Sede Alonge’s recent Telegraph article on the controversial topic of skin-bleaching was a half and half for me: while I agree with some of the points raised I disagree completely with others, and remain stunned by the essay’s lack of insight as to why whitening of the skin remains so hot today. I had similar reactions when I read Bibi Bakare-Yusuf’s take on skin bleaching among Nigerian women, in which she asserts that people who bleach their skin do not hate being Black and that blaming women’s choice to bleach on “colonial mentality” denies their agency. It seems in an effort to boost and/or assert the confidence of African women in themselves and their beauty regimens, the historical roots of skin-bleaching are being pushed to the side. That such essays – written by brilliant and popular women – are published on websites with large readerships sends a dangerously incomplete message to young African women who bleach or are considering skin-bleaching.
African societies hypocritical stance towards skin bleaching
Firstly we must not deceive ourselves, a huge number of Africans prefer light skin. To confirm this, one only has to look at our music videos and the faces of many of our most popular celebrities. The confusing thing about this preference is that these are usually the same Africans who will turn around and chastise people for skin-bleaching. When a woman looks like she is obviously whitening her skin there will be much ridicule directed towards her, however, if a woman is fair-skinned (regardless of whether she is bleaching or not) she will be praised for her beauty. I have witnessed different reactions towards my complexion because of the ease in which I can bounce from one spectrum of the skin tone scale to the other. I get light enough to be considered “fair” in Nigeria during the winter and then go back to being my regular dark tone in other seasons. When I am lighter I never hear the end of compliments on how beautiful my skin looks, but when I’m darker it’s “why are you so black now?”
Alonge claims that women bleach because that is what men find attractive, which in my opinion misses the point. The mothers who force their children to bleach their skin are not doing this to make their daughters attractive but because of their deep-seated belief that light-skin is aesthetically better. Some women may be bleaching because their mother is light-skinned and they are not, or because they feel that once they have attained a certain socio-economic class they need to “freshen” up their skin a bit. There are myriad reasons why women bleach today, yet these are all linked to the history of colonialism, trans-Atlantic slavery and the continued dehumanization of the African.
There is no such thing as “get over it” (or as Alonge writes “get beyond that”) when an issue has remained topical for centuries and may remain so for centuries to come. One of the biggest delusions we suffer as post-colonial Africans is that we can easily get over the devastation of colonisation. Over 300 years of slavery, subjugation and ruthless oppression can apparently be solved in 50 or so years since we were “freed”. Bleaching among African Americans started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the practice grew popular in African countries during the colonial era, becoming increasingly popular as a cosmetic choice in the 1950s. Today the spotlight is on Vera Sidiki, bleaching her skin and proclaiming that she is proud of the way she looks. Tomorrow it will be someone else doing the exact same thing, and it will generate the exact same response. Who remembers Mshoza and Dencia? The only way out of this conundrum is if those of us of African descent finally wake up and remove our mental shackles, but it is never that easy.
It has been suggested that the descendants of Africans who were forcibly enslaved in the United States still suffer from post-traumatic stress linked to the brutal treatment of their ancestors. Put forth by Dr Joy DeGruy Leary in her book Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is described as a condition that came about due to the extreme dehumanization of African slaves, leading to mental scars that are manifested in diverse symptoms which are borne by their descendants and passed on from generation to generation. Although Dr Leary’s research is uniquely based on the experience of African Americans, when I first came across her work I wondered what kind of trauma could be borne by colonised people and that are manifested in their descendants. We may not have been there to witness directly how our ancestors were made to believe that everything about themselves including the way they look was inferior, yet we deal with confusion in navigation our identities. Could skin-bleaching be considered a manifestation of a kind of self-destructive impulse, especially due to the side effects of using harmful chemicals on the skin? As mentioned above, colonialism is something that is continually trivialised despite the fact that its effects are still felt today. Here we are discussing something that is directly correlated with colonialism and we are still expected to have gotten beyond that.
