Why the obsession with lighter skin?

Gabourey Sidibe

Gabourey Sidibe

Dencia is a Nigerian pop star who is becoming better known for her skin cream, Whitenicious. The product sold out within 24 hours of its release

The singer has been criticised both for promoting the dangerous practice of skin bleaching, and for her appearance in the accompanying advertisement, where she appears to have either been photoshopped white or undergone radical skin bleaching, or both.

The popularity of Whitenicious is not surprising given that 77 percent of Nigerian women (and many men) use some form of lightening product. Sadly, Nigeria is not alone in its increasing intolerance towards darker skin tones. Skin lightening potions are remarkably popular in India (where nearly 61 percent of all skin-care products contain lightening agents), the Caribbean, China, Latin America, and amongst African-Americans.

Lupita Nyong'o, and as she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair.

Lupita Nyong'o, and as she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. Photo: Getty, Vanity Fair

So what is driving this obsession with lighter skin?

In a word: colourism. Coined by writer Alice Walker, colourism refers to discrimination within communities of colour towards those with darker skin. The preference for white skin is so firmly entrenched, two-thirds of Nigerian men saying they would prefer a lighter-skinned wife.

According to African-American author Iyanla Vanzant, the roots of colourism can be traced back to slavery. As black female slaves were ‘bred’ with their white owners, their children became successively lighter skinned and received preferential treatment. Darker skinned slaves toiled in the fields as their lighter counterparts were permitted indoors to service the ‘mistresses’ of the house. 



Similar stories occurred in India during colonisation when fairer Indians, who more closely resembled their European colonisers, were favoured over their darker counterparts. Fair skin became associated with wealth, power and status, and darker skin with poverty, backwardness, and field work.

It is vital to recognise these origins of colourism in any discussion of it. Vanzant calls colourism, “A consequence of internalisation of a white-dominated society’s entrenched white racial preference.”

In the Caribbean, the minority light-skinned community forms the majority of the ruling elite. This is, according to Caribbean-born writer Elizabeth Pears, “the effects of generations of wealth and privilege and marrying the ‘right’ people from the ‘right’ (and light!) families.”

In India, famed commercial director Prahled Kakkar admits that fair people are routinely cast over darker skinned rivals. “I often fight with clients if I think one (dark skinned actor) is a better performer, but clients are very open about not wanting to take what is seen as a risk.”

Dark skin is also seen as a risk in the west as the magazine industry’s attitude to black skin attests. Most recently Vanity Fair has come under fire for apparently lightening the skin of 12 Years A Slave star Lupita Nyong’o by several shades. Some claim it is just a ‘trick’ of the lighting, but regardless, the effect remains the same.  

Other stars who appear have been subjected to the lightening treatment include Gabby Sidibe and even Beyonce, who would already pass the notorious ‘paper bag test.’

In the early 1900s to the 1950s, African-Americans (who had by now internalised white society’s preference for lighter skin), held ‘paper bag parties’, pinning a brown paper bag to the front door; anyone whose skin was darker than the bag was denied entry. This ‘test’ was even used to determine admission to historically black universities and colleges. The implication is clear. The closer to white you are, the more intelligent, the more beautiful, the more acceptable.

This internalisation of the preference for whiteness was highlighted in the famous Clark Doll experiments of the 1940s, in which dark-skinned African-American children were presented with two dolls and asked to choose which dolls were prettier and smarter, and which doll was ‘bad.’ Overwhelmingly, the kids chose the white doll in the first two categories and the black doll in the last. When asked why this doll was bad, they responded ‘Because she’s black.’ 

This experiment was the inspiration for Dark Girls, a 2010 documentary exploring the effects of colourism on African-American women. Heartbreaking testimonials include a women’s pain when a pregnant friend quips, ‘Lord, I hope she don’t come out dark’ and a child admitting she doesn’t like ‘to be called black.’ 

In the Arab world, from were my own family hails, the discrimination is not as historically entrenched but there is no doubt that a shara, or fairer, light-haired (and preferably coloured-eyed) woman is considered more beautiful than an olive or brown-skinnedsamra. My own fair-skinned mother frequently implores me not to spend time in the sun should my already olive skin get darker.

