BBC Africa recently posted an article by Pumza Fihlani entitled “Africa: Where Black is not really Beautiful.” Highlighting the well-publicized case of South African musician, Nomasonto “Mshoza” Mnisi, who openly (and unapologetically) acknowledges lightening her skin, the article positions skin bleaching the result of “low self-esteem and, to some degree self-hatred.” While Mnisi herself admits that her decision to lighten her skin is indeed “part of … a self-esteem issue,” can we safely conclude that skin bleaching, a now global, and widely practiced phenomenon, is the result of low self-esteem and/or self-hatred? Among those who bleach, can we be sure that the motivating factors are identical just because they all engage in a similar practice? And if the goal is to understand skin bleaching enough to be able to curb, if not stop the practice, how useful would an individualized approach to skin bleaching be to the hundreds of thousands who bleach all over the world? Perhaps the goal is not to eradicate skin bleaching. Perhaps sensationalizing it is.
In “On Yellow Fever,” I mentioned that I’m bothered by how the self-hate ‘diagnosis’ is so easily assigned to people, specifically women, who bleach their skin. Within the discourse surrounding skin bleaching in Africa and other parts of the Diaspora specifically, this diagnosis is more frequently labeled a “colonial mentality.” Defined, this
mentality almost invariably leads many Africans to prefer European things – values, practices, institutions, and so on – even if a closer look might suggest that the equivalent African ‘thing’ is of comparable worth (Gyekye, 1997, 27).
Connecting this ‘diagnosis’ to the skin bleaching epidemic, many journalists and researchers, including Fihlani, have argued that the “European thing” that Africans who bleach their skin prefer is a white skin color.
Numerous assumptions attempt to account for skin bleaching among populations with histories of colonial subjection. Skin bleaching, in the eyes of many commentators, reflects a desire to “de-Africanize” oneself due to a negative African/Black self-concept and further represents an attempt to emulate Whites. The popularity of the “colonial mentality” rationale for skin bleaching suggests that somehow those Africans who bleach their skin ought to “know better.”
When I spoke directly with individuals who bleach their skin in Ghana, a number of them reported that part of what makes light skin appealing is its presumed connectedness to Whiteness. The idea that in a society where the large majority of people look like me or darker, to have light skin means that you may have White (or Other) ancestry. And if in this context, Whiteness has been historically projected as inherently better than Blackness, to have White blood automatically renders one better than average. While at the surface level, this type of thinking can absolutely be plugged into the “colonial mentality” definition, we cannot treat skin bleachers as if they exist within an ahistoric, apolitical vacuum. They are members of a larger society that has, and continues to privilege Whiteness.
The value bestowed light skin in its presumed connection to Whiteness reflects a larger framework. It reflects the extent to which the entire society continues to privilege Whiteness. So if there is such a thing as a “colonial mentality,” our society undoubtedly engenders it.
Now of course, with our skin color being the immutable mark of our Blackness, skin bleaching emerges as the most egregious attack on our identity, the most literal proponent of White Supremacy. Nevertheless, it is but ONE reflection of White Supremacy. So while we’re passing judgment, and ridiculing African women as ‘naïve’ or ‘irrational’ for thinking lighter skin is more appealing, we ignore the fact that you can’t walk through the streets of Accra without being bombarded with 60 ft billboards for skin bleaching products.
Open a popular magazine marketed towards African women and encounter pages upon pages of ads for skin bleaching products.
If we really want to understand the connection between White Supremacy and skin bleaching, we need to discuss how Africa has become a proverbial dumping ground for chemicals deemed unfit for White bodies. Most of these skin bleaching products are manufactured in Europe and Asia, places where the active ingredients have been banned. Banned from use, not manufacture. It seems then that the products are made specifically for Black bodies, or bodies ‘of color.’ Why aren’t African countries closing their borders to the import of these products? Well, according to the Ghana Food and Drug Board (FDB), the country needs to encourage free trade. Said another way, the Ghanaian government needs European products. Please review the definition of “colonial mentality” above. Thank you.
We should exercise more care in the ways in which we present skin bleaching as an indication of colonial mentality. Skin bleachers are continuously depicted as objects of society as opposed to active agents who negotiate the meaning of their reality. By focusing almost exclusively on female bleachers, not only do we gender the entire phenomenon female, but in chastising women for “betraying their culture,” members of the press present female bleachers as both naive and irrational for believing that lighter skin is more appealing. So let me get this straight – on the one hand, the popular press supposes that women who bleach do so as a result of their inability to resist colonial projections of Whiteness as the standard of beauty for women, yet on the other hand, the popular press, inclusive of the African media, continues to project images of presumed female beauty that often look nothing like the large majority of African women. Watched a Nollywood film lately? Who is more often positioned as the object of desire?
If the media indeed understands the colonial mentality, then they should understand the power of dominant imagery to affect the consciousness of the society. In the same way that the colonial order projected images of Europeans and advertisements for European commodities in an effort to construct and further validate a superior White identity, it appears that in the press’s continual projection of European (read: White) beauty ideals, that they too continue this legacy of White supremacy. Yet it is skin bleachers who suffer from “colonial mentalities?”
Instead of asking women why they bleach, why aren’t we asking men why they “prefer light skinned women?” Or why they feel emboldened to make public statements about their preferences.
There’s a fine line between “preference” and pathology – and the pathology is White Supremacy. Where is the discussion of the “low self-esteem” and/or “self-hatred” of these men?
In 2012, when most of Africa seeks “modernization,” what would be the parameters of a colonial mentality and how would it be measured? Would wearing Western clothes, obtaining Western educations or migrating to Western countries characterize colonial mentalities? Or would the fact that Christianity is the largest practiced religion in Ghana indicate widespread colonial mentalities? Perhaps the fact that lawyers and judges in “independent” Ghana still wear powdered wigs evidences colonial mentalities.
Where is the discussion of self-hate and colonial mentalities now?
My point is where do we draw the line? Why are skin bleachers positioned as the proverbial poster children for colonial mentality? For as much as the media seems to be interested in chastising women, to date, I have seen no commentary offered by the Ghanaian press about the prevalence of hair straightening or the widespread marketing campaigns for chemical hair relaxers in Ghana.
Nor have I seen any commentary about the number of toddler girls (ages three and younger) whose mothers have added European textured hair extensions to their hair. What is our investment in supporting one aspect of a European aesthetic for Ghanaian women (chemical hair alteration/Euro-fashioned hair extensions), yet completely rejecting another (skin bleaching)? Could it be that we continue to seek social acceptance based upon what it means to look “civilized” in the eyes of the rest of the “civilized” world? Possibly, but if you understand my point, then you can begin to understand the complexities of the skin bleaching phenomenon, and thus the limitations of the “colonial mentality”(and by extension “low self-esteem/self-hatred) diagnosis.
If skin bleachers suffer from colonial mentalities, low self-esteem, and/or self-hatred, then in some ways, so too do we all.