Every weekend afternoon at 2 p.m., the opening strains of the popular Somali-American song “Midabkeeda Dhiinka” come over the airwaves on 101.7 FM.
It’s Amira Adawe’s theme song.
When singer Ahmed Cali Cigaal begins to croon in celebration of a dark-skinned woman’s natural beauty, thousands of listeners to community radio station KALY know that Adawe, a Twin Cities public health advocate, is about to hold forth. For the next hour she’ll cajole callers to open up about “hush-hush” topics such as skin lightening, racism, self-esteem and beauty.
Adawe, who has a day job managing Gov. Mark Dayton’s Children’s Cabinet, started hosting her hourlong show in Somali and English last fall. It’s part of an expanding mission that began when she was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “This has become something that I’m so passionate about,” she said. “How do we redefine beauty? How do we change the beliefs that people have, that if you are dark, you aren’t beautiful, and if you are light, you are beautiful?”
It’s an issue that Adawe, who was born in Mogadishu and emigrated to Minnesota in 2000, has been thinking about all her life. She credits her mom, who was a nurse and midwife in Somalia, for making her feel secure about herself.
“I am the darkest in my family, so sometimes people would visit us when I was really young, and say, ‘Oh, she’s dark,’ ” Adawe said. “I experienced that, but I have a mother who protected me from that. My mother made me feel that I was accepted for who I am.”
Taking on skin-lightening creams
During a graduate school class on chemical exposure, Adawe was shocked to learn about the toxins in some skin-lightening products, products used by some of her friends and family members.
Skin-lightening creams are a multibillion-dollar business, extremely popular around the world and in many Minnesota communities of color. But the creams, which work by reducing melanin production, can be very dangerous when used too often and liberally, Adawe said.
Even though skin-lightening products that contain mercury are banned by the state of Minnesota and the Food and Drug Administration, Adawe’s research revealed that they were still being sold illegally in Twin Cities stores.
She decided to do something about it.
First, she worked to alert state and federal agencies about dangerous products that were being sold locally. Then, through educational outreach sessions, she worked to warn the public about the dangers of toxic ingredients, such as mercury, and the side effects of using hydroquinone and topical steroids in higher-than-recommended amounts. She also helped the state Department of Health launch a biomonitoring study to screen pregnant women for exposure to mercury, as well as lead and cadmium.
Now, she wants to change the way we think and talk about beauty, eroding the demand for products called Whitenicious or Fair & Lovely.
In Adawe’s Somali culture, a popular term of endearment, “cadey,” literally means light-skinned, she said.
“It’s a whole world that is telling you your color is not good enough,” Adawe said. “It is deeply rooted, and so sometimes in a discussion it’s helpful for me to ask, ‘Why do we do this? Why is this a part of our culture?’ Some people mention colonization, and how after colonization, this stayed.”
On the air
A year ago, she sought a bigger platform, and met with KALY’s executive director, Mahamed Cali. That’s how her show, which she calls “Beauty-Wellness Talk,” came about.
“Really, this is one of the best programs we have,” Cali said. “It was a hush-hush topic that nobody was brave enough to talk about. She’s really consistent, and she knows she’s saving lives.”
On a recent Saturday, Adawe perched in the station’s second-floor studio in south Minneapolis. Surrounded by a free-form quilt of green and yellow foam soundproofing panels, she put headphones on over her close-cropped curls, cupped her hands around the microphone, and began her show.
“You don’t have to share your name,” she reminded her listeners in Somali, giving them the number to call. She’s hopeful and supportive instead of chiding, and quick to flash a broad smile.
She encourages her listeners to feel proud of who they are, instead of altering themselves, she said.
“You are making yourself look like something that you are not. This is against your whole identity. You are basically changing who you are,” she tells them.
“That clicks,” she said.
Initially, her program got pushback. Some callers asked Adawe to talk about something else, while others suggested that the topic was none of her business. In a few months, the number of angry calls slowed to a trickle, Cali said.
But a different kind of call began to come in. One woman called to say that she was afraid to stop lightening her skin because she worried that her husband would leave her for another woman.
“It was the scariest thing,” Adawe said. “Nobody should feel like this.”
Adawe flew to New York this past spring to appear on Hearst Television’s “Matter of Fact With Soledad O’Brien,” telling the former CNN anchor, “I think what will help is changing this whole narrative.”
Social media (where filters can change shades), TV and movies, fashion magazines and advertisements all play a part, Adawe said. She’s glad to see high-profile women such as Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o talking about the issue.
Adawe’s latest effort is to bring her message into schools, and she’s working to create a curriculum for teachers.
She often urges parents to talk to their girls about what it means to be beautiful.
“You have to have that conversation with them before somebody else does,” Adawe said. “They should not hear from somebody else defining them. I think that’s the key.”