Mylinda Morales, now a yoga teacher in Florida, tells me a similar story amongst Hispanic farmhands in America:

‘There is an incredible amount of shame about being a migrant farmworker. My mom didn't want us getting "prieta" - dark coloured or tanned. We would wear a long sleeve shirt with a long sleeve dress shirt over that, heavy blue jeans, gloves, a large hat and sunglasses. And the temperature would be in the 100s (30+ C).’

When MyLinda got married to a keen waterskier and joined him on boating trips, her mother would, ‘get so upset. Every time I would visit her, she would make an awful face and say I “look so dark.’”

And where does white society fit into all this? Consider this study that found white people misremember intelligent black men as being lighter-skinned than they actually are. There remains an underlying assumption that the lighter your skin, the more intelligent and less threatening you are. 

This undeniable bias toward lighter skin has also left some lighter skinned members of a community on the receiving end of discrimination for presumed favouritism. One SBS Insight episode examined how some Indigenous Australians are forced to ‘prove’ their aboriginality.

Likewise, light-skinned African-Americans on a recent Oprah special claimed they suffer the usual racist insults aimed at blacks, as well as taunts (such as ‘light-bright’) from darker blacks. ‘But we’re still black in America,’ one woman implored. ‘None of us feel advantaged.’ 

I have written dozens of columns on issues from sexual assault to domestic violence to terrorism. Many of them have made me angry, others have left me in tears. But none has broken my heart more than this one. That colourism exists drives home the magnitude of what those of us fighting for social justice are really up against.

Colourism is oppression within oppression within oppression. This internalisation of white as the beauty ideal, as the most intelligent and desirable form of humanity, has led to communities (which many outsiders would presume are united), facing their own battles with discrimination and alienation in a bid to access the few privileges white society is willing to grant them.

It's difficult not to think that the spectre of slavery and colonisation will always haunt us, especially when so many still refuse to acknowledge the ways in which the past informs the present. Iyanla Vanzant reminds us that, ‘The first step to solving any problem is to admit there is a problem.’

Until we face this problem then dangerous products like Whitenicious will only continue to flood the market. 



  • for balance would you not have a discussion here on "white" people and the ongoing obsession with being tanned?
    Surely there is an argument that we are all trying to meet in the middle?
    Does this also extend to the practice of dying ones hair? Especially if it moves outside plausible racial lines? Japanese with red hair etc

    Date and time
    February 04, 2014, 8:46AM
    • Its probably due to a combination of factors - evidence of wealth and stature and the "White" colonial mentality that has not rubbed off (try rubbing off a stain a couple of hundred years old in the 50 odd years since 'modern' ideas such as freedom and individual equity became trendy. It takes time!). Since white people can't be more white and can't be affected by the "colonial" stain since they are the "default" majority, evidence of stature has to come by internalised means - getting darker (evidence of being able to fly to exotic locations), fitting ridiculous looking clothes in a starved skeletal frame (haute couture and upper class women who have $ to balance starvation with luxury - no maccas but activated almonds) - not much different from us in the prehistoric times showing off the number of feathers in our headdress and the number of carnivorous big cat furs draped over us while everyone contended with coconut body coverings or something.

      Green Tea
      Date and time
      February 04, 2014, 2:38PM
  • Interesting article. A friend and I enjoyed a documentary film that explored this topic just the other day. It was called 'Hue - A matter of colour' and I'd highly recommend it as its both confronting and sad but insightful and hopeful.

    I was really shocked by the notion of people modifying their bodies in such a way but moreso because such behaviour was associated with the legacy of those ridiculous and exploitive behaviours of colonialism and slavery.

    One lady from the Phillipines that sells such products (hers is a sad story) was such a gorgeous child but was tormented by others and resolved that changing her body was the solution and demonstration of her resolve. Echoes of the roots of motivation for some young girls undergoing labioplasty?

    My friend understands this discrimination within her own Asian-Indian culture and she pointed out the irony that so many Aussies head to the beach or spray booth for a tan.

    If there was anything to take away from this film documentary its that the future bodes well for so many of these social injustice issues to become non-issues. Our children are simply not going to tolerate this nonsense in their generation and equal pay, same sex marriage, arbitrary judgements based on colour will be anachronisms of the past.

