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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.

Biotone billboard. Accra, Ghana. 2012. Photo courtesy of Nana Ama Bentsi-Enchill

Open a popular magazine marketed towards African women and encounter pages upon pages of ads for skin bleaching products.

“Exclusive Whitenizer.” Amina: Le Magazine de la Femme Africaine, 2006, no. 440

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.

“Say No to Colorism…” Photo reblogged from Bougie Black Girl (bougieblackgirl.com)

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.

Dark and Lovely Billboard. Accra, Ghana. 2005. © Black Star Creative, LLC

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.

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  1. January 2, 2013

    Professor Blay,

    I love your insight on refusing to maintain the blame on women who are just trying to find a place within the dominant, hegemonic global society in which we live. Not only is this a problem in Africa, but across the globe. I have also sent this to you via Twitter, but here is a great, Senegalese based website regarding skin bleaching and its attempts to stop these dangerous products from harming even more of our women: http://www.nuulkukk.com/index.php/en/what-is-it

    • Yaba #
      January 2, 2013

      Thank you, Amber! I LOVE the Nuul Kukk campaign. I’ve been following it on Facebook, but hadn’t seen the website so thank you for sharing it here. I plan to reflect and write on it soon…AND hopefully replicate it to some extent in Ghana.

  2. Christine #
    January 2, 2013

    The first exposure I had to skin bleaching was in Asia where there are a lot of lines of “whitening” skin products. I understood the objection to darker skin in those cultures to have more to do with sun exposure of “laborers” being less desirable and attractive in somewhat the same way the the bound feet or extremely long nails indicated being a member of the wealthy and elite of society. Do you know if there is connection between this cultural valuing of lightness in Asia and the issue that you wrote about in African and African Diaspora cultures?

    • Yaba #
      January 2, 2013

      Though the symbolism of light skin varies from locale to locale, I do find some similarities throughout the world, namely the association of lighter skin with higher social/soco-economic class. Among women participants who I interviewed in Ghana, a number of them report lightening their skin so that people will see them as “ladies” – a “lady” who sits indoors and doesn’t have to work. The presumption is that if your skin is dark (and you are of a certain class) you must work outside. Among Ghanaian men, who bleach, many report lightening their skin so that women will see that they take care of themselves, because according to them, only European men and/or men of higher status take care of themselves. Multiple and nuanced rationales, but definitely similarities across the world.

  3. louise #
    January 3, 2013

    Thank you so much for offering this position, Professor Blay. After spending time living in Ghana, your viewpoint resonates on many levels. Skin bleaching is simply one iteration of colonial mentality and does not exist in a vacuum! In terms of gendering the criticism towards women, I wonder if your research has delved into skin bleaching in Jamaica? Vybz Kartel, Jamaica’s most popular dancehall artist began bleaching a few years ago and has been unapologetic about it, to the point that he has a few songs with skin bleaching instructions. He insists that for him, bleaching is not about self hate but is simply a fashion statement to “showcase his tattoos better”. While in Jamaica the bulk of attention/criticism on bleachers is definitely focussed on women, it’s interesting to see how a popular and influential male artist has become the face of the conversation. If you have explored bleaching in the Caribbean, I’m curious if you’ve seen any differences in how the critique is gendered in comparison to Ghana and other African countries. Thanks.

    • Yaba #
      January 3, 2013

      Greetings Louise! Kartel is an ‘interesting’ character isn’t he?! I watched a video of a lecture he gave at UWI a couple years back where he likened his body to a canvas and quoted H.I.M. Haile Selassie and Dr. Martin Luther King. I was actually impressed by his insight and delivery, BUT STILL! ‘So much things to say’ …

      I haven’t done any hands-on research in the Caribbean myself (though I hope to!), but I have a few colleagues who have. In fact, I’ve guest-edited two journals on skin bleaching that include some of their work:

      http://www.jpanafrican.com/archive_issues/vol4no4.htm – Check the article by Donna P. Hope. She discusses skin-bleaching, Kartel, Buju, and dancehall.

      http://www.africaknowledgeproject.org/index.php/jenda/issue/view/41 – Check the article by Derron Wallace who does interviews with folks in JA and offers some social-historical context. Donna has an article in this edition as well.

