Over the past few weeks, I had several troubling interactions with multiple people about skin tone. The main topic of these conversations were about dark skin – which was being discussed in a negative light. I had one particular conversation with someone who actively bleaches her skin, and the remarks she made about dark skin were extremely problematic. Although I was shocked, I also understand that in many Black, African and in this case Ghanaian communities – the idea that lighter skin is ‘better’ is pervasive. For many black people, this mentality is considered to be fact, however it’s actually the remains of racist ideologies that were imparted on Africans during enslavement and colonialism. The conversation made me realise that even in 2023, open discussions about colourism are still essential. So many people are unaware of what colourism is, how it formed in Africa and how it continues to exist in the modern era.
Colourism In Western Countries
For those of us who grew up in the West in the 80s and 90s, the lack of positive black representation had an unquestionable effect on our life experiences. Living in majority white countries, we saw very little of ourselves reflected in the media. Black people who were visible in the media were often mixed or of a lighter complexion and representation of darker skin tones – particularly when it came to darker skinned women, was usually reserved for portraying negative stereotypes. This, in addition to internal and external colourism – perpetuated by white and other people of colour – created yet another generation of black people who were led to believe that lighter skin meant better.
Studies in the US have shown that colourism has real world implications for darker skinned people, such as reduced job opportunities, fewer romantic prospects and overall higher rates of incarceration when compared to lighter skinned counterparts. Over the past decade, conversations about colourism have began to be explored in a bid to open up the discussion and acknowledge harm that it causes in society. Although colourism in the West was and still is a huge issue, it almost seems expected in majority non-black countries – where proximity to whiteness is visibly rewarded – but what’s the reason that colourism is still thriving in majority black countries decades after colonialism?
What Is Colourism?
Colourism – also called skin tone based discrimination – is a serious problem in most societies of colour across the world, and while it can seem to be a sheer coincidence, it’s actually by design. To understand colourism in Africa, it’s necessary to go back to where it all started, slavery and colonialism. Discrimination based on skin tone has its root in white supremacist ideology – which formed a hierarchy of humanity based on race and skin tone. In pre-colonial West Africa, there is no evidence of social hierarchies specifically based on skin tone. It wasn’t until the onset of the Trans-Saharan and Atlantic slave trades, that skin tone based discrimination began to take root.
In the early colonial period, Europeans were constantly searching for justification of slavery, and came up with detailed hierarchies of ‘humanness’ based on skin tone, hair texture and facial features. In order to distance themselves from enslavement and colonialism, they created a narrative that darker skin was inherently inferior. They labelled Africans as only 3/5ths human, demonised kinky hair, fuller features and darker skin to justify the barbaric treatment they inflicted on enslaved peoples.
The origin of colourism is extremely important to mention, because there have been so many efforts to erase this history. Without this context, it’s easy to assume that colourism is a problem endemic to people of colour, and not what it actually is – a direct trauma response to the violence of colonialism. From its inception, colourism was born out of an imperialist agenda to divide and label black people on the basis of skin tone and physical features.
Origin Of Colourism In West Africa
In West Africa, colourism was introduced during slavery, but solidified during colonial rule, where white & mixed people were given opportunities that were not available to the majority black population. Lighter skin became the signifier for better economic opportunity and life quality – and this reinforced the notion that darker skin represented backwardness and inferiority.
It’s also vital to mention the role that Christian missionaries played in creating a dichotomy between ‘lightness’ and ‘darkness’ and projecting that onto black skin. In the minds of the colonisers, lightness or whiteness represented everything good – intelligence, godliness, purity – and blackness was the antithesis of this, representing everything ‘bad’ – laziness, stupidity, backwardness and instead of being god like, was inherently demonic.
For centuries before colonisation, Europeans held negative perceptions of ‘darkness’ as far back as the middle ages. Their myths and cultural norms were reflective of this, and the colour black was perceived as negative. During the colonial period, Europeans brought their religion, cultural beliefs and ideologies with them. They already held the belief that black was ‘bad’; and so they labelled African people as black and therefore ‘inferior’ – using the difference in belief systems, skin colour, hair texture and features as the justification for their imperialism.
The Christian church and mission schools provided the perfect environment to impart these beliefs, with the schools being pivotal in cementing these ideologies into the African psyche. As the missionaries spread Christianity, they did so through a filter of racial superiority. They projected their cultural ideas onto Africans and therefore created the foundations of colourism – a hierarchy that elevated lighter skin while simultaneously degrading and vilifying darker skin.
Nollywood & Colourism In The Modern Era
In the modern age, colourism in West Africa has openly been perpetuated by local film industries, media outlets, advertisements and television. In film, lighter skinned or mixed actresses are prioritised and given more opportunities and better roles than their darker counterparts. At the height of Nollywood and later Ghallywood, a large amount of actresses were of lighter complexion, and in Ghana in particular, a lot of preference was given to mixed actors and actresses – such as Nadia Buhari, Juliet Ibrahim and Van Vicker – even if they weren’t as talented as their darker skinned counterparts. In some instances it was clear that actors weren’t chosen based on skill or talent but rather their skin tone. In no way am I suggesting that there were no prominent darker skinned actresses, however when you look at the prevalence of lighter skinned actresses and the type of roles that they played, it’s clear that there was and still is a preference for lighter skin.
