Safiya Mohamed: I felt that I wasn’t, you know, considered desirable because of my skin color. And especially when you think of the wider society with Eurocentric beauty standards, it’s very toxic to see those images and internalize those things, especially as a young person as a young woman of color.
Solveig Rennan: Welcome to Under-Told: Verbatim. I’m Solveig Rennan for the Under-Told Stories Project. We report from all over the world for PBS NewsHour. We’ve talked to experts and people making a difference in their communities. In this podcast series, we revisit those under-told stories to share extended interviews we’ve done with changemakers around the world. On a Saturday in February 2021, Safiya Mohamed and I went to the mall. We visited the Karmel Mall in Minneapolis, full of Somali shops, restaurants and a mosque. We were there to find one thing: skin lightening products
Safiya Mohamed: So while I was in the story the lady who sold me this told me this product will make me look lighter and brighten my skin and how it has golden glow and carrot products in here and how that brightens the skin and makes you look beautiful
Solveig Rennan: Safiya is a Somali American journalism student at the University of St. Thomas, where our Under-Told Stories Project offices are based. We didn’t want the skin lightening products for ourselves… instead, our shopping trip played an important role in our PBS NewsHour report on the global desire for lighter skin and the potentially toxic steps some will take to get it
Safiya Mohamed: So often growing up I would see aunties, people in my community, use these products and try to whiten their skin to look a certain way.
Solveig Rennan: Especially in the United States, many think of racism as a black and white issue – but less talked about is colorism, the preference for lighter skin within communities of color
Amira Adawe: this was an issue that only only people who had lived experience know. Not a lot of people know…
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Most white people are just simply not aware of it.
Amira Adawe: Yeah. Because of it’s not their lived experience.
Solveig Rennan: That’s our director Fred de Sam Lazaro in conversation with Amira Adawe, both masked up to protect from COVID-19. Amira is a public health professional and the founder of Beautiwell – an organization dedicated to ending skin lightening practices. She successfully petitioned Amazon to remove 15 skin lightening products that contained mercury… she lobbies government officials for better regulation and policing of the trade in such products, most of them imported. She hosts a Somali-language podcast to talk about beauty standards, and she works to raise the self esteem of young dark-skinned women so they won’t reach for the products in the first place. Our PBS NewsHour report covered the impact of Amira Adawe’s activism on the cosmetics industry… but this episode of Under-Told Verbatim explores the impact of Beautiwell’s Young Women’s Wellness and Leadership Initiative… Safiya Mohamed was a participant
Fred de Sam Lazaro: In what contexts and specifically what about it resonated with you? Where did you see the need to change things? I mean, what was evil about it, if you will,
Safiya Mohamed: Personally, growing up, I have I have a younger sister who is much lighter than me. And I remember growing up people would always compliment my younger sister on her light skin. She gets that from my mom. And I inherited my dad’s darker skin. And people would say to my younger sister Oh, she’s so beautiful. She’s so light. There’s a term in Somali called Cadaay, they would call her Faduma Cadaay. And it just means that you know, little cute light skinned one. And I didn’t think much of it growing up. But as I got older, it really got to me. And although I would never think about even touching any skin lightening products, the effects of colorism and the desire for lighter skin really did impact my self esteem. So when I saw a woman like Amira, who was strong and empowered in her own skin, and trying to work to instill that in other young Somali women, it really made me feeI…I felt comforted.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: And throughout your upbringing, or growing up, you never felt pressured in any way to use these skin lightening products?
Safiya Mohamed: Not at all. My mother was very adamant in making sure that we did not use it, she never used it herself. And she sort of explained it to me in a way that the people that use this, use it because they are not secure in themselves. And it is harmful. There are no benefits to it. And you should just stay away from it. So I heard that the reaffirmation from my mother, it wasn’t the same thing as being told Oh, you’re beautiful in the skin that you are, but it was enough to keep me away from using those products. So I never really thought about using it. But at the same time that didn’t satisfy, that didn’t change my insecurity. And it still, those feelings still lingered, and were still there. I felt that I wasn’t, you know, considered desirable because of my skin color. And especially when you think of the wider society with Eurocentric beauty standards, it’s very toxic to see those images and internalize those things, especially as a young person as a young woman of color. But over time, I’ve found ways to become more secure in my own skin. And I am in a much better place than I was growing up as a kid thinking that my skin was not beautiful.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What accounts for that, is there’s anything you can pinpoint the things that you can pinpoint that make you that have brought you around to being comfortable in your skin?
