Colourism through the Lens of History (Part 2: Not So Different)
by Nike Taylor
When it comes to matters of colour, it might be easy to look at the rest of the world and consider ourselves better off than many others. We didn’t, after all, have to deal directly with slavery or its aftermath. However, things aren’t so great at home. Nigeria tends to retain the racism it internalised during the colonial era, a self-directed prejudice that had older generations longing for the days of colonialism, considering comparisons to white people as the highest form of compliment, and seeing “Black” as derogatory. Our colourism may be traced to European colonisation, but much older are its roots in the Arab conquest of northern Africa and the trans-Saharan slave trade, which enslaved as many as 17 million Africans from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries by some estimates and left commonplace racism against Black Africans as a Middle Eastern legacy that persists today.
After centuries of subjugation and exploitation with generations of internalised racism, colourism became deeply rooted in the African psyche, and it still is. Even the growing Black consciousness and self-awareness of young Nigerians today can’t kill it.
Everyone, it seems, wants to be “yellow”.
A Song That Just Won’t Die
In our patriarchy, colourism primarily focuses on women as an expression of the accomplishments and sexual predilections of men. And it has become a part of our culture, as dark-skinned women continue to disappear one by one from the media—in a country where most are born dark-skinned.
They’re also disappearing in real life.
Many Nigerian men want a woman with the body Kim Kardashian appropriated from Black women, sans complexion. This preference, reinforced by advertising, movies, television, music, skin care, hair care, offices, is what an alarming number of Nigerian women aspire to because humans are suggestible creatures. They want the light skin their men want. And so Nigeria has joined the global bleaching pandemic.
While the 2011 WHO Report that claims 77% of Nigerian women lighten their skin is blatantly wrong, the shelves of your neighbourhood supermarket attest to the wild popularity of skin-lightening, despite the numerous health risks of the largely unregulated different active ingredients.
(Steroid-induced acne; steroid addiction syndrome; fish odour syndrome; dermatitis; periorbital hyperpigmentation; exogenous ochronosis; cellulitis; impaired wound healing; superficial mycoses; scabies; superficial bacterial pyoderma; surgical wound complications; predisposition to infections; induced hypercorticism; adrenal insufficiency; risk factor for hypertension, diabetes mellitus, and altered blood glucose and ketone measurements in diabetics; definite striae; pseudo lupus-lichen/eruptions; nephrotic syndrome; vitiligo-like lesions; skin atrophy; skin epidermoid cancer; carcinoma at the base of the neck; leukaemia; liver and kidney cancer…to name a few. Never mind that the depigmentation of skin lightening hides unrelated symptoms and disorders, and poses health risks that extend to unborn babies, breastfeeding infants, and toddlers. Yeah, we’re doing that too—as women put themselves and their young at risk to permanent neurological damage, lower birth rates, other birth defects, and many of the above risks. It may also account for infertility in many hopeful mothers).
Government bans may have reduced (but not eliminated) the number of mercury-containing lightening products on the market, but they’ve had no effect on curbing the usage of these dangerous chemicals. For those concerned about the danger, these products seem to have got them covered: “natural” is the new tag. Innumerable YouTube videos dispense advice on how to use lemons, turmeric, akanwu to “naturally” bleach skin. WikiHow has a how-to for making a “natural” skin bleach. Alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) like glycolic acid are a part of many skin care regimens, not only because of their exfoliating properties but also for their skin “brightening” effects. They too are considered “natural”. “Natural” always sanitises otherwise dubious products, even though many risk factors and side effects don’t care whether or not a product is “natural”. Cyanide is natural, after all.
All skin lightening products, whether or not “natural” comes before “whitening” or “brightening”, are damaging. It doesn’t matter, though. Women use them for many years, ignoring the long-term side effects and the apparent short-to medium-term damage these products have to their skin.
Despite knowing exactly how their skin will look in a few years, with the blotchy skin, bruised faces and arms, hyperpigmentation, burns, not being able to go without makeup. women still happily use these products because colourism is deeply ingrained in many cultures, including ours. It’s further complicated by the lack of education about the health risks associated with bleaching products. So we stretch our ignorance to embrace self-assuring myths and justifications. A young woman once told my aunt that her special supplements counteract the side effects of her mercury-based bleaching cream. I’ve been told I needed a “brightening” cream to “maintain” my complexion.
Looks like this is who we are. It will take a massive cultural shift to change the way things are right now.
Changing the Tune
Human beings are suggestible creatures. Our assumptions about good and bad can be changed, which can, in turn, modify our motivations for doing what we do. To improve the culture, we have to change its motivations. Women lighten their skin because they believe it makes them more attractive. Many do it for themselves, but most conform to beauty standards men have set. They submit to objectification by men. Like internalised racism, women have internalised the colourism that colonists established and our patriarchal culture reinforces.
Because our society subordinates women to men, the most potent culture influencer is the social empowerment of women. The US women’s suffrage movement gave Caucasian women the right to vote in 1920 and, consequently, individualism: they discarded spine-deforming corsets, loosened waistlines, shortened hemlines, and by 1929 the divorce rate had doubled as women were no longer forced to endure abusive marriages. Women’s suffrage also triggered a mass emigration of female African-American musicians and performers to Europe where many found success and (to a degree) social emancipation, including Josephine Baker and Ada “Bricktop” Smith. One step leads to another.
Nigerian women can make our own steps. We don’t need to wait for outside help.
Economic and social empowerment would mean less economic and social dependence on men, which can trigger a culture shift. When women begin to understand our social history and better grasp the nature of our culture, society, and trends, we can begin to attach more value to our own self-determination and can start rewriting the standards that have been imposed on us, standards we’ve been propping up for generations. We can then pass on that sense of self-determination to the next generation of girls and women—instead of putting them at risk in the womb.
Maybe then, we’ll begin to see beauty in every shade of skin and texture of hair.
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