see? Nobody ever thinks about the kids!