Safiya Mohamed: Social media. So in recent years, there has been a rise of black women online who are working to eradicate colorism, and show that all types of black skin are beautiful, not just light ones. And seeing that, especially when I started using social media, as a teenager 13,14 it really changed the way I saw myself, and seeing darker skinned black women that looked like me in a positive light and have seen them be presented as beautiful, really, you know, shifted something in me. And it made me think that there’s nothing wrong with my skin. And as time went on, I became more secure in myself more confident in my skin color. And those thoughts that I had about not feeling beautiful because of how I looked. They were just put at bay because of the community of black women online who are working to eradicate colorism and show that all black is beautiful.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: How exceptional is that? And I guess part of their question is, could it be generational, do you think? Do you think, do you find a lot of your peers feeling the same way and is this idea of colorism more prevalent among older age groups in the Somali community?
Safiya Mohamed: I think that my peers are more open to accepting people of all skin tones. I think that they are most of them are really comfortable in their own skin, in their skin and in how they look. And while skin lightening practices and the desirability of light skinned over dark skinned is more prevalent in the older generation. Unfortunately, the younger generation has inherited some of that some of those beliefs because of that rhetoric is just so common in the community. However, I think it is important to acknowledge that young people are doing so much better in the sense that we don’t, we don’t use those skin lightening products at the same rate as the generation before us. And a lot of us are more accepting, not only accepting but empowering and we empower people with darker skin we solidify that they are beautiful that their skin tone is beautiful that there is nothing about them. There’s nothing about the way they look that is ugly or less desirable. And I think we’ve created a much better. We’ve created solidarity amongst each other because of that shared experience.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: What are you most appalled by, if that’s the right way to describe what you might feel about it, when it comes to marketing? Because there’s so much product being marketed, whether it’s skin lightning or just general fashion product that tends to favor models who are lighter skinned? That tends to favor whiteness and proximity to whiteness, even the black models tend to be lighter skinned, for example. How does that? How do you internalize that? When you when you when you see it, I mean, does it seem a little overwhelming at times?
Safiya Mohamed: It is overwhelming at times. And it’s the source of a lot of insecurity for so many people, it is the source of my insecurity. But seeing those images being marketed so rampantly, in just in your face, everywhere you go, it is overwhelming. But again, personally, as I’ve gotten older, it changed from overwhelming to anger towards the modeling industry, because they weren’t being inclusive, and we still have a long way to go. And I think that, in recent years, things have changed. And there have been black models and black women and women of darker skin who have entered the industry, and have changed it for the better and have showcased the beauty of their skin. But there is still that overarching belief that whiteness is the only standard of beauty, is the only form of beauty and anything separate from that or different, is not beautiful, it’s ugly. And the only form of the only way for non white people to even come close to that standard of beauty is to be lighter skinned. That’s, you know, really the source of all of this. But I do think that, again, a lot of black women, a lot of women of color, have been able to enter the modeling industry and change it for the better. And that’s something that I’m really happy about. Because as time goes on, hopefully the next generation of young women of color, don’t have to think that their skin isn’t beautiful.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: You know, you talk about more black and darker skin models in the fashion industry… What about role models outside of the fashion? How important was someone like Amira, for example, in your life, as a Somali woman with her advocacy, which is unusual?
Safiya Mohamed: It felt really good to hear that someone in the community, especially someone that was an adult, recognize that skin lighting was a problem, and was willing to call it out for what it is, and was doing something about it. Because so often growing up I would see on TVs, people in my community, use these products and try to whiten their skin to look a certain way. And I never really thought much of it. Especially since in my own family. My mother really pushed it away and said that’s something that I should never do. But I never really saw anyone actively challenge it. So when Amira came along, and I met her, it felt very, I felt like something was actually being done about this. And it felt very empowering to meet someone like her.
