Colorism: Our Ugly “Ism”

“Colorism is defined as prejudiced attitudes or prejudiced treatment of people based on the relative lightness or darkness of their skin in comparison to others of the same race.”


The continued existence of colorism among African descendants is proof that our collective woundedness is deep. There are few topics that engender more division and hurt among Africa’s children than our hue.   In the US, there was the infamous “brown paper bag” test. Flunking this test in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s meant that an individual could not be a part of certain Black fraternities, sororities, or other realms of black upper class life, and that person’s overall physical beauty was called into question. As sad as this practice was, it was a residual of slavery and its psychological destruction, so on some level, I understand why blacks in the West still struggling with this issue. Likewise, in the West, the standard of beauty as glorified in “Vogue,” “Elle,” and “Cosmopolitan” does not reflect the exquisiteness that exists in Kingston, Lagos, or Baltimore.

When I was a student in Senegal, I was surprised to learn that my lighter skin seemed to signal to Africans that I was “metisse.” I recall explaining that both my parents are Black and that for African-Americans, unless one biological parent is non-black, the “one drop rule” is unquestionably applied. It then struck me that I was in a place where people did not see or acknowledge the constant reminders of historical subjugation and rape that brought about the dilution of dark skin. In my younger years, I assumed that dark skin and being black in Africa was a simple reality. Time and experience have taught me otherwise.

A Malawian woman recently told me that the doll test was given to little girls in southern Africa, and the results were identical to those of African-Americans girls. When asked which doll was pretty, these beautiful girls overwhelmingly chose dolls that did not resemble them. In West and East Africa, skin-bleaching products are in abundance, and their usage does not seem to be on the decline. I have been shocked and saddened by conversations I have had with women in this region regarding dark skin and what constitutes beauty. In the US, conversations about the standard of beauty usually argues that as people of color do not control media outlets, images of African, Latina, and Asian feminine beauty would not be reflected. I would submit that discussions about colorism in Africa must be addressed from historical and psychosocial perspectives.

The reasons women in Senegal choose to bleach their skin are myriad. However, there is one sentiment that seems present when one queries these women – “I am not beautiful.” It is as if these bleaching creams bring with them the promise of desirability, prosperity, and a “happily ever after.” As one of the main criterion of being a woman in Senegal is to achieve « wife status, » it seems imperative that a woman must meet a nebulous and foreign standard of beauty.  Sadly enough that standard seems to be equivalent to the one with which women throughout the Diaspora are faced – “light, bright, and almost white.”   I can neither confirm nor deny whether the vast majority of men in Senegal aspire to have a female partner who resembles someone of mixed descent. I have been told repeatedly that “fair skin” is a trademark of desirability. I have heard that there are some who believe that a woman of mixed race brings “good luck and fortune.” Whether these perceptions are prevalent or not is not as troubling as what women believe and think about themselves.

I recall having a conversation with a female acquaintance, and we were discussing colonial history and the status “signares” held in this society. These were Mestizo Franco-African businesswomen who wielded immense power as they owned land and slaves. Their status was due to their “local common law” marriages to Portuguese and French colonialists. These women created a distinct culture in St. Louis and on Gorée Island. During our discussion, this woman made reference to being “lighter” than some of these “signares” descendants. The manner in which she referred to her light skin seemed to imply that by being “lighter,” she somehow held a higher social status in Senegal. As I listened to her retelling of an encounter with a St. Louisianne, it struck me once again how Africa’s children often unknowingly carry many scars related to their blackness. I have heard very few discussions about the nature of the relationship between white male colonialists and these signares, but even today, the unchallenged belief that having a colonial master’s blood in one’s veins accords a superior social standing still reigns.

Billboards for skin depigmentation creams found in Dakar.

Billboards for skin depigmentation creams found in Dakar.

In Senegal, the attempt to achieve lighter skin and to be beautiful and desirable is actually putting female lives at risk. Recently, a local newspaper, Sud Quotidien, claimed that more than 60% of Senegal’s female population uses skin-bleaching creams. The side effects of corticosteroids in the blood stream can affect the heart, not to mention the obvious correlation between these products and skin cancer. The use of skin depigmentation cosmetics is not restricted to a certain class or a particular education level.

I asked a local dermatologist about this practice, and she indicated that there have been awareness raising campaigns, talk shows and crusades to preach about the dangers of “xhessul.” (Wolof term meaning skin depigmentation).

Nuul Kukk is a conscious raising campaign to fight against skin bleaching.

This particular movement advertises images of gorgeous Senegalese women proudly wearing their birthday skin and highlights the dangers of skin-bleaching. These types of home-grown campaigns give me hope. One of the things that I have become keenly aware of in my line of work is the difficulty and importance of insuring that messages germinate at the grassroots level instead of trickling down. Somehow a trickled down message often equates to a watered down message or one that evaporates while on the way down. Ordinary, everyday women are bleaching their skin and are endangering themselves to become what they believe men find attractive. What shape or form does a conversation take to deal with the internal message of hatred of black skin? How do we un-intellectualize our exchanges about long held beliefs that are destroying us physically and psychologically? I know the real work has to happen in the hearts, minds and souls of Africa’s children. I have not come across too many women of the Diaspora who have not been affected in some way by colorism. And yes, this “ism” affects men as well, but in a very different way because a woman’s perceived beauty and ability to attract is linked to her worth and her overall femininity. African-American women tell stories of being called “black as an ace of spade,” “high yella,” “red bone,” “black as night,” and the hurtful, derogatory list goes on. Likewise, I have come to understand that similar disparaging terms exist in Wolof, Creole, Swahili, and Patois.

I stand convinced that we bare the responsibility of telling our children, and especially our girls, that being beautiful is about being secure in your authentic self. Beauty comes from knowing that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” When our children’s foundation comes from knowing that an Infinite, Loving, and Ingenious Creator thought them into existence, they will walk in their beauty daily and proudly. As a people, we do not need more skin-bleaching creams, botox, or face lifts. We need a mind lift! Bob Marley said it best when he soulfully and lovingly sang, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds!”

I would love to hear your thoughts about colorism, how we acknowledge it, talk about it, and more importantly, heal from it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s