      Also, check the work of Dr. Christopher A.D. Charles. He wrote one of the first non-medical articles on skin-bleaching that I had ever read. He’s at UWI Mona and has written extensively on skin bleaching. Check his work in both of the journal editions I included above.

      If you can’t access any of the articles online, send me a message with your email address and I’ll gladly send them your way!

      Appreciate your taking the time to read and comment. Thank you!

  4. Sheryl N #
    January 3, 2013

    Dear Prof Blay, thank you so much for this insightful piece, it is so timely in scratching an itch the limits of my vocabulary and indeed my temperament could not scratch!

    I read the BBC Africa article the other day, I got to the end, *paused*, *blinked*, re-read it in case I missed some particular nuance or the actual point of the piece and then realised that there was actually nothing new, novel or even in my view meaningful within the piece at all; it only served to illustrate in my mind the simplistic and superficial way in which certain commentators, both black and white “tackle” or approach the subject of this bleaching phenomena i.e. by just paying lip service to it.

    “Oh look at what these women (of colour) do, aren’t they stupid, look look at their foolishness, self-hate this, low self-esteem that, blah blah judgemental blah! All the while failing or wilfully ignoring the system in which such a phenomena took set and is continually allowed to manifest and continue.

    Nowhere in any of the discourse I’ve read and heard about this subject has anyone bothered to consider the system in which these women (and men, but my focus is on women) operate before jumping to the frankly hugely sensational view that they fundamentally “hate” themselves. Not that they are aspiring for an insidious societal imposed ideal but rather that they are so weak as individuals that they just hate themselves. I mean just the repetition of this supposed dogma always had me wondering whether it was the view the commentator(s) held or the one that they wanted us and those women to begin to believe and then manifest as their/our truth.

    Im beginning to see this approach taken in many a comment to do with women – the systematic and on-going belittling of women and most especially women of colour while playing ignorant to the wider world we and those same women exist in – which in my view pushes another wider agenda which may well be a comment for another day!
    Thank you again for this piece. SN

    • Yaba #
      January 3, 2013

      Thank you Sheryl for your comment! You’re in my head! How can we discuss skin bleaching in South Africa, OF ALL PLACES, without contextualizing the discussion within White supremacy? We can’t. Unless, of course, the goal is to further pathologize African people.

      I completed my dissertation in 2007. Suffering from PTDD (post-tramautic doctoral disorder), aside from a couple of articles, I haven’t done anything with my research. I told myself that I would get back to it in 2013. Reading the BBC article on New Year’s Eve was all the inspiration I needed! It’s time – soon come!

  5. S. A. McLean #
    January 3, 2013

    Amazing, I appreciate the fact that you pointed to society as the true individuals to blame. When I see a young woman who bleached her skin I immediately look at the man she is trying to get attention from then I go straight to the colonialized society that told him that lighter skin was better. The lily complex is not a female problem. Colorism & the lily complex are social diseases, results of racism, results of people of African descent internalizing racism. I actually touched on this topic a bit in a recent blog piece: Assimilation as Assasination http://wp.me/pDq5I-lk

    Thank you so much for speaking the truth about this subject.

    • Yaba #
      January 3, 2013

      Thank you! And thanks for sharing your piece – checking it out!

  6. Daniela #
    January 3, 2013

    Non-white individuals are taught to hate themselves from a very young age. This has to stop, we need to work together as a society to embrace diversity. I am sick of media telling society what beautiful is, especially women.

    • Yaba #
      January 3, 2013

      Yes – the media definitely plays a HUGE role in the projection of the ‘White ideal.’ We are literally bombarded with these images…all over the world!

  7. gboyah #
    January 3, 2013

    Since you mentioned Nollywood…

    I was in India a few years ago and saw pretty much the same advertisements for skin lighteners as you’d find in Africa, except that in India they also figure prominently on television.

    One ad i remember distinctly is for a product that comes with a gradated swatch of progressively lighter skin tones for the user to measure “progress”. The product guaranteed a minimum of 3 shades lightening.

