“Would he call his wife or his daughter a freak of nature?” wonders Nyakim Gatwech, the 29-year-old model targeted in a racism scandal that shook an Ivy League university. “His words are not just affecting me, but dark-skinned girls in general, dark-skinned girls who go to Columbia too or even a dark-skinned girl who is wishing to go there. It can affect her in a way that none of us can imagine – especially coming from a psychiatrist.”
Jeffrey Lieberman has ranked among the US’s foremost clinicians for more than two decades. As the longtime chair of Columbia University’s psychiatry department, he was especially respected for his research and published discoveries about schizophrenia. But last month, the former president of the American Psychiatric Association became known for something else.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Lieberman retweeted a photo of Gatwech and described her as a “freak of nature”; this was after the original post used the pronoun it in reference to the woman while making the false claim that she was listed in the Guinness book for having the world’s darkest skin.
The fallout for Lieberman was swift. Within days he was suspended from his post at Columbia, stripped of his psychiatrist-in-chief position at Columbia University Irving Medical Center/NewYork-Presbyterian hospital and asked to resign as director of the New York state psychiatric institute – a post that paid him almost $250,000. In addition to widespread condemnation online, Lieberman faced scorn from his many collaborators in New York’s elite medical community. “He’s a destructive personality who has done a great deal of damage, who is only now being held accountable after decades of impunity,’’ one former colleague told the City.
In an email to university cohorts, Lieberman wrote: “An apology from me to the Black community, to women and to all of you is not enough.” Before his tweet and his Twitter account vanished, the model, Nyakim Gatwech, made sure to take a screenshot for posterity.
All her life, Gatwech has observed white people ogling her as if she were some kind of modern-day Hottentot Venus, an African female curiosity. But she hasn’t let the derisive comments deter her from pursuing a career as a fashion model, even as she risks being exposed to even more cutting prejudice in an industry famous for it. And while many industry stakeholders were quick to align themselves with the George Floyd-born antiracism movement while promising greater inclusion, Black fashion models still struggle to break through, much less earn their fair share. All the while, the same issues of cultural appropriation and racist gaffes remain.
In her determination to join the ranks of Alek Wek, Duckie Thot and other world-renowned dark-skinned models, Gatwech makes her own breaks. For the better part of a decade, in between jobs as a Minneapolis daycare teacher and at a Buffalo, New York, Panera Bread, and while pursuing a degree in education, Gatwech collaborated with photographer friends to produce her own photoshoots, posting her favorite snaps to Instagram.
It was through the following cultivated there that she came to be known as “queen of the dark” – a nickname that probably led to the Guinness book claim taking on a life of its own.
The photo Lieberman retweeted, of Gatwech perched on a hotel bed mock-reading a newspaper, came from a shoot she hustled together two years ago. “Years back,” she says, “this thing would have really affected me.”
Gatwech has lived a lifetime in her 29 years. Her mother fled war-torn South Sudan while pregnant; she was born at a refugee camp in Ethiopia and lived at another camp in Kenya for nine years before immigrating to Buffalo at age 16.
On top of the ridicule she faced for not speaking English, the racist comments about her skin tone were relentless. “I would sit down in the classroom, and the students in front and behind me would get up and go, like I had some kind of disease or I smelled or my clothing wasn’t clean,” she recalls. “And some of these were other Black kids, to be quite frank with you. They were literally social distancing from me.”
Some of the most uncomfortable moments, Gatwech recalls, came when the classroom lights went down for the projector; when she raised her hand, a classmate would think nothing of asking the teacher: “Can you even see her?”
The bullying pushed Gatwech to consider suicide and weigh whether to bleach her skin – something her older sister was already doing. “She was like, ‘Here are the products, but it’s not going to solve anything,’” Gatwech recalls. “As you get older and into your career, there’s still gonna be people who say something about your skin color. You’ve got to work on loving yourself and not letting these people’s words affect you.”
So they initiated a routine of daily affirmations and remembering the risks their mother took to bring them this far. And when the racist and colorist taunts finally became insufferable, the family pulled up stakes for the Minneapolis area, where they found instant community among the area’s east African expats. Once her self-confidence had recovered, Gatwech started to reconsider a career in modeling while binge-watching America’s Next Top Model after school. “When I saw Tyra Banks, I was like, ‘Wow, if she can do it, I can do it,’” she says. “But that was before I realized that my skin tone is not really accepted like that in this industry.”
Her independent research into colorism sparked the idea for a shoot made up of Black women across the skin tone spectrum. But it was an outtake of her sitting next to a fair-skinned model during a set re-staging that properly launched her career and led to her booking work – not that it stopped her hustle. “For my first three big campaigns, I was the one pretending to be my manager,” says Gatwech. Unsure of what to charge for the work, she Googled possible rates.
Still, the fact that model agencies hold fast to their blinkered views when it comes to rostering Black models is a continuing source of frustration. “When an agency already has that Sudanese dark-skinned model, they will just continue to work with her,” says Gatwech, who attended Black Lives Matter rallies in the Twin Cities after Floyd’s killing. “But that’s not diversity. Why can there only be one?”
Gatwech’s social media ascent has continued, but she has yet to land a deal with a major modeling agency. “There hasn’t been an opportunity where a brand was like, ‘We want to put you on the cover of a magazine,’” says Gatwech, who splits time between New York and LA. “At least not yet. I’m just believing in God’s plan.”