Safiya Mohamed: Yeah, it was definitely important. It was very important. I, growing up, I didn’t see that many Somali women take on roles outside of what the women are traditionally considered to be housewives, teachers, anything that wasn’t, anything that was outside of that really was discouraged and not that common. And seeing Amira, work in, in government and work with, work in activism and advocacy, and public health. It was very uplifting, because I was just not used to it. I wasn’t exposed to women in my community who were doing, that, who were doing the work. And through Amira, I’ve been connected to so many other Somali women who are also in fields that traditionally aren’t meant for them traditionally, because you know, so many other historical factors at play with that. But it was it was so empowering to meet her. And my experience with her has been so rewarding. I’ve gotten so much out of it. And as a young Somali woman, I find it incredibly, just I really don’t know how to describe it, but I feel so at peace and safe, knowing that someone from my community is doing the work and paving the way so people like me can follow in her footsteps, and not have to enter as many obstacles as she did.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: Can you tell us a little bit about what was involved specifically with your work with the beautywell project? I mean, what, what specifically, were the elements in it, that that you participated in that you benefited from?
Safiya Mohamed: So I participated we did a number of activities with the with the group. So one of them was, excuse me, the most common practice we had was just addressing wellness and mental health. So we did a lot of meditation. We did a lot of we talked a lot about how we felt, we created an environment where we can be open and vulnerable with each other. We spoke about our experiences as young Somali women growing up in the United States and growing up in a culture that is so different from what our parents were raised in. We did a lot of training on wellness and mental health and how to take care of ourselves. Because if we don’t take care of ourselves, how are we going to be able to take care of others and address the needs of our community? We also met a lot of dynamical changemaking Somali women who are doing amazing work within the community. I had the opportunity of meeting Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, and sitting down with her and just talking with her, asking her about her experience as a Somali woman who’s in the public eye and is doing something unprecedented, and amazing. And it was truly such a rewarding experience. And in terms of the work that we did, we had a lot of social media training, advocacy training, we learned about skin lightening practices skin lightening methods, the root of the problem, the cause, the factors, the what the enablers and what drives the industry, and in what ways our p- our community is complicit in letting colorism thrive, and how colorism has played out in our own lives. And we use those experiences and those tools to create an online call, anti colorism online campaign to tackle colorism. And at the end, once all of this came full circle, we were able to present our, our projects to our family, our friends, our loved ones, and to educate them on the problem with colorism, the problem with skin lighting practices, and what we can do as individuals to stop it and be just do our part and be the change that we need.
Fred de Sam Lazaro: And is there an anecdote or two that you can recall that tells you that you actually made some progress that you bumped people around on this issue? Or do you in general feel like the needle is shifting a little bit?
Safiya Mohamed: I think that with Black lives matter. And with the summer that just passed with the awareness that has been that has been taking place in the activism and the work in the conversation and overall conversation. I think all of that combined. Yeah, the needle has moved shifted just a little specifically within the Somali community. Again, a lot of young people, thankfully have not internalized the rhetoric now as much as we probably did growing up. And with that, I do think that there is a lot of hope. I think that even though I acknowledge that there is a lot of work that needs to be done within the community, in order to complete the get rid of colorism, there is change that is happening. And the way that a lot of just talking with my friends is talking with people in my age group. And having them be able to validate my experiences that have, and me being able to validate their experiences. And all of us recognizing that all of our skin tones are beautiful. I think that does show that we have gotten someplace
Fred de Sam Lazaro: So the George Floyd incident, obviously, was some kind of a catalyst in some ways to bring people together.