    • Yaba #
      January 3, 2013

      YES! It may have been for ‘Fair and Lovely’ – this commercial uses a similar motif
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIUQ5hbRHXk&feature=share&list=PL4CAC758A934AC581

      The thing that fascinates me about India is that skin bleaching is also marketed towards men. There is a product called ‘Fair and Handsome’ – you can see some of the commercials on YouTube. In these ads, men are discouraged from using woman’s product as they would make them ‘effeminate.’ Quite interesting

  8. Carolyn Ash #
    January 4, 2013

    Professor Blay, I have to sadly admit that I wasn’t aware just how pervasive this skin bleaching phenomenon is — that it’s a global problem. Thank you so much for writing this very powerful piece. One of the paragraphs that I keep reading over and over again (and getting angrier and angrier each time I read it) has to do with “how Africa has become a proverbial dumping ground for chemicals deemed unfit for White bodies.”

    There are so many words that come to mind right now, like “criminal” and “weapons of mass destruction.” I believe our greatest power, as communities of color across the globe, will come when we say, “NO” — NO to these dangerous products and mass marketing campaigns. I just don’t know how we get there.

    • Yaba #
      January 4, 2013

      Indeed – “weapons fo mass destruction.” Thank for reading, Carolyn.

  9. January 4, 2013

    Great article…so useful for those of us thinking about skin-bleaching and what it signifies…someone already raised the issue of bleaching in Jamaica where young males often bleach their skin a la Kartel. INYMI a blogpost i did on the subject may be of interest: http://anniepaul.net/2011/01/12/the-bleaching-of-the-nation/

    Thanks again. I’m so glad Natalie Hopkinson tweeted the link to your article…!

    • Yaba #
      January 4, 2013

      Thank you for sharing this link, Annie! I remember reading this post when it originally posted – great piece. Pleasure to connect…and I’m glad Dr. Hopkinson shared my post too!

  10. January 7, 2013

    Hello Dr Yaba Blay, in the African context, has any researcher paid deeper attention to the apparent relationship between this skin bleaching and the levels of corruption (and/or wealth inequalities)? Nigeria, DRCongo, Togo, …

    • Yaba #
      January 7, 2013

      Not that I’m aware of, although I have not read everything that has been written. Interesting (and necessary) connections that you’re making…

  11. Rue #
    January 10, 2013

    Wow what an amazing blog post. I really have never thought of this before and you really have opened my mind about this and its really sad that we have that view and I have to admit that I am at fault of this as well. I have done a blog post about this because I just couldn’t get this post out of my mind and I would love to know what you think. It’s just a small baby blog http://themodernafrican.blogspot.com.au/2013/01/self-hate.html
    Thank you for the post, great stuff.

    • Yaba #
      January 10, 2013

      Thank you for reading, Rue. I’ll check out your post!

  12. April 4, 2013

    It almost made me sick to find out that this is going on. It shows that despite being free nations, Africa still struggles from the imposed “colonial mentality”. We of the Diaspora need a whole new movement of “Say It Loud I’m Black And I’m Proud”. I blame Hip-Hop culture, entertainers with no conscience, weak and corrupt leadership (throughout the Diaspora), and failure to define ourselves and our values (instead of letting others do it).

  13. afrolatino #
    April 17, 2013

    i am part of the african diaspora and i am so dissapointed by black people in the world.

    we are the most hated group of people on earth, africans dont prosper despite the resources that africa has, caribeans are criminals, african americans are arrogant and only want to do sports.

    africans are losers, the majority in their countries is black yet they act like they live in a white country with low self esteem issues etc.

  14. Mayada Mannan #
    July 25, 2013

    Thank you for the insightful article, more attention to this skin bleaching problem needs to be brought to light. A cultural revolution is necessary so we can Love being of Afrikan decent. This colonized mentality has not only divided us, but created an unspoken cast system.

  15. August 15, 2014

    BLEACHING IS RACIAL SUICIDE AS WELL AS SELF-HATRED! WE MUST FIGHT IT AND CONDEMN IT!

