At least with hair weaves and fake accents (other manifestations of an identity crisis), no one is in danger of kidney damage, damage to the nervous system, skin rashes, skin discolouration and scarring, or reduction in the skin’s resistance to bacterial and fungal infections. But rather than the practice dying out as African economies boom, it is reportedly on the rise, partly thanks to increasing urbanisation.

According to the World Health Organisation, 77% of Nigerian women use skin lightening products on a regular basis (I suspect the study was done among Yoruba women), as do 59% in Togo, 35% in South Africa, 27% in Senegal and 25% in Mali. These products are also used in Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, Gambia and Tanzania. These figures seem unusually high, but even if they’re overblown the problem is more than just cosmetic, it is culturally destructive.

Who defines beauty?
Will we manage to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery (to paraphrase Bob Marley) or will the problem eventually just go away as the world turns beige from increased interracial marriage? It’s going to take a long time for the latter to happen, so we’ve got no choice but to do the former, because most Africans are dark-skinned, and we have to see the beauty in that for our own psychological well-being.

Our thinking seems to be: the darker we are, the more ‘African’ we are, which wouldn’t be a problem if some of us didn’t think there was something wrong with being African. Why do we think that? Malcolm X once asked, “Who taught you to hate yourself? Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin?”

We were taught to hate ourselves through centuries of the slave trade (Arab and trans-Atlantic) and the colonial period that followed, and we are still being taught to hate ourselves through a Western consumer culture that is sold through today’s global media. And many of those who don’t go in for skin-lightening also tacitly accept the idea that lighter is better (particularly if it comes with European, rather than African, features), so we’re all part of a system that promotes self-hate. When people defend skin-lightening/bleaching by saying what people do to their skin is their own business, it’s usually a sign that they too value lighter skin over dark skin, whatever their own skin tone.

Does self-hatred sound too strong a term? What else is one to conclude when you have someone like South African kwaito star Mshoza proudly stating that she started undergoing skin-lightening and plastic surgery because she was “tired of being ugly”?

This internalised form of racism is an invisible presence in our psyches, and some of us don’t even realise it’s a factor in how we perceive ourselves and others. Thus, for instance, black guys (not only in Africa) think their attraction to light-skinned girls is just a matter of taste, and some who lighten their skin can’t articulate why they do so beyond saying that it’s just prettier, as though skin lightening were akin to putting on lipstick. It’s a matter of identity, self-worth and self-acceptance that, in some respects, is even existential.

The legacy of slavery and colonialism

The colonisation of Africa

The colonisation of Africa

There is some evidence of colourism (system of privilege, discrimination and hierarchies based on social meanings attached to skin tone) in Africa before contact with Europeans in the 16th century. By and large, though, Africans used shared culture, language and traditions, rather than skin tone, as a means of identification.

Part of the process of creating a European empire was to define the European self in contrast to everyone else. How could you justify dominating and enslaving other people if you didn’t tell yourself you were better in every way? Europeans placed themselves at the pinnacle of the human race and dark-skinned Africans at the very bottom. To be black was to be primitive, backward, inferior, dirty, ugly, evil, devilish, deviant, corrupt and unappealing, while to be white was to be virtuous, beautiful, refined, humane, intelligent and godly.

Divide and conquer
By the 19th century, spurious scientific “evidence” was being produced to support this dichotomy, thereby providing an ideological justification for colonialism. It also provided a means of control: tell the lighter-skinned black Africans that they are more beautiful, intelligent and industrious than their darker-skinned brothers and sisters, and you will soon have created divisions that make control easier.

A 1930 French ad for Dirtoff showed a dark African man washing his hands, with the soap washing away his blackness. Such ads were common in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Blackness had become a pathological condition – there was something fundamentally wrong with you if you were black – while whiteness became the paradigm, the standard, the ideal, and who doesn’t want to be ideal?

Meanwhile, in America, skin tone was also used to control and sow divisions among black people and, as a side bonus, to warp their minds. Bi-racial offspring of white masters and black slaves were made house slaves and separated from their darker-skinned counterparts, who remained in the fields. Thus the feelings of inferiority created by the condition of being enslaved permeated even deeper.

