Wishing for Whiteness: “Yellow Fever” and the Painful Desire for White Skin

When I was younger, I remember thinking how much easier life would be if I were just a few shades lighter. A face smothered in acne scars, my self-esteem was browbeaten with the insensitive slurs of schoolchildren.

My closest cousin was light skin. Born a few months apart and living together in a two family home, we essentially grew up together. For Christmas, our aunts would get us matching outfits and toys, and our hair was usually done in the same style. The family loved us both with no reservation or compromise; drilling in to us that we were blood and must always support and defend each other. Still, I began to harbor a silent resentment towards her light skin which I amplified through verbal brutality.

In time, I grew to love myself. Through this personal love, I apologized to my cousin for the terrible things I said to her. Now, our relationship is solid and unshakable. The difference in our skin color speaks little to what makes us divergent, but to everything that makes us the same. We share a familial heritage– a cultural and genetic bond that’s exemplified through our laughter, our secrets, our stories, and even our tears.

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Wishing for a closer proximity to whiteness was self-hate. My desire for light skin was practical — I wanted the safety and self-assuredness that lighter skin brings. I didn’t want to fear the sun. I didn’t want to fear my classmates. I didn’t want to second guess or qualify my beauty.

These emotions, once confined to my biographical past, were brought up again after watching the powerful short film Yellow Fever by Kenyan artist and filmmaker Ng’endo Mukii. Interspersed with interpretive dance and chilling animation, Mukii probes the Eurocentric standard of beauty. As the Huffington Post writes:

“Mukii explores these concepts and beyond in her enrapturing seven-minute short, which combines layered ethnographic visuals with emotive dance sequences and textural animated interviews with family members including her mother and young niece.”

Her interview with her 5-year-old niece was especially lamentable. Spoken with the inflective innocence of an uninformed and impressionable child, her niece says “If I were American, I would be white, white, white, white and I’d love being white.” She then says that magic could change the color of her skin, as she sits before a white pop star on TV.

That scene, so poignant in its delivery, was the most emotional for me. Through the eyes of a Black child, magic is not seen as a fantastical tool to bring about a limitless universe — it’s interpreted as a tactic to reinforce a brainwashed psyche.

The scene also recalls my travels to Rwanda, where local Rwandan citizens were not only surprised that I was American, but that millions of Black people are American-born and prescribe to an American worldview.

Through my Black American worldview, while watching the opening scene where two Black girls get their hair braided, I thought of cultural tensions between my upbringing and those of African immigrants who own hair braiding boutiques in NYC.

I remember getting my hair twisted, and being angrily derided for having thick, uncombed natural hair. Afraid to contribute to taboo tensions, I did not defend myself. I didn’t say how combing my type of hair is extremely damaging, and how a little leave-in detangler, warm water, and a giant wide-toothed comb could make her labor a bit easier. Instead, I sat in silence as a pile of my well-groomed hair fell the floor amidst violent chides in a language I could not understand. I also couldn’t help but think that if I were white, I wouldn’t have been the subject of such treatment.

The suffocating dominance of whiteness comes alive in Yellow Fever. Dark skin Black girls can relate the eerily familiar and persistent want for a physical proximity to whiteness. The stunning visuals and poignant commentary transcend our lived experiences, and make our emotional, mental, and spiritual pain easily accessible.

*Featured Image Credit: still from Yellow Fever

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Black Millennials, Inc., is an organization devoted to the cultural empowerment of Black and Brown 20somethings. We are entirely funded through readers and supporters. Consider making a donation to help us continue our work.

Donate Button with Credit Cards

photo 1Arielle Newton, Founder/Editor-in-Chief. Get at me @arielle_newton. Get at us @BlkMillennials.

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5 responses to “Wishing for Whiteness: “Yellow Fever” and the Painful Desire for White Skin

  1. I really appreciate this piece. I’m going to have to watch Yellow Fever this weekend. Light skin does provide a sort of safety that is an overlooked privilege. I never realized it until I was in my late 20s

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  2. It is so sad when we are taught that to envy someone else for their appearance is acceptable behavior. Why can’t we cherish each other for being the way we are?

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  3. That’s life. There’s beautiful and ugly people but really beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And Asians who desire white skin just find it beautiful just as much as the nose jobs and chin jobs they get. Big breasted women are typically more beautiful than small breasted women. Tall guys are typically more attractive than short guys. Fair skin has always been a symbol of upper class since tan skin represented people who worked in the sun. There’s nothing wrong with wanting lighter skin which is ironic because in America most girls want tanner and darker skin whereas Korea and Thailand and Japan they all desire lighter skin. Not because of racism but that is just what is attractive to them and you cannot tell people what is beautiful, they will decide on their own. by the way that movie is really weird and propoganda like, just not my thing..

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