When I was in fifth grade, our Jordanian professor asked all students to search for the origins of their home countries’ names. The assignment was interesting; it had never occurred to me before that, that the word “Sudan” could have an inherent meaning other than referring to Sudan, my North African homeland. Intrigued and excited, I went back home and told my mother about our teacher’s request, but she was not nearly as excited about the question as I was. In fact, for some reason, my mom was offended. “Is your teacher trying to say that Sudan is from “Soud” meaning black? Is she trying to tell you that your country is named after your color?” She asked defensively. I hurriedly assured her that the question was not personal at all, and everyone in the class had to answer it too.
No matter how my mother felt about that assignment, the fact is the word Sudan indeed comes from “Soud” the Arabic word for black. Years later when we returned to Sudan, I realized that my mother’s defensiveness is a common reaction. The mere hint of any topic including skin color would bring out the defensive side of most Sudanese people, no matter what the context is.
Sudan literally means “the land of the Soud”, so for Sudanese people, skin color is both an identity and a nationality. Sadly, though, somewhere along the lines of slavery, racism, and imperialism, the color black has become a stigma.
As in any African country, the “blackness” of Sudanese people’s skin color varies; and it is so highly emphasized that each tone has its own description. Starting from the darkest skin color to the lightest, people are labeled in colors: Bluish, greenish, dark brownish, brownish, yellowish, and then, the purest of all- whitish. Statistically speaking, light skinned Sudanese are a minority in quantity, but far from being a minority in quality. Quite the opposite, the lighter the skin the more prestigious and beautiful the person is considered to be.
But how is it that in a black country, being black is a shame? Why are girls constantly looking for the new hit product, the one that promises a cleaner, “whiter” skin tone? Why are comments such as “your skin color is lighter now!” or “You’re face is cleaner!” considered the highest form of compliments?
Unintentionally, society has decided that clean and white are synonyms. And while using products in attempts to have a lighter skin is a widespread trend amongst females generally, it is frightening to note that in a country where the majority has dark skin color, black is considered ugly and dirty.
Naturally, these beliefs about skin color and self-worth did not stem from nowhere; they all date back to the time of colonialism. Ever since the British, “the white people” colonized Sudan, feelings of inferiority were successfully passed down one generation after another. In the eyes of the powerless, dominated black man, the white man had privilege, status, and power. Those few Sudanese who were lucky enough to work with the British were considered powerful too, just by associating with the white man, because the British would often put them in positions of authority. Now, more than half a century later, the British are gone, but these beliefs remained. Dark skinned people are still unfairly denied well deserved job offers, and mothers continue to urge their sons to choose a light skinned bride so the grandchildren will turn out “beautiful”.
Why is this still happening? It’s simple: ignorance. Society is so unaware of how powerful these beliefs have nested in the minds of individuals, from the simple and uneducated to the high profile and sophisticated. Unconsciously, through our everyday language, we are breeding racism among our generation and the ones to come.
Blaming imperialism and Western media gets us nowhere. We need to make a conscious group effort to slowly eliminate these concepts from our society. Some Sudanese would say it is impossible; that these beliefs have hung around for far too long that they have come to define us. That’s not true, it is possible. However difficult it may be, if we improve our language we can improve our culture. The future generations shape their perceptions on what they grow up observing and absorbing, and that’s why we have to at least try.
Start. Tell your dark skinned daughter that she and her light skinned cousin are both beautiful, because beauty is not confined to a color. Explain to your son that girls with all skin colors are worthy of love. And most importantly, make a conscious decision to stop using derogatory racial judgments yourself. This way, slowly but surely, all Sudanese people will start to see themselves as they truly are: Beautiful.