In March, Nyakim Gatwech, a Minnesota-based Sudanese model, was sitting in an Uber on her way to a job interview in St. Paul when her driver, who she describes as a “light-skinned black man,” asked if she’d ever consider bleaching her much-darker-toned skin for $10,000.
“He said, ‘Wow, you’re dark,’” Gatwech says. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know.’ [Laughs]…I can tell when somebody has never seen a Sudanese person before, somebody as dark as me.”
Nyakim Gatwech went viral when she shared a story about her Uber driver asking if she would ever bleach her skin for $10,000.
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When this happened, Gatwech, now 24, recently had gotten attention for her part in a photo series called “Different Melanin,” which depicted herself with three other models of varying shades of brown skin. She posted another picture with other Sudanese friends a few days later and shared her Uber story in the caption. She was surprised to see that image gain even more traction and supportive comments than the first viral snap.
“I’m used to people asking the stupidest questions ever [about my skin],” she says, adding that she didn’t find the driver’s comment unusual. “I was so surprised that people were moved by [this story].”
Seeing those reactions inspired Gatwech to share more about her highs and lows of self-acceptance online. In so doing, the part-time school teacher, part-time model has grown her Instagram page from 20,000 followers to more than 300,000 and has booked professional gigs ranging from local magazine covers to national campaigns for brands like Aldo. Here, she opens up about being bullied as a child and why she doesn’t let the trolls get to her.
How did you react to your driver’s question about whether you’d bleach your skin?
I just laughed. I wanted to know why he thought I should. He said because life would be easier for me. It would be easier for me to be in a relationship, or guys would be more attracted to me if I was lighter. If I was going to a job interview, I would get the job opportunities because I’m lighter. I just said, “[Even if] being lighter would make my life easier, I’d rather take the [hard] road.”
Did you ever consider bleaching your skin in the past?
At one point, I did consider it. When I came to America from a refugee camp in Africa [at age 14], I lived in Buffalo, New York. I would cry myself to sleep after being bullied [about my skin]. There are so many beautiful dark-skinned Sudanese women who bleach their skin. My own sister did it. But when I told her I wanted to [after living in America for a few months], she told me no. She said, “You would not just be bleaching your skin, you would be bleaching your mind. I did it and I regret it. I’m not going to let my daughter do it, or you — nobody.”
What was your vision of America like when you arrived at age 14?
Oh, it was going to be like heaven. Living in a refugee camp [in Africa meant] sleeping in tents, not knowing where your dinner is coming from, not drinking clean water. America is education, food, hospitals, not feeling like your child will pass away because there’s no medical care. [But] you come here and realize you have to work hard for everything. Yeah, it’s not as heavenly as it seems, as it was made out to be back home. But at the end of the day, America is a really great country if you make it.
Why were you in the refugee camp to begin with?
My family is from Sudan. My mother fled before I was even born, because there was a war. Soldiers would come and shoot the whole village, machine gun everybody down. She had to make her way with her children on foot to Ethiopia [to our first refugee camp], and she lost my older sister — she passed away along the way. We were there until the U.N. left that camp. After that, we moved to a refugee camp in Kenya, where finally we were accepted into the United States.
Were you ever in danger inside the refugee camp?
Rebels would try to rob us, and my mother would take all of us in one room, hold us, and lie on top of us to protect us. My brother has a scar — he got attacked with a long knife [by rebels] while he was in the room with my sister and me. My mother was just crying, screaming, and the neighbors came, and finally the rebels left.
You haven’t always received positive reactions to your skin tone. You mentioned you were bullied by classmates when you moved to Buffalo, New York.
They would say, you know, I’m too black, my skin is too dark. They’d be like, “You don’t take showers. That’s why your skin is dirt.” Or, “Smile so we can see you, Nyakim. We can’t see you.” And then, in class, for example, the teacher would ask a question and say, “Oh, Nyakim, can you answer that?” A kid would say, “Who are you talking to? We can’t see her. She’s not here.” The whole class would start laughing, and I would just cry. The kid who would say that would go to the principal, or [he] would get in trouble. But the whole class was feeling what this kid was saying.
What were you thinking at the time?
I just kept to myself. I was like, “These people don’t accept me.” I was already having trouble with the language barrier and learning English to communicate with my teachers. I had always wanted to be a model, but after that I thought, “These kids think I’m ugly. I don’t see myself on social media, or TV, or in the magazines. I don’t think I’m meant to be a model.” I pushed that thought out of my head.
Did the bullying continue when you moved to Minnesota later that year?
I’d walk into the grocery store, and people would stare at me. I could hear people saying under their breath, “Oh my God, she’s so black. Is that even normal?” [To meet friends,] I tried joining sports — track and field. [My teammates would] say, “Are we going to be able to even see her when it’s her turn to pass the relay stick?” I quit track. I just kept to myself.
How do you react to online haters?
The negative reactions or comments don’t affect me as much now — some of them I laugh at. But there are some that go deep and bring me down for a little bit. Some people say I get followers because people feel bad for me, not because I’m actually beautiful. They say I’m the dumbest person ever. But there are millions more people who think I’m beautiful and give me positive feedback.
Do you think these comments have gotten more or less numerous since Donald Trump took office?
Since he gained power, there have been more and more comments like that. More people are like, “I can be racist. I can say whatever I want to say.”
There have been some events recently, like the Charlottesville riot, where KKK members and white nationalists seem to have been given more of a voice. What’s your message to people who think like they do?
We’re all human. There’s no need to divide ourselves. There’s no need to think that one person is better than others. People like that are lacking self-love as well. If you don’t accept who you are, you hate other people. You take the anger, there’s something inside you, you try to take that out on other people. We’re all Americans — we’re in this amazing nation together.
There have been a lot of sexual harassment accusations in the modeling industry recently. Has that ever happened to you or to someone you know?
I’m not in [the heart of] the industry. I’m in Minnesota, so I fly to New York once in a while when I get a gig there. Thank God, I haven’t experienced it ever, and I’m not sure what I’d do if I did. But I hear about it, I read about it. I know [the sister of] a Sudanese model who disappeared for two days after a photo shoot. She was sexually assaulted by the director. She wasn’t missing-missing – she was just so ashamed by what had happened. You know, you are in bikinis, lingerie in front of a man, you have to pray the photographer you are working with is not lusting over you or looking at you a certain way. You can tell the difference between [professionals and non-professionals] — when they look at you they see something more than you doing your job.
Has anyone reached out to you to tell you how your story has inspired them?
The most positive reaction ever is [a young girl] telling me, “I’m proud to be the darkest girl in the room — because of you, I started to love myself.” I never imagined that somebody would feel like they’ve accepted who they are and love who they are because of something I did. That’s my main goal, if loving myself and talking about it is helping people, I want to keep doing that. That’s important.