Imagine that in the pre-colonial past, there were African people who prized light-skin. Amadioha, the Igbo deity of thunder and lightning, is said to be the patron of light-skinned Igbos, and some scholars have argued that Igbo people admired whiteness before they encountered Europeans. Yet Igbo people do not have a tradition of skin-bleaching, at least not that I know of. Now skin-bleaching actually dates back centuries, some would argue that it is even a tradition. Indeed in diverse Asian cultures where light skin was associated with high class and wealthy living, there are traditions related to skin-lightening. A Korean friend once pointed out to me as we were cooking that using rice water to wash the face will make it brighter. I am not aware of any similar tradition among any African ethnic group. The point of this exposition is to illustrate that admiration of light-skin does not necessary lead to skin-bleaching.
Today apparently 77 per cent of Nigerian women bleach their skin. Can we truly believe that the rate would have been this high without the intervention of something catastrophic? The reality is that women of African descent started religiously attempting to whiten their skin upon contact with and conquest by pale-skinned foreigners. For us, preferring fair/light skin cannot simply be a matter of choice or aesthetics. We inhabit a world where white skin and Western European features have been established as the hallmarks of beauty and status. The justification of colonialism came from Europeans convincing themselves (and eventually others) that they were the height of human civilisation, and Africans the lowest. Women bleaching their skins to boost their image and self-worth clearly points to the fact that they regard their dark skin as lacking in some way, as inferior and less beautiful, which is something the generations preceding them learnt from mental colonisation.
If only we could divorce ourselves from that pesky thing called history
Considering this history, one cannot simply equate Black women bleaching their skin to white women going to a tanning salon. The only people who have outrightly said they are tanning to imitate Black people are the young Japanese that are part of B-kei (style) which appropriates African American hip-hop culture. Furthermore, white women started tanning their skins as part of a fashion trend, not because someone had colonised them and taught them to believe that everything about them was inferior. European women have a longer history of bleaching their skin than tanning it, in the past they doused their faces with lead to achieve the porcelain complexion that was considered the sign of a woman’s modesty and virtue back in the day. White women did not start tanning because they admired the dark skin of African women, and unfortunately the few times white people do darken themselves in imitation of African skin tone is to ridicule us.
Alonge writes that “physical attraction is instinctive and lighter skinned women are bound to attract more attention from men in a dark-skinned society such as Nigeria – just like darker skinned people do in predominantly white societies.” This does not make sense. If physical attraction is instinctive, and going by this logic, shouldn’t women who are darker than the norm also attract more attention? In a society filled with people the same shade as Omotola Jalede-Ekeinde for example, someone like Eku Edewor would attract attention…but someone like Modong Manuela Mogga ought to attract a similar level of attention. If physical attraction is instinctive there is no reason for only light-skin to be preferred yet this is not our reality. No one has to say “white is beautiful” because there is no need to spell it out, we are told white is beautiful every time we open magazines, turn on the television or spend time online. That is why there is so much excitement from Black women worldwide when women like Lupita Nyong’o and Ajak Deng grace our screens.
The reason skin lightening is regarded as an outright rejection of Black identity clearly has to do with the history. Why should an African woman feel that lightening her skin will make her prettier or more confident? We need to ask ourselves, why do we bleach? Of course it is the prerogative of any individual to bleach or not to bleach, but we should not ignore the deep-rooted reasons we bleach in the first place. I believe that if you are doing something, you should at least be honest with yourself about the reasons you are doing it. If I decided that the reason I am yet to unlock the highest level of my self-worth is because I am dark-skinned, and then choose to bleach, I would be doing so with full knowledge of the history behind this act. I would do so knowing why people of African descent starting bleaching their skin in the first place, and I would at least be truthful with myself in admitting that I cannot associate lighter skin with self worth and in the same breath argue that I am proud of being Black and African.
With articles like Alonge’s popping up every once in a while, one has to wonder, why this need to reduce skin bleaching to a matter of choice? Can we just be honest to ourselves and accept the history of this practice while continuing our “aesthetic” beauty treatments? I believe we can. It is not compulsory to view black as being beautiful, but to ignore the historical reasons behind such a view is erroneous.