Sunday, October 19, 2014

Real Talk! Authentic African Woman: Conversation Between Sisters

Key: BM and JM

I have known Jackie Mgido for 17 years. She and I met when I moved from Glasgow Scotland in 1997 after I got married.  We hit it off the very first time we met which was at a welcome dinner she cooked for me at her home with her husband Khetani. We played, did hair, went dancing, and dreamed.  Jackie was so into make-up and good skin, she would do facials for me when she visited me in Baltimore or when I visited her in Washington DC. Her dream was to own her own business in the beauty industry. Jackie and I lost touch for many years. She moved to L.A and just earlier this year we found each other and while she is a make up artist in Hollywood…Jackie is also the esteemed founder and visionary of Vault Cosmetics!!!!

So we have been having lots of girl- talk and catching up on each other’s adventures. A couple of weeks ago we started talking about mainstream media and the idea that there is a certain way that Black women have to be in order to be authentic. So here is our back and forth in which we explore some issues from our own perspectives in order to add to the discourse on what being authentically African/Black means for the diverse population of Black sisters out there. So first I asked her to share about Vault, the dream!

 Vault Cosmetics is a makeup line that I developed for women. But Women of Color were my primary focus, based on personal experience of not finding products that worked for my skin. My main objective was to provide a product that catered for the concerns that I had been witnessing and society has not been addressing.  My dream is to educate women about makeup, understanding why they wear makeup and the benefits. Education just opens up doors for compassion and understanding because women can be very hard on one another, particularly as far as standards of beauty are concerned. This is so cliché but that saying, “ one can only understand what I have been through if you have lived through it” that saying is so true, how many times do we judge then call a girlfriend and say “ girl now I know.”

Dillish- Vault Lipstick Brand Ambassador

On the issue of skin color? Jackie and I were talking excitedly about Vault’s new range of foundations for women of color. The issue of skin bleaching came up and we talked about the adverse side effects that this practice has on women. As a public health professional I shared with Jackie my concerns over the substances many women across Africa are applying to their skin and also the pills they ingest. The ingestion of pills to suppress melanin production is common among many African celebrities. This way of bleaching ensures a more even skin tone so that one doesn’t end up with the darker bleach resistant areas like the knuckles, and knees characterized by topical creams.

 Many women are shamed for bleaching particularly by the rather judgmental “Authentic African Brigade (I just coined a new term!! AFB),” who presume to know that women who bleach want to be white, as in they want to look like white women. The issue is not about looking like white women. The issue is the fact that light skinned women are viewed as more beautiful than dark skinned women. Doors open much easier for light skinned women.

Well my aunt (my mom's sister) was light skinned but she wanted to be even lighter so that she could look like a colored (mixed race) woman because in the early 80's in Zimbabwe, colored women were getting jobs as secretaries, qualified or not! And guess what? She did get that job, with her fair skin and red lipstick!

 The shaming has led to the pill ingestion, which causes liver damage and in the extreme can result in multi-organ failure. An article by Obiora N. Anekwe gives details about the health hazards of skin lightening products.  

But Jackie explained something to me that was an eye opener. Here she is:

 So when I started this brand I did not realize all the difficulties I was going to come across when it came to getting manufactures to make products for darker skinned women. At first I would ask for certain makeup testers and I would get really frustrated when they would send samples and I could clearly see they did not match or go with the climate in Africa. I built a great relationship with one of the manufacturers and he gave me the break down.  It was clear that everything came down to economics: women of color come in many shades, it takes for example two, three colors to make a foundation for a light skinned person and takes five or more colors to make one for a darker skinned person. He also informed me that Caucasians bought more, again everything to do with economics so companies will focus and create products where they will make a profit.
Jackie with client -Vault Studio Harare
So now interestingly enough, there is this big surge of interest in darker skin and every makeup company it trying to come out with dark colors. The problem!!!!? Africa is NOT a priority. Manufacturers (catering traditionally to the white mainstream) are taking what they have and just adjusting according to what they define as dark and going with that. No one is creating makeup for Africa they are making makeup for Black Americans and sending it to Africa. People are people, I agree but climate and other environmental factors influence the skin’s responses. For example, in hot dry climates the skin tends to produce more oil so a less oily foundation/eye- wear is needed.

