Colourism through the Lens of History Part 1: Beginnings

Colourism through the Lens of History Part 1: Beginnings

Now if you was white, should be all right
If you was brown, could stick around
But if you black, whoa brother, git back git back git back

 — Big Bill Broonzy, “Black, Brown and White”

There’s this static online ad for a telecom that shows a young girl in a school uniform holding up a test tube, flanked on both sides by smaller and smaller images of people of various ages doing various things. This ad has a one-minute video with different kids doing video-ad things and looking video-ad happy and excited. The girl only appears at the 34-second mark, well after everyone else, and isn’t the focus of the video, but she’s the focus of the static ad that’s on far more websites and apps. She stands out because she’s the only mixed-race actor. She’s the lightest-skinned of all the actors.

There’s also this YouTube ad for Nivea Natural Fairness that keeps popping up before videos. The woman is unhappy with her brown skin and everything is dull, then she uses the lotion and is transformed into a colourful, happy, sexy, confident light-skinned woman who’s mistaken for her young daughter’s sister.

Photo credit: Africa Feed, which covered the controversy

In response to whether it promotes skin lightening or that light skin is prettier than dark skin, Nivea gives the exact same response to both questions: “Whereas, Europeans often wish to have a [sic] tanned skin, beauty in Asia and Africa is often connected to a lighter complexion…we try to develop products which respond to these cultural preferences…Our products may help consumers to reach their beauty ideal which is formed by their cultural background.” Because they target African women, there’s not as big a firestorm as Dove set off when their body lotion turned a Black woman into a white one.

Because Nigerian women want to be “yellow”.

Everything everywhere everywhen today is images of beautiful light-skinned women and children. They’re stars of the entertainment we consume or hawkers of stuff they tell us to consume. They’re so ubiquitous that many no longer notice them, but everyone nevertheless registers their subliminal messaging: light skin is beauty is success. And this has become a recognisable pillar of Nigerian culture.

Colourism has Nigerian (and African) social and beauty standards in a chokehold.

How did this happen?

Separate but Equal

Though they’re sometimes mixed up, internalised racism and colourism are different. With internalised racism, a dominated race sees itself through the eyes of the dominant race, measuring itself by the racist attitudes of the latter. (We’ve got plenty of that here, of course.) Colourism is the spawn of racism and here everyone—both races, either races—participates to assign higher value to lighter skin and deems darker skin undesirable.

Some sociologists see both racism and colourism as biological imperatives. We’re hardwired to home in on visual differences and the mind loves to classify things, places, and people into distinct groups that it can process. It then favours its own group. People are also prone to respond to perceived or actual authority figures. We get our cues from the powerful, no matter who we are or what they are. The tendency to develop stereotypes about other groups is, therefore, universal; however, belief in and reactions to stereotypes are culturally determined.[1] So we mimic what those in power do, which can become internalised racism and colourism. It’s nature, then.

But it’s also nurture. Children notice skin colour, just as they notice eye and hair colour, at an early age, but they don’t understand its social meaning until they’re much older, meaning that children’s conception of racial categories develops with age.[2]

Photo credit: Wittie

They do learn about colour quickly because society teaches us early that colour matters and society reinforces this lesson from childhood through adulthood. Even in Black countries like Nigeria, we learned racial associations early through entertainment and news media, even if we don’t immediately interpret the common acute deference to Caucasians—in business and socially—as internalised racism.

Everywhere You Go

Across the world, colourism dates back to just after the Neolithic Revolution, when hunter-gatherer societies transitioned to agriculture, stopped being nomadic, expanded from settlements into towns, and birthed civilisations. Agriculture gave individuals the ability to accumulate wealth, which in turn allowed them to scale back physical activity in favour of more theoretical and investigative pursuits—and leisurely pursuits. Leisure came to be associated with wealth and, as a result, so did lighter complexions.

Photo credit: Ancient Origins

Because you don’t tan when you’re being fanned in the shade instead of pushing a plough in the hot sun. Skin tone came to confer status, so many ancient cultures saw lighter skin as desirable and found artificial ways to both enhance, imitate, and acquire it.

So for more than 3,000 years, the world has been bleaching its skin.