Black people in America were repeatedly told that everything about them was evil, ugly and unwanted. There were even debates among white Americans questioning whether or not black people were human beings with souls. This would be irrelevant to what was, and still is, going on in Africa if it weren’t for the fact that colourism is very much alive in America (and Europe) today, and is manifested in the images from America (and Europe) that many of us use to assess and define ourselves.

After centuries of promoting this way of seeing the world, white skin and features became established as the hallmarks of beauty and status, and it is such an intrinsic part of the global system of capitalism today that it is taken for granted: white – or light – is right.

Colonial mentality in the post-colonial world
Colonialism didn’t end that long ago. Your parents or grandparents either suffered from or benefited directly from colonialism. As Africans, we freed ourselves and won our independence, but psychologically we continued to view ourselves through the lens of whiteness. In other words, we were left with the shackles of colonial mentality.

According to Wikipedia, colonial mentality occurs “when a foreign colonial or imperial power is too strong to be effectively resisted, the colonised population often has no other immediate option than to accept the rule of the foreigners as an inescapable reality of life. As time progresses, the colonised indigenous people-natives would perceive the differences between the foreigners and themselves, between the foreigners’ ways and the native ways. This would then sometimes lead the natives to mimic the foreigners that are in power as they began to associate that power and success with the foreigners’ ways. This eventually leads to the foreigners’ ways being regarded as the better way and being held in a higher esteem than previous indigenous ways.

In much the same fashion, and with the same reasoning of better-ness, the colonised soon equates the foreigners’ racial strain itself as being responsible for their superiority. The native soon strives to that strain to give their children a better standing in life than just their native genes.”

Skin tone
Thus, following colonial rule, there were parents who would compliment their light-skinned kids on their “beautiful, light skin”, unaware of the potential psychological damage their comments might be causing. Suddenly the kid is made conscious of something he/she needs to maintain in order to be liked. Meanwhile, any dark-skinned kids overhearing the compliment start to have a complex about their skin tone, and grow up with particular ideas about standards of beauty. We hear such compliments today, parents complimenting kids, men complimenting women, and women commenting on other women’s skin tone.

Who taught us to hate the colour of our skin? Arab slave traders, then Europeans, and now we’re continuing the work ourselves (with some assistance from afar).

Reinforcing the message a thousand times a day



The most powerful way this message is reinforced today, though, is through consumer culture and global mass media. The mass media form for us our image of the world. The images they choose to present and how these images are presented subliminally and yet profoundly affect the way we interpret what we see or hear. Even our image of ourselves is greatly influenced by what media shows us about our own group. People who lighten their skin and those who associate light skin with positive virtues and dark skin with negative ones aren’t stupid. They just don’t have the psychological resources to withstand the deluge of images they are presented with every day. Thousands of images from magazines, TV, film, ads, and the news, all equating light skin with beauty, affluence, happiness and success, and portraying dark-skinned black people as aggressive, unintelligent, criminals, crude, lazy, etc.

Even black-owned media do this. There was a brief period during the Black Power Movement of the 1960s and its accompanying Black is Beautiful campaign when dark-skinned women graced the pages of the popular and influential magazine Ebony, but by the eighties it had gone back to featuring predominantly light-skinned black stars, and this was particularly so for the women it featured. This practice is common across all media, so dark-skinned women are hugely underrepresented on the catwalk, in the fashion press, in cinema and on TV.

There is no conspiracy that says this is how we want to represent the world, but there is an unconscious mindset of racial superiority that determines what gets promoted as beautiful and desirable, and in that mindset there is no room for the idea of dark-skinned beauty. Or hardly any room. Alek Wek (South Sudan/UK), Ajuma Nasenyana (Kenya), Naomi Campbell (UK) and Eunice Olumide (Nigeria) are among the tiny handful of high-profile dark-skinned models on the international stage, but as Eunice says, “… it is still rare to see a very dark-skinned model on the cover of a magazine. I’d love that to change.”