Jackie at work-Vault Studio Harare

This is where Vault comes in. In educating all of us in this conversation this brings us into this whole bleaching phenomenon. If you think it is about race, think again. No, it’s not always about race, it’s about economics. As early as the 1800 both women and men bleached their skin to the point of killing themselves because lighter meant you lived the royal life darker meant you worked in the field. Guess what?? That has not changed a single bit. This also brings us to the other reason. Human beings want to be acknowledged, light is noticed first because as humans we where just built this way. We as humans associate white with everything clean and bright and black is associated with dirt and darkness. Even  young children do this! We can go on. Many dark skinned girls don’t have choices therefore they end up using stuff that is created for lighter skinned girls, people complement them and that is the end of that story. Very few will tell them how “off” it looks!

 I give a perfect example all the cute cloths used to be made for the skinny girls and they used to get all the attention. So when a big girl rocked the same outfit it looked ridiculous because it did not fit.  It is only now that a big girl can rock pants made for them and we love it and there is now a lot of pride in who they are. African pride is evident we just do not always have that right look -fit for a darker skin girl and therefore we wear the wrong look. Or do whatever we feel we have to do to get "that look"!

 Jackie and I differ in that while she is absolutely correct that dark is associated with all things negative and white with light and positive attributes, I refuse to accept that we are built this way. I believe that the narrative of whiteness as supreme, inherently good and superior has been, for centuries, pushed through colonization, slavery and other forms of subjugation such that it suppressed other narratives and became the dominant lens through which many of us view the world. Even now, the reason we are having this conversation is because we are being force fed a steady diet of images, stories, analyses and opinions from a white perspective. 

We went back and forth about the issues around self- esteem and perceptions of beauty, who sets the standard and we looked at the Media using the Viola Davis story in the New York Times. Jackie had this to say:
I do not believe that on the subject of Viola Davis that anyone was being racist and I think it has everything to do with what society thinks is beautiful or acceptable. This is why men bleach also. Case in point, Sami Sosa!
Image from LA Late News
My point exactly when we say society which society are we talking about?  We are talking about the main stream white society (who control mainstream media and images in the media), to who the rest of the world looks (or is forced to look) to set the standard on everything from governance structures to black women’s beauty! To talk about “Classic beauty” as a white woman discussing a Black woman is to say what? That she does not have lighter skin and facial features that approximate white facial features. She could not possibly have been talking about Classic Black beauty because…does it exist? And if it does who set that standard as classic?

But when Lupita Nyong’o came out and no one questioned her beauty. So how can we possibly say this is about race?

Image from US Magazine
But once again Lupita was labelled stunning by white mainstream media first. If they had rejected her kind of beauty, I can tell you that many other people of color would have done the same. In fact I listened in on conversations where black people questioned what everyone who called her beautiful was on about! They were not saying when is ugly but they couldn’t see why she was almost being fetishized by mainstream media, thereby setting another standard for black beauty and yet another potentially divisive issue. Remember when Alec Wek came onto the scene? Remember Oprah’s remarks in an interview?” "If you had been there when I was growing up, I would have thought of myself as beautiful," the presenter confessed. Why? Because the messaging around her, in the media, on TV, in social circles and even in families, was that people who looked like her were not beautiful.

With Viola Davis, I think it also has to do with all the same roles she has been played throughout the years. People have a hard time with change so they will always regress and compare to whatever they were comfortable with. I remember when I worked with Linda Blair from the movie the Exorcist. Twenty five years later people cannot see her in any other role. She has been struggling with this for years.

I don’t watch TV girl so you probably know more about this issue than I do.

 Jackie, I love that you explain how make-up is created and that you cannot just take a palate created for white skin, add some dye to it and voila! You have make up for brown skin. I also love that you are so compassionate in your approach to creating make up for African women, taking into consideration the fact that the foundation has to have less oil and that the color comes from carefully combining several shades to achieve the perfect foundations and lip colors. I feel loved by Vault!

Jackie at work in LA
 OK Jackie so let’s talk about the herrrr!
The Hairvolution! Hmmm! Personally I love for my hubby of 20 years to have variety and he loves it. So the notion that when I wear a long straight weave I am trying to be white and when I wear my big fro I am trying to be more African this to me is all ludicrous (LOL, BM is howling here!).  All I am trying to do is add spice to my life. As women we are blessed to have the ability to change when we want.  Kikiki !!!!This is why we so moody! Our multiple personalities want to come out.


