“Here was an ugly little girl asking for beauty. A surge of love and understanding swept through him, but was quickly replaced by anger. Anger that he was powerless to help her. Of all the wishes people had brought him — money, love, revenge — this seemed to him the most poignant and the one most deserving of fulfillment. A little black girl who wanted to rise up out of the pit of her blackness and see the world with blue eyes.” — Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

white skin denciaDencia is a Nigerian pop star who is becoming better known for her skin cream, Whitenicious. The product sold out within 24 hours of its release.

The singer has been criticised both for promoting the dangerous practice of skin bleaching, and for her appearance in the accompanying advertisement to the right, where she appears to have either been photoshopped white or undergone radical skin bleaching, or both. (Let’s not even start on the blond wig … *sigh*)

The popularity of Whitenicious is not surprising given that 77 percent of Nigerian women (and many men) use some form of lightening product. Sadly, Nigeria is not alone in its increasing intolerance towards darker skin tones. Skin lightening potions are remarkably popular in India (where nearly 61 percent of all skin-care products contain lightening agents), the Caribbean, China, Latin America, and amongst African-Americans.

Lupita Nyong’o on a normal day, and as she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. Photo: Getty, Vanity Fair

So what is driving this obsession with lighter skin?

In a word: colourism. Coined by writer Alice Walker, colourism refers to discrimination within communities of colour towards those with darker skin. The preference for white skin is so firmly entrenched, two-thirds of Nigerian men saying they would prefer a lighter-skinned wife.

According to African-American author Iyanla Vanzant, the roots of colourism can be traced back to slavery. As black female slaves were ‘bred’ with their white owners, their children became successively lighter skinned and received preferential treatment. Darker skinned slaves toiled in the fields as their lighter counterparts were permitted indoors to service the ‘mistresses’ of the house.

 Similar stories occurred in India during colonisation when fairer Indians, who more closely resembled their European colonisers, were favoured over their darker counterparts. Fair skin became associated with wealth, power and status, and darker skin with poverty, backwardness, and field work.

It is vital to recognise these origins of colourism in any discussion of it. Vanzant calls colourism, “A consequence of internalisation of a white-dominated society’s entrenched white racial preference.”

In the Caribbean, the minority light-skinned community forms the majority of the ruling elite. This is, according to Caribbean-born writer Elizabeth Pears, “the effects of generations of wealth and privilege and marrying the ‘right’ people from the ‘right’ (and light!) families.”

In India, famed commercial director Prahled Kakkar admits that fair people are routinely cast over darker skinned rivals. “I often fight with clients if I think one (dark skinned actor) is a better performer, but clients are very open about not wanting to take what is seen as a risk.”

Dark skin is also seen as a risk in the west as the magazine industry’s attitude to black skin attests. Most recently Vanity Fair has come under fire for apparently lightening the skin of 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o by several shades. Some claim it is just a ‘trick’ of the lighting, but regardless, the effect remains the same.

“One glaring omission is the role of colonialism and its consequences in introducing and reinforcing ‘colourism’. While it is uncomfortable to admit that white privilege was built on the back of oppression and slavery of people of colour, not doing so means we are only making token gestures to address these issues.”

Other stars who appear have been subjected to the lightening treatment include Gabby Sidibe and even Beyonce, who would already pass the notorious ‘paper bag test.’

white dark skin light skin 2In the early 1900s to the 1950s, African-Americans (who had by now internalised white society’s preference for lighter skin), held ‘paper bag parties’, pinning a brown paper bag to the front door; anyone whose skin was darker than the bag was denied entry. This ‘test’ was even used to determine admission to historically black universities and colleges. The implication is clear. The closer to white you are, the more intelligent, the more beautiful, the more acceptable.

Colourism is a system of discrimination that privileges light skin, Anglo features, and “good hair,”. For African Americans the reality of colourism is present daily - a remnant of slavery, embedded in America’s consciousness since the antebellum period. As black social scientist E. Franklin Frazier notes, in a controversial study of the black bourgeoisie in the 1950s, mulattoes (blacks with white ancestry, often referred to as “biracial” today) have lived a privileged existence when compared with their “pure black” counterparts since chattel slavery. Fair-skinned blacks, or “house Negroes,” were often given additional privileges, such as working indoors and, at times, the opportunity to learn to read and to be emancipated by their white fathers, whereas dark-skinned slaves, or “field Negroes,” often worked in the fields and had more physically demanding tasks.