Skin lightening ad, Kumasi, Ghana

Skin lightening ad, Kumasi, Ghana

Most of the foreign media and movies consumed in sub-Saharan Africa are from America and Europe, so we take in these images and mimic the practice of colourism in our own ads and magazines. We see which black women are considered beautiful by the mass media, we see that the black models and singers who are making it are mostly lighter-skinned – Rihanna, Beyoncé, etc. We see which actresses get to play love-interest roles and which ones get relegated to bit parts, and we see which ones make it onto those Top 100 lists. We echo the message we receive and perpetuate the system that excludes dark skin from the spectrum of beauty. We see pictures of Obama and we see don’t just see a black man, but a bi-racial, light-skinned black man. Some argue that the beauty ideal is shifting from white to a more cafe-au-lait-complexion, and that this is demonstrated by the fact that women like Beyoncé, Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez now routinely top some of these “most beautiful” lists. But what seems to have happened there is that the previous practice of promoting only white women as beautiful was simply not sustainable when a significant proportion of the American population was clearly non-white, so the parameters were widened to include a handful of non-white women who are not too many skin tones away from being white. Now black people everywhere can feel they’re included in the international beauty spectrum without really being included. Might it have been better for black people if the old unspoken policy of “whites only” had been allowed to continue? If the mass media really wanted to include black people, there would be no need to lighten the skin of the already light-skinned black women, as L’Oreal did with Beyoncé in its 2008 campaign, and as many magazines continue to do. Google images of “most beautiful women in the world” and count the number of dark-skinned black women in your search results.

When you look at the Nigerian film industry (the largest of its kind in Africa), you find that its lead characters tend to be light-skinned. Fela’s condemnation of the practice in Yellow Fever (1976) doesn’t seem to have done much good. Check the Ghanaian film industry and you’ll find the same.

For dark-skinned black people, being excluded in this manner says black is not beautiful, and the epitome of beauty is a light-skinned person, so this is what you should aspire to if you’re dark-skinned. It says it from every billboard, magazine cover, TV ad, packaged product on the shelf, and film thousands of times a day. Every day. So we continue to be socialised into accepting light skin (and straight hair) as defining standards of black beauty. We continue to succumb to – and create – images that reinforce a psychologically-damaging message. And some of us go to great lengths to achieve the beauty ideal of black people as defined by Europeans and people of European descent, people who look nothing like black Africans.

A typically dark-skinned Senegalese girl holds a photo of herself looking much fairer-skinned, taken when she used skin-lightening products (Photo credit: Zed Nelson)

A typically dark-skinned Senegalese girl holds a photo of herself looking much fairer-skinned, taken when she used skin-lightening products (Photo credit: Zed Nelson)

If women in Africa are more susceptible to this than men, it is merely because women are judged much more heavily on the basis of appearance. Men are more likely to be considered valuable when they have wealth, education and other forms of human capital, while women are considered valuable when they are physically attractive, even if they lack other capital. Flick through those magazines and you’ll find that the women featured are almost always a few shades lighter than the men. Black men don’t need to be light-skinned to be worth paying any attention, but black women do. In one Tanzanian study, women claimed Tanzanian men preferred white, soft-skinned girls. Thus, skin-lightening was of utmost importance in attracting men. And once you’ve got a guy, you want to hang on to him. Another woman in the study explained that she used skin-lightening products to prevent her husband from being attracted to other girls, while yet another, a 25 year old, reported that she “started bleaching to be beautiful and to look like Arabians or Europeans and attractive to people, especially men.” We are all competing for mates, and we do whatever we can to give ourselves an advantage over the next person. Men would probably be content to live in caves if they didn’t have to acquire the trappings necessary to compete for the most desirable women, and there would be less incentive for women to lighten their skin if men didn’t keep valuing lighter skinned sisters over darker skinned ones.

The women in the study also said they lightened their skin to enhance opportunities in life (especially job opportunities), and to reduce the experience of negative stereotypes that are applied to dark skinned people. Negative stereotypes. It puts one in mind of the associations with skin colour drawn out from black American kids by black American filmmaker Kiri Davis when she recreated the 1940’s “doll experiment” a few years ago in A Girl Like Me:

Another study found that women in Senegal associate fair skin tone with elegance, beauty and a higher social status. And in the Tanzanian study, many participants felt that their lighter skinned peers have higher status, income, education, job opportunities, as well as more friends. These women are not deluded; misguided, definitely, but not deluded. They see the evidence around them. It is not surprising then that some “darker skinned people are often envious of those with lighter skin and attempt to achieve the same status by engaging in skin-lightening practices.”

