Fighting prejudice takes self-worth

I have dealt with weight issues and my sexual orientation. But racial discrimination remains a problem for people in my situation

Supermodel Iman (right) with husband David Bowie
Supermodel Iman (right) with husband David Bowie

Human beings can thrive in those surroundings where they feel motivated and nurtured, but it’s also human to feel hurt when society breaks you down on account of your race, gender, your sexual orientation, and even the way your body looks... these are forms of discrimination that fuel a kind of oppression, and it baffles me to know that such a way of ‘segregation’ can not only be tolerated. It could be used for publicity.

Growing up I struggled to get in touch with who I truly was. I have battled issues over my weight and sexual orientation. The latter was a heavily-guarded secret: I even hid it from my closest ally, my mum. They are issues that can tear up an adult. You can imagine the impact they would have had on me if had allowed them to get the better of me.

My mum was my biggest supporter when it came to my weight issues. Together with my maternal grandmother, they played an important role in helping me arrive at a place of acceptance when it came to my weight. My grandma was a naturally curvy woman and she always joked that I had inherited my curves from her. She would tell me from time to time, “my child, I want you to walk with your head held up high because God created you in His own image.” These words would eventually become my anthem in times of darkness.

I count myself among a lucky few who are born knowing their purpose in life .I was fully aware that my mission was to make a mark in the arts, having always had a craving for fashion, music, writing and acting. It’s my dream to make it big in this field. My pillar has always been my mother, who has held my hand through thick and thin have got me through a lot.

When I left home in 2012 to break the chains holding me back because of my sexual identity, I never, in my wildest dream, would have believed that it would be race that was still an issue in this day and age.

I am aware of the barriers black models have to overcome to make it in the fashion world. At the age of seven I learnt of Iman, the Somali supermodel and wife to David Bowie: my mum had bought me a magazine with the model on the cover, and I coveted that magazine like a ruby. I felt exhilarated at learning of the similarities of our vicissitudes. Imam was from the same tribal clan as I am, and like my family, hers fled from Somalia to neighbouring Kenya in the 1960s for political reasons. What perplexed me even more was that she had attended the same primary school in Nairobi that I had attended.

Iman today is the founder and CEO of Iman Cosmetics, a company that manufactures beauty products for people of all skin colours, with an asset base of $25 million. The seed of that enterprise was planted by Iman in 1975, when she was shooting for a cover of Vogue. She didn’t believe her ears when the make-up artist asked her if she had brought her own make-up because they didn’t have make-up for her skin tone. And even in 2014, I have been unable to find dark shade foundation in beauty stories in Valletta.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Last year I started on my first job installing gypsum for houses, with another colleague, a white boy. One morning our employer sent us to a client’s house. But upon arriving I noticed that the middle-aged client was arguing with my colleague. I couldn’t understand what was being said because of the language barrier. After some time, my co-worker had to explain to me saying that the man had a problem with allowing me, a dark-skinned man, into the house.

I kept my cool. My mother had taught me better. I walked away, emotionally hurt, but refusing to let it break me down. I was lucky to be at peace with who I am, thanks to the values my mum instilled in me growing up, and because of role models like Tyra Banks, Oprah Winfrey, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King.

It’s sad that even in this day and age, we are still dealing with racial issues. The negativity surrounding the migration debate in Malta is not helping the situation. Some of the stereotypes linked to racial discrimination are based purely on ignorance. Someone once told me their image of black people were uneducated, construction workers. Construction workers? What’s wrong with making a living like that?

We must open up as a society and see each other from a place of love and respect. My sense of self-worth was planted and watered by my mother long before all this. I wish the same for all the people in my situation – knowing your self-worth is the one thing nobody can take away from you. Mandela said “No-one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”