what does it mean to “look african?”

August 16, 2010
I didn’t know I was African until I left Africa. A loaded statement coming from a Nigerian; an Igbo girl. Nonetheless, it is exactly the way I used to feel, before my family relocated back to the States from Nigeria. Before I left the confines of my father country, declaring me an African person was redundant- a statement of the obvious – so I never had to consciously think about it. In Nigeria, particularly in my Igbo culture, my father’s name and my education were the two most important cultural indicators.

What does it mean to “look African”?
Words Geraldine Amakihe, Contributing Writer from Black Girl With Long Hair

(Sudanese model, Alek Wek)

(Ethiopian model, Liya Kebede)

When I moved back to the US I quickly realized that I was now “African” and was constantly expected to represent a billion people. And that being anything other than “that African girl” was considered an upgrade.

Countless numbers of people thought they were complimenting me with reassurances that I didn’t “look African”. Some would wonder about my last name, and upon discovering that I was Nigerian, would give a range of responses;

“Oh wow! You’re African??”

“I thought you were just ‘regular’ black”.

“Oh! So, THAT explains your features!”

I remember an instance when a teacher told me that he just knew I was African because of my “big features”. I also remember cringing inwardly as he emphatically stressed that my African look basically boiled down to my full lips. That day, as I sat in his classroom, I fiercely wished that I could be the complete opposite of what he thought was the African look. I wanted to be thinner lipped and lighter skinned, solely to force him to recognize that his so-called African look, as dominating as the idea was, was a fallacy.

Whenever the African phenotype is mentioned, the stock image is usually the stereotypically flat description of dark skin, full lips and backsides, wide noses, and highly textured hair. To delve into the misconception even further, let’s lay out all the cards and attach “poor”, “dirty”, “backwards” and “starving” to the description. People seem to find it difficult to reconcile the notion that there are just as many people who might look this way, as there are people throughout the continent who don’t, but still identify as African, and that these people fall into all levels of social status. It’s irritating when we allow ourselves to mindlessly gorge on misinformation dispensed by myths and media, and continue to dismiss people for not fitting a narrow margin of the supposed African look.

Shouldn’t it go without mention that different people identify as African, and the current categories should be expanded? However, common sense ideas often seem to be the hardest to understand or implement. For instance, with a country like Nigeria, which is an arbitrary amalgamation of hundreds of ethnicities from Fulani to Igbo, facial features and body types vary incredibly. If we step outside of Nigeria, Alex Wek and Liya Kebede are both from East Africa.

They look amazingly different, and yet, by looking at them, people would assume only Alek as the “pure African”. None of these regions are homogenous, and prevailing features run the gamut from the deepest to the fairest of complexions.

Let’s continue to extrapolate that example and apply it to Africans in the diaspora; Colombians to Canadians, Americans to Argentinians and the catch-all African phenotype begins to dissolve. The African look is a multi-dimensional one, and we shouldn’t rely entirely on the media to provide accurate information. We should constantly challenge ourselves to think outside the proverbial box and to question ourselves, because in doing so, we can expand our familiarities, and in turn, challenge the status quo. It is also our responsible, as black people, to stop associating certain African features with poverty and backwardness.

We need to totally rethink Africa and, by extension, our perception of African beauty.