A global problem
It isn’t only African Americans and Africans who are yet to free their minds. Jamaicans don’t seem to have heeded Bob Marley’s words any more than Nigerians did Fela’s. In 2007, the Jamaican government had to run a campaign called ‘Don’t Kill The Skin’ to highlight the dangers of using skin-lightening products because the practice was becoming increasingly commonplace, so commonplace in fact that some people started holding bleaching contests.

The same year, former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga stated: “There is no greater sin of slavery than the systematic brain-washing that occurred for over 300 years that instilled a belief in the second class character of the people of African descent…. This distorted image received by people of African descent continues to haunt their psyche until today as an en-during sin of slavery.”

Meanwhile, Jamaican celebrities continue to line up to endorse these products. Last year, MOBO-nominated artist of the year Vybz Kartel even launched his own range of men’s cosmetics including a variety of “skin-brightening” items.

Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel, before and after skin-lightening.

Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel, before and after skin-lightening.

The Surinamese take a different approach to skin lightening. Instead of chemicals, some parents advice their kids to marry a white person to “tone down the black”. Such parents have been known to pinch and massage the nostrils of their babies to prevent them from becoming flared. Marry lighter, get better hair and a finer nose. You will find this sort of thinking among the descendants of city Creoles, the ones who lived close to their previous colonial masters, the Dutch. Interestingly, the descendants of the Lowermang (which means “runaway slaves”) remain proud of their culture, traditions and African roots. They’re the ones who still understand the dialect of their forefathers, and would be able to converse with Ghanaians if you dropped them in the middle of Accra today. This group of Surinamese don’t go in for any of that “tone down the black” nonsense.

Marry lighter. There are dark-skinned people everywhere, men and women, who subscribe to this. Do people understand that if a dark-skinned person has a kid with someone whose skin is pale due to skin-bleaching, that their kid probably won’t be light-skinned? Perhaps those who lighten their skin feel they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. First get the man and the job opportunities. Until then, they’ll support the global skin lightening industry, which is projected to be worth $10 billion USD by 2015. The products cost anywhere between 50 cents and $150, affordable by everybody.

In Brazil, light-skinned and/or bi-racial people generally have higher rates of social mobility, and dark skinned people are more likely to be discriminated against. Most South American actors and actresses have mostly European features: light-coloured eyes, protruding narrow noses, straight hair and/or pale skin. So there’s pressure for dark-skinned Brazilians to lighten their skin, too.

Colonial mentality reigns across Asia, too. Most Indian actors and actresses have light skin, and the Indian obsession with light skin recently reached a new low with a campaign for a product to lighten the skin around your vagina.

Can we do anything about this?

Fashion model Ajuma Nasenyana talks about being teased because of her dark skin and skin-bleaching in Kenya

When Alek Wek appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show, the host confided: “If you had been on the cover [of a magazine] when I was growing up, I would have had a different concept of who I was.” If we wait for the global mass media to routinely include dark-skinned black people with African features in their spectrum of beauty, we will wait a long time to develop a healthy concept of who we are.

The next video is for a film exploring race, gender and beauty by graduate student Ng’endo Mukii who said of her film, Yellow Fever:

I am interested in the concept of skin and race, and what they imply; in the ideas and theories sown into our flesh that change with the arc of time. The idea of beauty has become globalised, creating homogenous aspirations, and distorting people’s self-image across the planet. In my film, I focus on African women’s self-image, through memories and interviews; using mixed media to describe this almost schizophrenic self-visualization that I and many others have grown up with.

Indeed, until we re-educate ourselves, we will remain alienated from ourselves, and, in a sense, live schizophrenic lives: being black, being seen as black yet hating black.

