Do Africans Perpetuate Discrimination based on Skin-Tone by Subscribing to Skin Bleaching Products? 



I was born brown-skinned. Neither light nor dark. I was somewhere in the middle. But it wasn’t long before I became aware of the differences in skin tone in my primary school classroom. As I grew older, I began to hear about other things. People talked about how skin tone was synonymous with beauty. About how a dark-skinned African woman could never be seen to be as attractive as a light-skinned African woman.


As an adult, I have come to the understanding that this sort of discrimination has a name: colorism or shade-ism. Both terms describe the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group. This is one form of discrimination that I have witnessed first-hand on many occasions.


The topic of colorism and skin bleaching only crossed my mind this weekend rather accidentally. We live in an era of sharing; pictures, videos, anything and everything that is worth sharing is shared. So I decided to share a photo of a proud me and my freshly-made watermelon cooler – the precursor to my watermelon popsicles.


I had used Adobe Lighthouse to tone down the exposure of the pictures before summarily sharing them on social media. But to my horror, I discovered that my edits had cast a dark shadow on my arms and elbows, reminiscent of the ugly side effects of the use of skin bleaching creams. I was so disgusted, I took down the pictures in a huff.


I am all too familiar with the side effects of skin bleaching creams. I come from Nigeria, which has been identified by the World Health Organisation as one of the countries in Africa where the act of skin bleaching is most rampant.


At birth of a child, one of the first noted attributes of the child by the adults around it would be its skin colour. Was it a light-skinned baby? If so, relatives, friends and the hospital staff would lovingly refer to the child as “oyibo” which is the Nigerian term for “white man“. Around me, episodes of positive discrimination by family and friends towards lighter-skinned children were commonplace and considered “normal”.


As a young woman in Nigeria, one was considered highly desirable by the opposite sex if you were “yellow” in complexion. This created a vicious circle. The “yellow” girls only wanted to stay yellow or become “yellower”.  While the brown and dark-skinned women did everything possible to get rid of the protective melanin (the culprit for the dark skin tone) by employing skin bleaching creams.


Nigeria is not alone in this regard. In many parts of Africa, lighter-skinned woman are considered more beautiful, are believed to be more successful, and more likely to find marriage. But how did we get here? How did colorism take a stranglehold on Africa?


The Origins of Skin Bleaching in Africa


In the United States, colorism has roots in slavery. Because lighter-skinned slaves were privy to privileges that were not extended to their darker-skinned counterparts. Accordingly, light skin came to be viewed as an asset among the slave community. While the origin of this belief in Africa is not clear, researchers have linked it to Africa’s colonial history where white skin was the epitome of beauty.


Skin bleaching is a matter of identity, self-worth and self-acceptance that, in some respects, is existential. Click To Tweet


Is Black Really Beautiful?


Growing up, one of the advantages of being brown-skinned was escaping the colour wars that took place in the primary school playgrounds. There were primarily two sides at war: the light-skinned students aka “yellows” and the dark-skinned girls. Because I was brown-skinned, I was just about dark or not-light-skinned enough to be let off the hook of both camps.


Thankfully, my parents and I were comfortable with the colour of my skin. However, as early as the late 1990s, I couldn’t help noticing the hypocritical acts of other parents who espoused the reassuring mantra that “black is beautiful” to their children, while ordering cartons of skin bleaching creams to lighten the colour of their children’s skin to a more acceptable shade of black.


As I matured into a young adult, the pressure of conforming to the society’s measure of beauty weighed on me incessantly. Thanks to Hollywood, I was bombarded with images of black women who were considered beautiful, and most, if not all, were light-skinned, almost caucasian in some cases. Closer to home, the burgeoning film industry in Nigeria called Nollywood favoured light-skinned actresses, with the dark-skinned Kate Henshaw, being the exception rather than the norm.


My black female role models, presented to me by the media, were mostly a light-shade of brown. I was also surrounded by friends who, to varying degrees, had succumbed to the lure of skin bleaching. Only, no one called it skin bleaching. Among the elite, the act was afforded the more respectable label of skin toning. It was not uncommon (still isn’t in today’s Nigeria) to hear women say “I am not bleaching. I am merely toning my skin”. What a load of horse-crap!


It wasn’t long before I also started worrying about what shade of brown I was. I worried unduly about any form of sun exposure, lest I got a tan.  I worried that a darker shade of me, was a less attractive me, and so I avoided the sun like a plague, and I loaded up on lemons and Vitamin C to lighten my non-existent freckles.


But fast forward to today, I am part of a generation that decries colorism, and self-hate, and is actively trying to move away as a society from a race-based identity crises. Yet, I am baffled daily by my generation, especially in Nigeria, who still use phrases like “yellow sisi” (meaning light-skinned lady), or “see as you yellow” (look how light-skinned you are) to convey compliments of beauty to the recipient.


The above example illustrates how deeply the skin tone issue is embedded in our psyche, so much that we don’t realise the role it plays in contributing to the unconscious bias of how we perceive ourselves:


To the parents, who think that their light-skinned baby is an “oyibo” (white man).

To the African man who erroneously believes that his attraction to light-skinned girls is just a matter of personal preference.

To the African women who lighten their skin but can’t articulate their rationale for the act beyond trying to look “more beautiful”.


Is Skin Bleaching only Skin Deep?


Skin bleaching is a matter of identity, self-worth and self-acceptance that, in some respects, is existential. While no one can force the belief that black is beautiful, it is beneficial for we Africans to start questioning our beliefs about beauty and skin tone.


Because we cannot teach the next generation about self-worth, if our own sense of self is distorted. To collectively overcome colorism as a society, our future generation need to be able to resist the implied message that beauty is light-skinned.


We need to show what we believe through our actions, through what we celebrate and how we present ourselves. Bias based on colorism is real, not perceived. And, as irrational as it might seem, that one is racist to oneself, this is a topic that must be brought to the discussion table as we unpack the complexities of race relations.


skin bleaching and colorism in Africa