Nyakim Gatwech, 29, is a model from South Sudan who has been modeling professionally for about four years, but she’s found herself in a different kind of limelight after a Columbia University professor’s tweet many on social media found offensive.
“I feel like he’s unintentionally being racist, naturally if you want to give someone a compliment, why would you use the words freak of nature,” Gatwech said of the tweet.
Gatwech’s large online following were quick to call out Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman for his racially insensitive quote tweet which reads, “Whether a work of art or freak of nature she’s a beautiful sight to behold.”
Lieberman made reference to another tweet which reads, “It’s not a work of art made of black stone or granite. She is Sudanese model Nyakim Gatwech. The most beautiful among the Black beauties. She is in the Guinness Book of Records for having the darkest skin ever seen on earth. She is also known as the Queen of Dark.”
“So I went on Google and I did my little research and I said, ‘Wow so he’s really saying I’m not human,’ he dehumanized me and I started reading people’s posts and I said, ‘Wow so this was coming from a deeper place,’” Gatwech said.
Since coming to America to pursue her modeling career, Gatwech admits her journey hasn’t always been easy, she says the modeling industry is tough and she’s been turned away because of her height or weight, but her darker skin tone has also presented opportunities and challenges.
“With me, I’ve heard so many negative comments towards my skin color before, when I saw that I was like oh, here’s another one,” she said of the controversy sparked by Lieberman’s tweet.
Amid the backlash Lieberman received following his tweet about Gatwech, he deleted his Twitter account. He was also suspended from Columbia University and removed as psychiatrist-in-chief from Columbia University Irving Medical Center Presbyterian Hospital, the New York Post reports.
Lieberman also resigned as executive director of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, according to the New York Times.
Atlanta Black Star sought comment from Columbia University and reached out to Dr. Lieberman directly for comment regarding the controversy, but our requests were not returned.
Gatwech says Lieberman did not personally apologize to her. He did address the controversy with colleagues in an email obtained by the New York Post which reads in part, “I tweeted from my personal account a message that was racist and sexist. Prejudices and stereotypical assumptions I didn’t know I held have been exposed to myself and to you and I’m deeply ashamed and very sorry.”
Gatwech says at one time, her darker skin caused her to be bullied and experience depression.
“Colorism is something I have experienced well more than racism. Racism, people will be racist under their breath, people will try to be slick about it, but colorism in the Black community, it’s right in your face. The people who bullied me the most were Black kids,” Gatwech said.
Colorism is a form of prejudice or discrimination within a racial or ethnic group favoring people with lighter skin over darker skin.
Charmain Jackman, Ph.D, is a licensed psychologist and the founder of InnoPsyche. She says, negative comments about a person’s skin tone can have long-lasting effects on their mental health and suggests having a strong support system is critical to overcoming the trauma associated with bullying and ridicule over the color of a person’s skin.
“The skin you have is the skin you grow up and live with, you can’t change that. Having trusted adults that young people can talk to and engage in that and having people who can affirm your identity and counter those images is really important,” Jackman said.
Gatwech is not dwelling on Lieberman or his tweets despite the uproar it caused; she is focusing on her modeling career and using the experience to continue being a positive role model for other people with darker skin so they too can appreciate their true beauty inside and out.
“I came to this country at 15 years old and felt like I was not accepted and felt like I do not belong, so for me to work so hard and be comfortable with myself first and learn to love me and accept my skin color and then now I’m going out to the world and God opened this door for me and give me this platform, I didn’t ask for, I didn’t ask to go viral,” Gatwech said.
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