“If we really want to control the spread of the skin-bleaching virus, we first have to admit that there’s an epidemic of color prejudice in our society,” said Carolyn Cooper, a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, writing in The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper. A similar acknowledgement needs to happen across sub-Saharan Africa (and America, Europe and Asia).

The mindset starts in the home, so we first need to work on ourselves in order to reject the “lighter is better” idea at an individual level. No one can force anyone else to start seeing and appreciating dark-skinned beauty, but it wouldn’t hurt for us to start questioning our beliefs about race, beauty and skin tone. Recognise that those who created the dominant cultural ideas we’ve internalised did so for their benefit, not ours, and understand that the psychological conflict this internalisation causes is self-destructive. Self-hatred continues the cycle of self-degradation, and we can’t teach our kids about their self worth, and get them to take their history seriously, if our own sense of self is distorted through a white lens. Kiri Davis, director of A Girl Like Me, said that at the age of five, her eldest sister told her that she was ‘young, gifted and black’ and should not let anyone convince her otherwise. That positive affirmation of her blackness carried her throughout her life and served as a shield of resistance against any negativity she encountered as a result of her ebony hue. This is what we need to be telling our kids, and our grand kids, nieces, nephews, brothers, sisters, grannies and pretty much everyone we know who is black. Because they need to be able to resist the “beauty is light-skinned” message. But more importantly, we need to show what we believe through our actions, through what we celebrate and how we present ourselves. If we don’t feel comfortable in our skin, it won’t go unnoticed by our kids. I don’t recommend anyone get up in the face of strangers, but if someone in your peer group starts to lighten their skin, have a chat with them about self-hatred.

Nigerian and Cameroonian pop star Dencia in an ad for her skin-lightening product “Whitenicious” (Feb. 2014)

Nigerian and Cameroonian pop star Dencia in an ad for her skin-lightening product “Whitenicious” (Feb. 2014)

The above is only relevant to people who are already know there’s something deeply wrong with skin-lightening, though. The practice doesn’t exist independently of the wider system that places a higher value on light skin than on dark skin and encourages people to lighten their skin, so we’re unlikely to get far if we don’t simultaneously work towards altering the system.

There are enough black people in America, Europe and Africa who are discomfited by the skin-lightening phenomenon, so, I beg you all, stop using your money to support the system! Stop buying those magazines that perpetuate the idea that beauty is only light-skinned. Write to stations, TV producers, magazines to let them have a piece of your mind.

Become more vocal about musicians who only feature light-skinned models in their videos, and call out magazines ad agencies and fashion designers who do the same.

The Black Pride movement celebrating heritage, personal pride, authenticity and afro-centricism needs to be consciously and actively injected into expressions of pop culture by artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers. It doesn’t mean uncritically celebrating anything by dark-skinned black people, but it does mean seeking out and recognising things that are worth celebrating.

American actress Gabourey Sidibe’s natural skin colour (right) compared to the photoshopped Elle magazine cover.

American actress Gabourey Sidibe’s natural skin colour (right) compared to the photoshopped Elle magazine cover.

Most effective of all would be a global movement similar to the American Black Power Movement of the 1960s and its accompanying Black is Beautiful campaign. Rather than wait for America to lead the way again, this one needs to start in Africa. If the continent’s economic boom continues as predicted, perhaps that will give us the self-confidence to start such a movement. A movement about pride on its own won’t work; it needs to be connected to something concrete like true economic independence.

Various governments have banned the sale of skin-lightening products and run campaigns about the health risks of using these products, but those won’t be nearly enough. Most of those who lighten their skin know they’re running serious health risks, so clearly for some, the perceived benefits of skin-lightening outweigh the risks. This doesn’t mean the governments running those campaigns should stop. It just means they have to reconsider their message. Are their campaigns based on the underlying reasons we think light skin is preferable to dark skin? It’s a bit like the anti-smoking campaigns that have been running across Europe for years. They didn’t abandon the health-risk message, but they mixed things up by also running campaigns to make smoking very uncool.

In the end, though, most of the work is down to each of us. The shackles of self-hatred were forged centuries ago, so freeing ourselves from them won’t happen overnight or easily, but it is possible. It has to be, for our own sakes.