    Malcolm X speach, 5 MAY, 1962

    ”Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the color of your skin, to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man?
    Who taught you to hate the shape of your nose, and the shape of your lips?
    Who taught you to hate yourself, from the top of your head to the soles of your feet?
    Who taught you to hate your own kind—who taught you to hate the race that you belong to, so much so that you don’t wanna be around each other….?”
    ~Malcolm X 1962

  16. August 15, 2014

    CHECK OUT OUR BLOG AGAINST BLEACHING-
    bleachanddie.blogspot.com

  17. K #
    September 1, 2014

    I think this is terrible. Everyone should keep the skin color they naturally have, as it is the healthiest and the prettiest. Forcing the skin to go through trauma to change color is really bad for it (like how hair gets very weak after bleaching it and the only way to get rid of the damaged bits is to cut them away, except you can’t cut off damaged skin).
    Also, on another note, why aren’t we pointing out light-skinned people who tan, which is possibly worse for their skin than bleaching (don’t quote me on that)? I’ve always wondered why it’s a terrible thing for dark-skinned people to bleach their skin, yet perfectly fine for light-skinned folks to tan.

  18. Sherry Sah #
    September 10, 2014

    hello Dr.Yaba. I appreciate the fact that you are talking about this social issue. Being Ghanaian, I have so many family members that use bleaching creams . I love what you are talking about. especially, when it comes down to males artist and what they put out in the media about race( Darkskin girls). But, so many people listen to their music and yet nobody hasn’t really said anything about it. Even if you look at the media we don’t see a lot of dark – skin empowered females out their. so, it’s very hard for dark skin women to feel like their beautiful, when we only really see the lighter females on T.V. Also, even with dark skin men, they would not want to date their own race because they won’t want a dark skinned “Baby”. ” People are so blinded by the media. I’m a senior and I want to do a article/ documentary on ” What Makes A Black Women Feel Beautiful” and expose how in the Black community so many are bleaching their skin and when I say “Black” I mean anyone with color. I wanted to know if you can take the time and help me..
    -Sherry

  19. May 25, 2015

    I think identity is widely influenced by commercials. I have seen it when traveling in both parts of Asia and Africa, where they put bleach in to all beauty products and everybody use it to appear or become more successful… Being white or pale.

    http://www.redbubble.com/people/jonaskroyer/works/14928993-chasing-happiness

  20. Jeannette Smyth #
    May 12, 2016

    dr. blay, this is so brave and so important. thank you for this work, and your courage and beauty.

    i’ve been thinking about janet mock, the african-american trans woman who responded to bell hooks’ “terrorist” diatribe on beyonce. (i’m pro hooks, btw, being old and cranky like her).

    just started reading mock’s autobiography, in which she says something, in passing, that is breath-taking. something about taking refuge in the invisibility of prettiness.

    this opened up a whole new passage of thought for me, a white ciswoman, formerly pretty, still a feminist.

    being “pretty” is much less threatening than being black, or a “feminine” black man, or a “scary” black woman.

    as an old person, with sun spots (i note that cartoonists, when they want to draw an old person, seldom draw wrinkles, just sun spots) and my grandma’s wattle, i carefully manage this spoiled identity (erving goffman, whose work i’m sure you know). i wear more makeup now than i did when i was cute, including eyebrow gel (another [white?] old person thing is two-inch long eyebrow hairs), dark circle cover up, etc. always lipstick and mascara. essentially to pass for someone well groomed, that is *respectable*, despite the wattle. you see where i’m headed here?

    there’s a great segment of terrence despres’ book on survivor strategies of the concentration camps and gulags, in which he notes in all the camps, everywhere, the number one survivor strategy was to wash yourself, and your rags, and keep your awful shoes in repair. all the inmates knew if anybody stopped doing these things, they’d be dead within weeks, mainly from the loss of dignity. it was suicide, he writes, to fail in the work “of remaining recognizably human.”
    http://www.amazon.com/Survivor-Anatomy-Life-Death-Camps/dp/0195027035

    it strikes me this is the feeling of your bleaching candidates, and of all people who want to hide in the pretty.

    boom.

    much love, don’t ever stop.

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