The internalisation of this “field Negro/house Negro” mentality and valorisation of light skin tones continues to systematically affect the lives of African Americans and greater society in both overt and covert ways. While all African Americans are subject to certain kinds of discrimination and second-class citizenship, the intensity, frequency, and outcomes of this discrimination vary drastically by skin tone, and there are far greater “benefits” that come with lighter skin. Research shows that skin-color hierarchies operate in schools (some teachers respond more positively to light-skinned students and parents), dating and marriage markets (light-skinned black women are more likely to marry spouses with higher levels of education, occupational prestige, or income than their darker-skinned counterparts), the labor market (lighter-skinned blacks are more likely to be hired for jobs than darker-skinned blacks with same qualifications), and the criminal justice system (darker-skinned blacks have more punitive relationships with the criminal justice system compared with their lighter counterparts). As a result, light-skinned African Americans continue to earn more money, complete more years of schooling, marry “higher-status” people, live in better neighborhoods, and serve shorter jail sentences than dark-skinned African Americans.

This internalisation of the preference for whiteness was highlighted in the famous Clark Doll experiments of the 1940s, in which dark-skinned African-American children were presented with two dolls and asked to choose which dolls were prettier and smarter, and which doll was ‘bad.’ Overwhelmingly, the kids chose the white doll in the first two categories and the black doll in the last. When asked why this doll was bad, they responded ‘Because she’s black.’

This experiment was the inspiration for Dark Girls, a 2010 documentary exploring the effects of colourism on African-American women. Heartbreaking testimonials include a women’s pain when a pregnant friend quips, ‘Lord, I hope she don’t come out dark’ and a child admitting she doesn’t like ‘to be called black.’

However colourism doesn’t just happen in Africa or America. In the Arab world the discrimination is not as historically entrenched but there is no doubt that a shara, or fairer, light-haired (and preferably coloured-eyed) woman is considered more beautiful than an olive or brown-skinned samra. Some mothers even frequently implore their children not to spend time in the sun should their already olive skin get darker.

Mylinda Morales, now a yoga teacher in Florida, tells a similar story amongst Hispanic farmhands in America: ‘There is an incredible amount of shame about being a migrant farmworker. My mom didn’t want us getting “prieta” – dark coloured or tanned. We would wear a long sleeve shirt with a long sleeve dress shirt over that, heavy blue jeans, gloves, a large hat and sunglasses. And the temperature would be in the 100s (30+ C).’

When MyLinda got married to a keen waterskier and joined him on boating trips, her mother would, ‘get so upset. Every time I would visit her, she would make an awful face and say I “look so dark.’”

white dark skin light skin

And where does white society fit into all this? Consider this study that found white people misremember intelligent black men as being lighter-skinned than they actually are. There remains an underlying assumption that the lighter your skin, the more intelligent and less threatening you are.

This undeniable bias toward lighter skin has also left some lighter skinned members of a community on the receiving end of discrimination for presumed favouritism. One SBS Insight episode examined how some Indigenous (and light skinned) Australians are forced to  ‘prove’ their aboriginality.

Likewise, light-skinned African-Americans on a recent Oprah special claimed they suffer the usual racist insults aimed at blacks, as well as taunts (such as ‘light-bright’) from darker blacks. ‘But we’re still black in America,’ one woman implored. ‘None of us feel advantaged.’

“It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds — cooled — and spilled over lips of outrage, consuming whatever was in its path.” – Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

Colourism is oppression within oppression within oppression. This internalisation of ‘white’ as the beauty ideal, as the most intelligent and desirable form of humanity, has led to communities (which many outsiders would presume are united), facing their own battles with discrimination and alienation in a bid to access the few privileges white society is willing to grant them.

It’s difficult not to think that the spectre of slavery and colonisation will always haunt us, especially when so many still refuse to acknowledge the ways in which the past informs the present. Iyanla Vanzant reminds us that, ‘The first step to solving any problem is to admit there is a problem.’

Until we face this problem, then dangerous products like Whitenicious will only continue to flood the market some of them causing serious  skin ailments. Worse still we’ll potentially have a  generation of Africans who won’t know what it is to celebrate their skin colour in all its various shades, hues and glory.

“The color of your skin is not a cross you bear. It is beautiful.”


Excerpted from:

1. “You’re Pretty for a Dark-Skinned Girl : The Continuing Significance of Skin Tone in “the Black Community”: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jn-salters/youre-pretty-for-a-dark-skinned-girl_b_3360767.html

2. Why the obsession with lighter skin? http://www.dailylife.com.au/

14 Responses

  1. WPP Iwaegbe Jr

    “Why the obsession with lighter skin?”

    From my experience, when I was younger I was so dark my mother nickname me “black smoke” She only used that word when I offend her. you know our African mothers, they are too smart they have a way of correcting you by calling you name that would make you regret ever breaking the golden rule.
    But did I grow up using bleaching cream to look lighter, capital NO.

