Yellow Fever:

Skin Bleaching and the Politics of Skin Color in Ghana



Yaba Amgborale Blay
Doctor of Philosophy
Temple University, 2007


In Ghana, skin bleaching has reached pandemic proportions with upwards of 30% of the population engaging in the practice. Despite its current global popularity and venomous ramifications, skin bleaching is seldom the focus of academic research. Although the medical community and popular press have achieved some level of success in alerting the public to the incidence of skin bleaching, none have been particularly instructive as to why individuals ritualistically rely upon bleaching agents notwithstanding the severe health implications.

Utilizing the qualitative methodological design of African-centered/African feminist phenomenological ethnography, this study uncovers the rationales and motivations for skin bleaching from the perspectives of Ghanaians who themselves bleach, further elucidating the meanings they attach to the practice. Additional insight into the phenomenon is gained from the perspectives of members of various facets of Ghanaian society, including individuals who have resisted the practice and government representatives.

Thematic analysis of participants’ testimonies reveals that the symbolism and consequent functionality of light skin underlies the various motivations to lighten the skin. Employing the genealogical historicity method of analysis, the research investigates the sociocultural/sociopolitical symbolism of whiteness in Ghana during pre-colonial (traditional), colonial, and neocolonial (“modern”) periods by contextualizing participants’ testimonies within a broader historico-cultural framework. Findings suggest that the symbolisms and functions currently assigned to light skin find their place within Ghanaian culture and social history. It is therefore argued that skin bleaching manifests contemporaneously not as a result of either tradition or colonialism/neocolonialsim but rather as a consequence of both tradition and colonialism/neocolonialism. As such, the dissertation positions the current experience of skin bleaching as the embodiment of cultural memory. In painting this holistic cultural portrait, the current research provides an analysis of how skin bleaching functions not only in the lives of the individuals who practice it, but in the context of the culture and history of Ghanaian society.

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