On Monday, I gave my 5th-grade class a homework assignment to write a letter describing themselves to a pen pal in Accra. I encouraged my students to use their imagination and creativity in the letters and explained that I would not be grading for their factuality. I imagined they would take this suggestion to describe themselves as superheroes, fashion models, or whatever luxurious profession came to mind. However, I did not realize that the students took this to mean to alter descriptions of their appearance.
In one letter, one of my students described herself as a girl with long hair, fair skin, and blue eyes. As I graded her writing, I looked up to see this beautiful young girl with glistening brown skin, a crown of neatly fashioned braids, and big brown eyes staring intently at her notebook. I began to wonder why in a world where she could be anyone, she chose not to look like herself.
On the same day, at the conclusion of my 3rd-grade class, Maribel and I hung around and chatted with the students as they awaited their bus. The students had become captivated with the texture of Maribel’s hair, stroking every strand as if to make it straighter than it already was. Then, one student turned to me and studied my appearance. “Aunty,” he said with a confused face, “You are so fair. Do you use lightening lotion?” I felt my stomach drop. This was a question I had never been asked nor ever prepared for. In fact, I took offense. How could I, a proud African-American woman, ever want lighter skin? Yet, here I was, in the land of dark-skinned people, being questioned on my security in my own skin.
I am completely aware of the influence of European beauty standards in America but wasn’t so aware of the extent of the prevalence of this so-called “modern beauty” in Ghana. Though my students are surrounded by other children that look like them, they are all susceptible to falling into the trap of believing that Africans cannot be naturally beautiful. This belief may take centuries to fully eliminate from their minds and the minds of black people around the world. Yet, the least I can do is tell my inquisitive student, “No, I do not bleach my skin. Dark skin is beautiful.”
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