I totally agree about the hair! Personally I get BORED stupid with having the same hairstyle. In a year I can wear several looks, from short buzz cut, to ultra- long Rapunzel, then to an Afro when my hair grows back and so on. I think that we are of the generation of African women who grew up in Zimbabwe and hair was very much an accessory for our moms and aunts. My mom wore a variety of wigs and my favorite was the big curly Fro. I doubt very much that she had the luxury of time to “question her Africanness” because, well, she just was! I am a lot like that. I am what I am and I am most certainly NOT my herr! I just wish the “Authentic African Brigade” would not always sound so all knowing on these issues. Sometimes they come across like the religious fanatics determined to beat you over the head with their Bibles until you believe! If they are so at peace with their decisions to go natural or to avoid weaves then why are they so judgmental and self-righteous in that very off putting way? And I know many who after a few years of the natural are back with the creamy crack or whatever they call hair relaxers! Live and let live is what I say! Concentrate on freeing yourself from your holier than thou attitude and allow other women to walk their own journey their way! There are so many complex issues to do with identity, culture, caste, class and education that the simplistic discussions where people's views are so absolute can be quite dangerous and hurtful. Here let’s share some hair evolution pics!!

As humans we also get bored and when we experience other cultures, we become curious and want to try new things. Long straight hair is fun, so is curly hair. It is all about the seasons. Do we want to emulate other cultures? Of course, but that does not mean we hate ourselves it just means we are bored and want something different.


So the name VAULT, do tell!!

 OK! Let’s go back to how I came up with the name Vault. I had so much fear and what freaked me out the most was not being accepted by my African family- that my people would laugh at me if I failed. All I wanted was for Africa to say “this is one of our own”. So I named the line Vault because I was opening up to every emotion that I was fearful and anxious to share. East or West home is best. Don’t we all want to be accepted?

Absolutely, but not if that acceptance comes at the expense of my individuality, creativity and the right to express myself as I want. The problem with herd mentality is that to be accepted you have to cut off all those corners so you can fit into the round hole. Sometimes the herd just cannot handle difference because they feel it threatens the order of things. So in a sense that kind of acceptance is not authentic. In fact you are I are much the same aren’t we? We are hybrids of all the places we have lived and this is such a blessing. But the tough part is that we are perceived as belong neither here in the US nor there in Africa, despite any efforts to prove how “authentic” we are there or here! You know what I do know for sure now (ageing is such a fabulous gift!)?

That the only AUTHENTIC reality is that I am a HUMAN BEING. Period. I am a mosaic of many different cultures/ philosophies/beliefs/truths and yet and still I am fully human. That is authentic to me. That and the booty! Ha ha ha ha ha!


The booty!!! I just find it so funny and it only goes to show you that trends are driven again by money. Whatever brings in the bank is what works. So now the booty is in because mainstream media says so. I think what happens is a Caucasian girl with a prominent booty happens to be popular at this moment and time and because it’s not a black girl in that body it just stands out and it looks great to the white guy- you mean white establishment- that is making all the decisions. Just pure ignorance.  I will give you a perfect example I get more complements from white men than black men and that is because I am an enigma to a white guy and to a black guy they see this all the time so the interest is not that great. It is just human nature. Humans are just confused sheep.

 But our “confused sheepness” is costing us! It’s like we are all pawns on a global chessboard and we are being played by this white, capitalist, heteronormative patriarchal system. We feed it! The divisions are all ideas to keep us preoccupied with our differences, fighting each other along racial, gender, tribal and other lines. In the meantime the system gluts itself at our expense, sets the bar on what is beautiful, acceptable and what is not. We need to disengage from the mass manipulation, have compassion for one another (we are all broken somehow by this system) and embrace each other as human beings! That’s authentic right?

Right! I believe with all the things I am discovering and products I am developing, a lot of women are going to embark on a journey towards discovering WHO they are and have their personal aha moments. The more they discover why they wear makeup and liberate themselves from all the external and internal negative judgments, the more powerful they will become. Then I think talking to other women openly will bring us into our collective aha moment and power. VAULT!  That word has so much meaning. To me it means strength, mystery, richness, depth, courage, quality, bravery and taking a chance. Need I say more? This is our mission and vision!

No. You needn’t say anymore Jackie! It is a strong and beautiful vision and mission: to enhance the beauty of sisters so that they can become!

Thank you so much! Let’s do this again soon!!
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