An Interview with Ofunne Amaka, Creator of Cocoa Swatches

Updated March 29, 2016 9:39pm PDT
Ofunne

The obvious takeaways from my sweet and engaging (for me anyways) interview with Ofunne Amaka, is that yes, Cocoa Swatches, the app that helps black women/femmes/women of color/brown skinned people who wear make-up navigate the strange and heavily imbued process of tone and color testing, is a black feminist project. 

And no, I really shouldn't trip off Pinterest. 

Below is an edited version of our lively gchat discussion in which we cover internalized racism, black femme pride, international colorism, and much more. 

I'm really excited for you and about Cocoa Swatches in general. How are you feeling about it right now? Where are you at in your creative process?

It's actually a little surreal right now; I don't think I've fully processed all of the response I've gotten since it launched. But I am so excited to see how many people it's helping.

In terms of creative process, I am really focused on making sure I keep the Instagram community growing and creating really good, quality, original content for the app.

How quickly did it grow? Have you gotten any specific feedback that felt especially good?

I've been running the Instagram community for awhile but I saw a really huge surge in followers after I launched the app on February 29th. I think I've gotten close to 8,000 followers from then until now. 

A reccurring theme I've noticed from the feedback is that the app is helping many people feel empowered to experiment with makeup in a way they wouldn't or couldn't before. Many people feel they can express themselves more confidently with makeup through the app. And that truly means everything to me.

I feel like as a young black girl and/or femme, I didn't see images of myself reflected back to me in terms of how I could perform femininity or even just play with makeup; when I did it was this very set thing, and to deviate from that was to try to do a thing white girls were doing successfully that I just wasn't able to.

Yea, I def feel you on that! For awhile I really believed that makeup was just not for me—there were times where I tried on certain products that wouldn't even show up on my skin tone. And for awhile, I lost interest in it altogether because, similar to what you said above, it felt like something I wouldn't be able to do successfully.

What was the shift for you, do you think?

I think it just happened with time. When I graduated from undergrad and started working, I had the income and time to experiment (I was a student athlete my entire academic career so it didn't leave time for much else). 

What sport? Not to interrupt!

No worries! I played varsity soccer and track in high school and ran track in college. I'm a hurdler/jumper. With the income and with working in corporate America, I felt like I should at least get some basic makeup products, so I just started to go to makeup counters and experiment. Soon my style blogging started to incorporate beauty products—I had wasted a lot of money on useless products, and it was the frustration I felt during this time that led me to start Cocoa Swatches.

Damn have I ever wasted money on useless products, or like ones where someone at a makeup counter matched my skin tone wrong.

It's so crazy, cuz I think that's something that so many black women have experienced. It's almost a given at this point, which is really sad. I've been matched wrong or guessed about a drugstore product and been way off.

Yes! I have tried using the black specific lines before and had the make-up folks at Target have no idea how to use them or match them— so they just redirected me over to Neutrogena and shit and matched me with something that made me look like I was in whiteface!

Yea, the struggle is real. And like you said, not all locations will carry those products targeted to black women. That's another way of limiting our selection.

I watched a series called “Strolling” on youtube where an Italian black girl couldn't find Lupita's shade of Lancome foundation, even though she was the cover girl because "Italian girls don't wear that shade." 

How infuriated must she have felt upon hearing that.

Cocoaswatch

Oh jeez that's so awful.I mean, national ignorance about a country's actual constituents is so common. Especially here! What does an American look like? Still white, probably.

That's very true; colorism is a global phenomenon.

Yes! Do you think that the white supremacist beauty standards of the makeup industry perpetuate internalized racism for black women (and or femmes) and other people of color?

I don't know that I would place blame on the makeup industry alone, but they have definitely upheld the beauty ideals that are centered around whiteness that were established ages ago and yet still exist in 2016. Instead of changing the status quo, many institutions seem to be content with doing things as they always have, upholding that flawed, singular definition of beauty, which in turn probably does contribute to some internalized racism.

The fact that they still sell bleaching cream or "brightening cream" really breaks my heart.

Right, no, I would never put blame on any industry alone, but that's not really how complacency works, right? As you said, it's about the contentment or at least, expression of contentment with keeping things as they are. And yeah, it's amazing how insidious it is. What made you choose the Communications Practice program? And how did you make it your own?

I chose the program because I knew I wanted to pursue Communications as a career path, but I wanted to get a firmer grasp on the different types of things I could do within the field. The Communications Practice program at Columbia was a really great place to do that. Make it in terms of?

I guess I'm just personally fascinated by how people hone in on their area, when studying a discipline or earning a degree that could have multiple manifestations. So with all the different things you could do, how did you find what you do now? Or how is what you're doing now still expanding? What more would you like to do? 

At the core of communications and marketing is storytelling—it's kind of cliché to say, but I really believe its true. The thing that makes one person buy a product over another isn't necessarily the quality or the cost, but the brand and personality behind it.