    Yea, during slavery/colonialism that was a major problem but I have found the way you present yourself to the world is the way the world will take you. It has nothing to do with one’s skin colour. the greatest racism which we hardly talk about is economic racism. I have work as a model and I can tell you ladies and gentlemen, black is beautiful in photography. though I am really dark I am photogenic. People love you because of what comes out of you. the way you present yourself to the world is the same way the world will take you. Yea, we know as Africans we must work harder to access economic opportunity because we came from a history of slavery and colonialism. And the economic opportunity we are trying to access is has never be available to us, those who readily enjoy it for hundred of years some are willing to share, even in this 21st century many still don’t want to share. I really do not see this as blame game or everything on slavery/colonialism perspective but rather on human greed. I am sorry to say, The world is a wide wide jungle ladies and gentlemen only those with strong will survive. In Africa today the people who hold Africa progress back are African leaders because they are greedy blindfolded by their short sighted reason.

    The truth is, people who bleach their skin are suffering from inferiority complex. They lack personal confidence, to boost their ego they want to look like someone else by bleaching their skin to look lighter and feel among. Even the light skin wants to be lighter. I have seen black ladies and black guys they are not light but really dark. when you are around them they light up your world. when they open their mouth and smile, their teeth is as white as snow, it just brighten up your world. Like me I am dark but my teeth is yellow but it fit my eyes though. People love me wherever I go, I’ve seen white folks who wish they have my kind of skin. Because I have learn to just be myself and be beautiful. Insecurity is a disease that can be cured by accepting your self as you are. Not trying to be what you are not. that alone is a burden. A man or woman can”t walk in another person shadow. Just be yourself and be beautiful. Who says monkey is ugly?

    Ladies and gentlemen, no offense this is just my take on this subject. But before bleaching cream was invented our forefather says. . .

    “If there is character, ugliness becomes beauty; if there is none, beauty becomes ugliness.” ~Nigerian Proverb

    “Every woman is beautiful until she speaks.” ~Zimbabwean Proverb

    “An ant-hill that is destined to become a giant ant-hill will definitely become one, no matter how many times it is destroyed by elephants.”
    WPP Iwaegbe Jr

    • Afritorial

      Thank you so much WPP Iwaegbe Jr, for your insightful and gracious response. It is true self esteem has alot to do with why people change their appearance – more than likely to try and gain acceptance or prestige. It is sad though that as you said, the world will accept them they way they were created no matter what skin colour you are – dependent on how positive and confident you present yourself.
      Much appreciated! You’re our Afritorialist for the week!

    • Charlene

      It’s really very sad that all of this, “colorism” is taking place. But it is what it is. Being, “Mixed” (Father: Cherokee/Irish/Black-in that order) & (Mother: Cherokee/Irish/Shawnee/Jewish/Black-in that order) I’ve suffered great wrath from Blacks (growing up and currently). The Whites simply ignored me as a child. Eventually, I’ve befriended both Black & Whites, as well as many other Races. Most Blacks are generally, “friends” with me as long as I offer them sound advice (or money). However, the moment I am given a compliment, the eyes start rolling (SMH) – until they need something from me again (mostly moral support/of all things). This whole color thing evolved from my White Ancestors and continues to thrive and I believe always will. Also I believe that my White ancestors have some insecurities that have caused them to be this way and they don’t seem to get over the fact that our Black ancestors were Slaves, therefore the mindset is, “how could they possibly be worth anything other than being oppressed?, etc.” I see everyone as HUMAN. To judge by color is ignorant and self-degrading. But let’s be honest here. Parents play major roles in the way that kids think and it just continues throughout generations. IMO until Humans become “Perfect” the ideals about color will remain the same. There will always be those who would like to believe that they are better than others and therefore use others as scapegoats to try and justify those feelings.

    • Anita

      Thanks for sharing
      Yes it’s all about confidence within oneself..
      It’s sad that people around the world want to be lighter,it’s same in India people want to get lighter …I think dark skin is beautiful

  2. destiny

    People need to stop accusing magazines all the time of skin lightening. Skin color changes with lighting, that’s a fact. If you flash a light directly in my face it will appear several shades lighter than if I was outside in dim light.

  3. Okeeze

    Does it matter if she is Nigerian or from Cameroon? The point is about the practice of skin bleaching which many men/women in Africa participate in. You can substitute this pop star with any other person who bleaches. The issue is universal to all ‘colored’ societies, including Nigeria.

  4. Ran Wise

    Darker does not mean ugly. In fact one of the advantages of being darker is that your appearance remains younger looking much longer than those of fairer skin. And I love my skin color. Not saying it’s better than others’. Just saying that I NEVER wanted to be lighter.

  5. Liar

    Are you an absolute must? 77 percent of Nigerian women bleach? DO you know how much of an imbecile you sound. That means there would be no dark skinned women left, which is obviously not the case. Look at where this moronic statistic come from. It was taken in 1990s in three shady markets where they said they bleached for skin blemishes. My gosh SJW are such idiots. You need to promote your black women have self hate agenda so you have to exaggerate and manipulate . The celebrities in Nigeria are primarily dark skinned both men and women.

  6. Liar

    Also 80 percent of Dencia costumers are African American and she’s from Cameroon.


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