Across Asia, light skin was a class imperative, determining social standing and even marriageability. In China, the association between wealth and light skin dates back to before the Qin Dynasty[3], Imperial China’s first dynasty (221 – 206 BC). The Chinese women of this era wore white rice powder makeup and lightened their skin with mercury. Mercury use spread from ancient China to Japan, where light skin was an indicator of spiritual purity, and Japanese women began using a mix of rice powder, white lead, and starch to lighten their skin.[4]

Photo credit:

Today China remains the world’s largest skin-bleaching market, with South Asia and India right up there too. Their latest contribution to bleaching culture is intravenous glutathione; its safety is yet to be confirmed, but it’s become a highly popular treatment that’s spread to Europe, the United States, and Africa.

Photo credit: Reclaiming Asia

The Mediterranean too shares a similar history. Ancient Greeks wore white lead makeup and, in ancient Egypt, Cleopatra lightened her skin with mercury[5] (and used sour donkey milk as a chemical peel, applied powdered crocodile poop as makeup, and invented lots of perfumes to cover up the stench).

Photo credit: College Fashion

In Europe, women used lead cosmetics to imitate pale skin, a practice which spread to England through Queen Elizabeth I, England’s “Mask of Youth”, who famously used white lead to make her skin lighter[6]. Never mind the lead poisoning. The Age of, uh, Enlightenment. Western media’s lasting preference for all things blonde and tanned was birthed by this colourism; far from being an appropriation of blackness, tanning replaced paleness as the leisure and status indicator, which Coco Chanel kicked off in the 1920s as a sign of freedom that Caucasian women have since imitated.

In the Caribbean, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slavery, and the plantation system solidified colourism in Caribbean societies. The mixed-race children of slave masters and enslaved women became a second, lower class of privilege, creating an economy and societies in which access to economic and political power were dictated by race, gender, and class, and social stratification occurred along colour lines.[7] Black high society excluded the dark-skinned, so being “brown” and increasing one’s distance from black was the goal, usually through marriage to the lighter-skinned, to improve one’s status, as well as one’s children’s. Taking it a step further, Dominicans historically have an aversion to anything Haitian and many still see their former Black rulers as bad, ugly, undesirable, almost untouchable. As dark-skinned as many Dominicans are, they don’t consider themselves Black.

Photo credit: LifestyleByKy

The lives of most dark-skinned Caribbean people today stand in stark contrast to those of mixed heritage. It’s not surprising that the skin lightening market here is massive.

Photo credit: Super.Selected.

The United States, of course, has the most documented racial history. Here, home of the one-drop rule, colourism rose alongside its Caribbean counterparts and generally followed the same pattern of light-skin “house negro” privileges granted by slave owners, intensifying with Reconstruction. Lighter-skinned, mixed-race African-Americans got preferential treatment by whites and were the first to be given access to education, which laid the groundwork for a pattern of colour classism in Black America. Benefiting from emancipation, the lighter-skinned elite separated themselves from the dark-skinned in schools, fraternities and sororities, neighbourhoods, churches, social clubs (like the Blue Vein Society where a panel judged you eligible for membership if you were pale enough for blue wrist veins to be visible), and in politics.[8]

Photo credit: Watch The Yard

W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey clashed over the former’s refusal to acknowledge colourism in the NAACP and in Black America. Meanwhile, dark-skinned African-Americans sought “remedies”.

Photo credit: ReBloggy

Madame C.J. Walker invented the hair relaxer to mimic Caucasian hair and became America’s first self-made woman millionaire and the West’s first Black millionaire. Monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone was discovered to dangerously destroy melanin and Palmers Skin Success became a successful start-up.

NAACP executive secretary Walter White, who stirred controversy when he left his black wife for a white socialite, declared in his questionable article, Has Science Conquered the Color Line?, that the monobenzyl discovery was more important than that of the atomic bomb because he believed every Black person could now be like him and pass for white.[9] Lena Horne cheered, but Black leaders were not impressed.

Photo credit: Abagond

Today, lighter-skinned African-Americans tend to fare better socially, educationally, economically, and politically than darker-skinned African-Americans, though many tend to be much less self-aware.[10] Skin lightening is not new here and has high-visibility celebrities; there have been whispers about Nicki Minaj, Keri Hilson, Kelly Rowland, Rihanna, and Beyonce for years, but Sammy Sosa, Lil’ Kim, and Azealia Banks have all admitted to it, though Banks announced last year that she’s stopped bleaching her skin.

Things aren’t so different back home.

Read the second part of this article here.


Nike Taylor is a Lagos-based brand and web designer who focuses on crafting and revitalising brands on and offline. Prior to becoming a full-time designer, she was chief operating officer at AbOriginal Productions, an entertainment content creator, before which she had careers, in Nigeria and the United States, in branding and in real estate development. Nike holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Howard University.

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