I've always been into stories. I used to read A TON as kid; I would go to the library and get 10 books at a time. And I liked to write. Originally,I was going to pursue journalism—but when social media emerged, it gave me a chance to try out comms. As a young person, I was an innate user. That's where my career started, as a social media intern at a tech start up.

As I began to become more aware of myself and who I am as a black woman in America, and also a Nigerian woman, I began to see how we were portrayed in the limelight and how that may have affected my views of the world and the way I viewed myself.

I decided that wherever my career takes me, I know that I want to help change any negative perceptions of black women in the media and create representation.

Ofunne3

I relate to soooo much of what you're saying: about reading a ton as a kid, writing, being an innate user of social media, and wanting to affect representation. I think it's beautiful and fascinating how we are each going about it. And of course, our stories are not over!

How old are you? And you're from the Bay, right? How long ago did you move to the East Coast? How do you feel about the difference between living in the East Bay vs New York? Is it frictive? Or complimentary to your lifestyle?

Yes, our stories are not over! We are using the resources we have at our disposal to create change and its so amazing!

I am 26 and from the Bay Area originally. I moved to New York in July 2014 to start the Communications Practice program at Columbia. I think NY is way more fast paced. There are certain things I took for granted I feel: weather definitely, customer service, I think people are just friendlier in California. The attitude of people here in New York caught me off guard at first.

I'm from New Jersey, and growing up was in and out of New York constantly for dance and music, so it's my home and I love that way of relating. The west coast is a little bizarre to me. But I love saying “How ya doin'?” to everyone on the street. I love Oakland for that.

Haha yea, its just a different vibe. I also think the hustle and bustle of Silicon Valley and the tech space is kind of how it is in New York for advertising, marketing, and comms—the fashion and beauty world is so much more poppin on the east coast.

Speaking of tech, what do you think is unique about the app as a medium for this project? How do you think it helps reach people in a way that another platform wouldn't? And what are the drawbacks? Also I am totally ignorant of what it means to design an app really. I'm like a nerd who is a wannabe geek so I like the theory but don't know what it physically entails.

To be honest, I don't either. I didn't actually develop the app—it was through a resource called dwnld, which is almost like a wordpress for apps.

I developed the structure of the app around what I could do with their platform. I think my tech background really helped me realize how "mobile first" we are. W are always on our phones—anything that is new should be easy to access on a phone or tablet.

When I initially thought about taking Cocoa Swatches to the next level, I created a website
and while it was mobile friendly, it didn't provide the experience I was looking for. I really wanted to make a resource that would allow people to make informed purchasing decisions easily. That's when I knew something like an app, that anyone could easily access by a quick tap on their phones, was the way to go. 

I couldn't be happier with the app, dwnld allowed me to create exactly what I imagined in my head.

I'm playing around with it now and it's really user friendly. Nice big font and images to go with text. You even have recommended vloggers and other apps! 

Yea! I wanted to recognize all of my amazing influences in creating great content, despite an environment determined to leave them out of the conversation.

That's really important. It bums me out when someone makes something really innovative in style, but then acts like it's the first thing of it's kind. I mean Cocoa Swatches is really revolutionary and pioneering, but we all have influences and solidarity is key. Do you consider this a black feminist project?

Yea. I think it's key to be inclusive and mindful of those people—it's really a lot of work and investment that should be recognized.

You know, until this moment I didn't think of it that way, but I guess it is. I do consider myself to be a black feminist and I think this project is an extension of black feminism, and the intersectionality of those two concepts—being black and being a feminist.

Ofunne2

Fuck yeah! That's what I was hoping you would say! People far too often sell themselves short when speaking about whether or not their work is political. Nonmarginalized, or highly privileged people often seem to think that you have to declare something political, or directly interfacing with starkly defined terms around "the government" or "social justice" for something to be a political project, but as a black disabled queer femme I know that's not true. I think what you're doing is rad, is what I'm trying to say.

Thank you! And yea I agree. I think people sometimes shy away from the fact that things like hair and obviously makeup are inherently political—but that's the reality of the world we live in, it just is.

I think it's femmephobic/misogynist to deny that they are. We put a lot of stock in them, and then dismiss them as frivolous or shallow concerns. My black femme armor is important to me! I have just two more questions: 

1) Who is your black style icon?

2) Should I be using Pinterest? I don't understand it.

Rihanna, hands down. And I think some people find it useful, but I think if you have Tumblr you are good. I have one but I just cant get into it, haha.

We're the same age so I trust you.

Haha yea, don't trip off Pinterest. 

Cocoa Swatches can also be found on Instagram and Twitter.

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Lyric Seal aka Neve Be(ast) is a mixed black, queer, multigender, disabled, porn performing, performance art wreaking femme anarchist with a vengeance. They are a staff writer at HARLOT covering all topics which can vaguely be related to performing arts, love, sex/work, disability justice, policy, and the lush insides of their mind. Neve also has a column in maximumrocknroll called "Totally Lame." They are a contributor to Everyday Feminism and various literary magazines. You can book them to dance, talk, teach, and make you feel good about yourself.