Colourism Is Impacted By Gender
It’s important to note that although colourism effects all genders, misogyny paired with narrow beauty standards create worse outcomes for darker skinned women. In 2011, the World Health Organisation compiled a study on skin bleaching in Africa and the stats were shocking. It showed that 40% of African women bleach their skin. In Nigeria, 77%, Togo 59%, South Africa 35%, Senegal 27% and in Mali 25% of women use skin-lightening products.
Some efforts have been made by African governments to curb the sale of bleaching products, however the laws put in place are seldom enforced. For example, in 2017 Ghana banned the sale of bleaching cream, but the lack of enforcement meant that skin lightening products remain widely available. The marketing of these products has been sanitised – with the products now typically being advertised with ‘softer’ terms such as ‘whitening’, ‘brightening’, ‘carrot’, ‘papaya’, ‘vitamin C’ and ‘toning’.
Bleaching creams are extremely easy to find, and are often sold in supermarkets, pharmacies and other reputable establishments. There are also specialist shops dedicated to selling lightening products. In Ghana, there seems to be a lack of information about skin care, and this frequently results in people having a DIY approach, resulting in various unregulated products being used to address any skincare challenges they face. The fear of getting darker is prevalent, leading some people to reject natural skincare such as shea butter or natural oils for the fear of getting darker.
Skin lightening is not just an individual issue – it is endorsed and widely advertised by big brands such as Nivea and Palmers. They create and sell lightening products which contain ingredients that are banned in Western countries. This is extremely problematic, and companies also need to be held accountable for producing, selling and distributing toxic skincare products.
The Health Implications Of Bleaching
Studies have shown the link between skin lightening products and long term health issues. Many lightening creams are prescription only products that are meant to be used under the care and supervision of a qualified professional. Those that aren’t prescriptions are often not regulated and contain high amounts of toxic ingredients like lead and mercury – that are known to cause a myriad of health problems including kidney issues.
Over the past few years, there has been an increase in the use of lightening creams on the continent, even leading to a rise in kidney disease in some countries, where otherwise healthy people have had to be put on dialysis. The fact that these products are used by people who aren’t professionals is extremely alarming. Many who use these products are ill informed about the long term health effects of bleaching – which can lead to health problems including skin cancer, skin thinning and exogenous ochronosis.
How Does Colourism Show Up In The Day To Day?
The problem with colourism in Ghana, and much of black Africa, is that it isn’t named or understood by the term ‘colourism’. It’s widely perpetuated, but is shrouded in normalised language, expressions and cultural thought. Colourism is evident in every day conversations and negative beliefs about darker skin are sometimes viewed as fact. The prevalence of colourism doesn’t mean that darker skin is always vilified, but it does mean that negative associations are acceptable and often encouraged. Darker skinned people in African countries often have stories about being bullied in schools, by their families or community for their skin tone with some even being encouraged to bleach or bleached by their parents from a young age.
In the years I have lived in Ghana, some of the things I have personally heard have been shocking. These attitudes are by no means exclusive to Ghana, but being colourist or participating in colourism is widely acceptable. Colourism is so normalised that it is seen as a normal way of thinking for some – I have personally seen ‘black’ being used as an insult on various occasions.
Some of the things I have heard include:
“Look at him, why is he just so black?”paired with a look of disgust
“I was told by someone close to me that I am too black and look dirty”
“Darker skin is dirty looking, light skin makes beauty shine”
“They used to be so fair and beautiful now their colour is spoilt”referring to children who had gotten darker
“I am not dark like you, you’re so much darker than I am, if I stay out of the sun I am fair”said someone a shade lighter than I am
“Dark skin just doesn’t glow, when I use the cream my colour is shining”
“If bleaching was dangerous then everyone would be dead“
Dark skin being viewed as dirty by some Africans is is telling to say the least – because it is quite literally white supremacist rhetoric. It reminds me of the old Pears soap commercials that were advertised at the turn of the century – where the illustration demonstrated how the soap could ‘improve’ the complexion so much that it could essentially ‘clean the black’ off of a black person. The people that colonised Africans, are the same group of people who would have viewed, created or distributed this advert and others like it. Europeans are directly responsible for the creation of the skin tone hierarchy and stereotype that black skin is ‘dirty’, and it’s sad to see that some black people have adopted and perpetuate this mentality.
What Is The Solution?
Both skin tone discrimination and internalised self hate are deep psychological issues that have not been studied extensively. It’s clear that even in 2023, the effects of colonialism are still evident. I think that speaking about openly colourism, addressing internalised trauma and questioning cultural beliefs could be some first steps towards healing. It’s clear that people who bleach are victims of colonialism and colourism, but I deeply believe that we as a people are fully responsible for changing the colonial narrative and mindsets that are no longer serving us. Until we begin to question our beauty norms and decolonise the way we define beauty, we will continue to perpetuate a cycle of self hate and trauma. Colourism effects the way that darker skinned people live, how they live and often determines the quality of life. It’s time for us to change, question and redefine our definitions of beauty to build a new foundation for the future.