Safiya Mohamed: Yes. I think that the Somali community specifically, really… There was so much going on during the protests and a lot of Somali Americans have a very interesting relationship with the with police and what it means to be black in America. And when George Floyd happened, and when so many people were taking to the streets So when protests were going on when all of when it felt like this, Minneapolis was burning, when all of these things was happening, or what was happening, it really did start a conversation within the community as to how do we how are we impacted by this? How are we affected by this as African immigrants that are black in America? What is our role in combating police brutality and combating racism and anti blackness within our community and all the other evils that are plaguing society? And what ways have we been complicit? And what can we do to change that? So emotions were running high, there was a lot going on. But I do think that is has started a dialogue that is very much needed
Fred de Sam Lazaro: including tackling the anti-blackness within the Somali community.
Safiya Mohamed: Yes, I do think that is something again, with young people, it really has changed that rhetoric of, that rhetoric of you know, are are we Black? Are we not Black, you know, what it means to, because Somali folks are immigrants to this country, and they come here, not knowing the implications of what it means to be Black in America. So it’s been very, it’s been a rocky shift for a lot of the older generation. But with young folks, I do, I genuinely believe that we have done a great job in combating anti-blackness within our community. And we have been able to come to a place where we recognize that we are Black people.
Solveig Rennan: That shifting rhetoric Safiya described is something Amira Adawe has heard for herself from callers on the Somali-language radio show and podcast she hosts… She agreed the community is gradually opening up to talk about anti-Blackness and colorism, and by extension, the use of skin lightening creams
Amira Adawe: When I started doing the radio show. I, one of the, I realized, people were not, because it was a live show, so people were not calling and, and, and sharing, you know, how they feel, and all of that. But when I said it’s anonymous, you don’t have to share your name. So people started calling in and sharing, you know, how it’s impacting them, I had some women who talked about, they can’t even cook. Because of the heat, you know, like, because some of the ingredients have side effects that you can’t tolerate sunlight, and in the heat, how that is damaging them, I had a woman called me one time and talked about, said, if I stop this, my husband might leave me. And so, so just hearing these things, and then when we do before COVID, like when we do face to face sessions, just you know, like, posing questions about culture, you know, what do you think of identity? What do you think of self esteem and then getting them to the level of what do they even understand about colorism? And it is thought, because a lot of times people are not even aware of the history, original history in their countries. And so, people know, they were colonized, but what happened during that time, so, so So, so helping them understand some of these issues, and then, you know, some of them will open up and talk about how they have been parenting, you know, their kids, and encouraging, you know, the young girls to use these products, because they want them to succeed. And so because that was the cultural thing that if you’re light skinned, you’re most likely will succeed in life. And even the potential of finding a spouse depends on their skin color, and so, so them sharing all of that, and, and, and using that opportunity to educate them. That’s how we have been doing and now we do online, we also have young women’s wellness and Leadership Initiative. And that is to really, you know, to end the cycle of this problem, you know, how do we end this cycle with when girls are young, to make sure that when they reach certain age, they don’t start using these products.
Solveig Rennan: Our interviews with Safiya Mohamed and Amira Adawe were originally featured in our story called Skin Lightening in Communities of Color, which aired on PBS NewsHour on May 19, 2021. To check out the full story, go to undertoldstories-dot-org. This episode was hosted and edited by me, Solveig Rennan, and produced by Simeon Lancaster. The interviews were conducted by our director Fred de Sam Lazaro. You can find every Under-Told: Verbatim episode, virtual reality 360 experiences and our entire library of Under-Told news reports from around the world at undertoldstories-dot-org. Under-Told: Verbatim is brought to you by the Under-Told Stories Project based at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. As always, thanks for your support.
The preference for lighter skin
Especially in the United States, many think of racism as a black and white issue—but less talked about is colorism, the preference for lighter skin within communities of color. Safiya Mohamed is a Somali American journalism student at the University of St. Thomas, where our Under-Told Stories Project offices are based. Our PBS NewsHour report on the global desire for lighter skin and the potentially toxic steps some will take to get it covered the impact of Amira Adawe’s activism on the cosmetics industry through her organization, Beautywell—but this episode of Under-Told Verbatim explores the impact of Beautywell’s Young Women’s Wellness and Leadership Initiative, in which Safiya Mohamed participated.