“Ei! Obaa K⊃k⊃⊃” said Paa Kwesi to me as he took a seat on my left hand side. He was referring to my friend who sat on my right hand side. She is of Ghanaian, Italian and African American heritage. Obaa K⊃k⊃⊃, a light skinned woman. Paa Kwesi was saying so little yet so much. I could hear the admiration thick in his voice. On that occasion, my friend and I were attending a business-networking event at the Movenpick Hotel. Paa Kwesi and I were regulars at that event so I knew him well. On another occasion I went to Luscious Temptations at the A & C mall in Accra with the same friend. A man at the bar kept trying to get her attention. “Tcheww. He’s only trying to get my attention because I’m mixed race and he thinks I’m cheap,” she said.
I must have been about 10 years old when I first became aware of different shades of Black. I remember my Mum asking me, “Why do you have so many half-caste (1) friends?” From that moment my younger self started to become aware that some of my friends were fair (2). The difference in how ‘fair’ girls are perceived did not dawn on me until my 20s when I lived in London. I noticed that on night outs, the light skinned girls tended to attract [sometimes unwanted] male attention more frequently than their dark-skinned sisters. Around the same time that as this realisation, my [male] flat mate explained his attraction to light skinned women, “they are bright, you can see them from a distance.” * cue awkward silence*
Even today in my 30s I still remember that question my Mum asked me so many years ago. Sometimes I mentally tally up my friends and count how many dark-skinned and light skinned friends I have. I think back to how my friendships with my light skinned friends developed? I ask myself, who initiated the friendship? I’m relieved when I remember that it’s almost always the other party. I want to be sure that I’m not unconsciously the colour struck child I may have been. Despite this, I never speak about colour. The politics of colourism never comes up even with those sisters with whom I discuss the politics of everything under the sun. For a fleeting moment I wondered if it was an ‘African thing’, perhaps we are more aware and accepting of the diversity of Black skin. But I know that’s just me living in Utopia.
Recently, the privilege that comes with light skin has become even more blatantly obvious to me. Everyday for the past 2 months or so I have driven past a billboard advertising the ‘4th Ghana Movie Awards’. The billboard features Majid Michel and Juliet Ibrahim, both actors are clearly of mixed heritage, and in that particular image advertised look racially ambiguous. Their light skin is thrown into sharp relief because they are dressed in black, lying on stark white sheets. Every time I drive past the billboard I scream silently to myself, couldn’t the Creative Director even pick one dark skinned actor and a light skinned actor to highlight the diversity in Ghanaian skin? Clearly the answer is no. In Ghana today, light skinned women dominate the billboards. Travel today from Tema to Accra on the motorway that Nkrumah built, and you will drive past 6 huge billboards advertising ‘Light and Natural Carotene’ toning creams.
Video: Nasara interviewed about skin-bleaching from about the 4-minute-30-second mark.
The roots of the obsession
What are the roots of this obsession with the ‘obaa K⊃k⊃⊃’? Dr Yaba Blay, Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University, and the author of (1)ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race attributes this to white supremacy.
“ … colorism constructs a spectrum upon which individuals attempt to circumnavigate the parameters of the white/non-white binary racial hierarchy by instead assigning and assuming color privilege based upon proximity to Whiteness” (3)
The root cause of the obsession with obaa K⊃k⊃⊃ is white supremacy. Countries like Ghana, years after independence, have still not shaken off these shackles. The consequences for us as a people are dire. Not only are we allowing colour to become a divisive issue [think #TeamLightSkin and #TeamDarkSkin issues that crop up regularly on Twitter] but we are in danger of forgetting that we are all just #PrettyPeriod.
1. In those days mixed race people in Ghana were described as ‘half-caste’. The term was seen as complimentary and not the derogatory term it is widely understood as today
2. Read ‘fair’ as ‘light skinned’
3. Blay, Yaba., 2011. Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy: By Way of An Introduction. Journal of Pan African Studies vol. 4, no. 4, [online] Available HERE.