    My friend asked me once 'does the colour of my skin bother you'? It wasn't hard to answer honestly, but I said 'I've never noticed the colour of your skin'.

    Date and time
    February 04, 2014, 9:01AM
    • There is only one human race which consists of various ethnicities. It is annoying that when discussing variations amongst humans that race terminology continues to be used, as it is completely inaccurate. There is an interesting documentary called race and intelligence - science's last taboo, which looks at the issues that have been raised in this article. The geneticists interviewed state that there is no significant variation in DNA amongst races (ethnicities). The differences that we see are primarily aesthetic and due to geographical and individual variations. There has been much research conducted which substantiates this suggestion. There is a psychologist by the name of Phillipe Ruston who claims that the different brain sizes between races justify the concept that europeans have a superior intellect as they have the largest brains. Science has again shown this to be untrue, as it is the organisation within the brain and level of connectivity ( how quickly synapses can transmit information) that determines intelligence, rather than brain mass. As far as white people being more beautiful than black people, this again is completely subjective and unfortunately due to the volatile history between ethnicities continues to manifest in our current culture. This is an example of why it should be mandatory to teach genetics in high school.

      Melbourne Woman
      Date and time
      February 04, 2014, 9:03AM
      • An important topic, but one glaring omission is the role of colonialism and its consequences in introducing and reinforcing 'colourism'. While it is uncomfortable to admit that white privilege was built on the back of oppression and slavery of people of colour, not doing so means we are only making token gestures to address these issues.

        Date and time
        February 04, 2014, 9:57AM
        • I agree with many things written in the article, however, I do not agree with the tying in of East Asian skin tone preference with white colonialism. Its fair enough to say that today's media has indeed provided greater incentive to what was already a bias against dark skin tone (the white wash of global media) and a hatred in some East Asian countries (See Korea) where the Asiatic facial features are far more pronounced (similar example with Anglos with very pronounced "white" features, big nose, etc and are seen as undesirable as they are too extreme).
          However, East Asia (more particularly, China, as it served as a central beacon of influence culturally speaking to what are our present day East Asian countries) has always valued fair skin tones BEFORE they knew about the white man's existence.
          In fact, just an idea to strengthen my point - when the Chinese first saw white people they were described as extremely "ugly", "red-haired" devils. White women, even up till the British invasion of what was called Peking (present day Beijing) were considered vile, because their eyes resembled "dogs" (i.e. eyes that were droopier than what Asians considered desirable) and the classic Asian feminine features were considered ideal - I don't recall all of it, but it was quite specific. Almond eyes, crescent brows, translucent, milky and unblemished skin - whereas "white" skin is considered "red", not white - the list goes on.
          This reflected a highly hierarchical society in which nobles and scholars stayed indoors and the poorer agricultural inclined folk stayed indoors. The only way up was to take the Imperial exam to be chosen into Governance by merit, hence increasing the value of fair skin.

          Green Tea
          Date and time
          February 04, 2014, 10:02AM
          • A similar form of self-discrimination occurs in the gay community, with many gay men claiming to be 'straight-acting' (as in, acting like they're not 'gay'), a great deal of talk about who the 'real men' are (and more importantly, where they are), and derision for 'queeny' guys. Gay men puff up their chests with pride when people mistake them for straight men, like it's an achievement back into the mainstream club. It's why most of our gay icons are women and good-looking straight men. It's a self-loathing that's painful to watch. For all our talk about diversity, the hierarchy exists whereby the closer you are to a heterosexual male, the more you can expect acceptance from a gay one.

            Date and time
            February 04, 2014, 10:13AM
            • Its unfortunate we cant be happy with who we are. Mind you I am white and so I haven't had to confront theses issues.
              My wife is Chinese and she likes that I am white and has mentioned fair skinned babies a number of times. Its a big issue in Asia as well as fair skin indicates less manual labour work and more wealth. My wife's explanation.
              This is in Asian countries without a white colonial background as well as countries with one.
              So the belief that this issue is only colonial related is a small one.
              For me its more human nature that is manipulated by consumerism. Humans always reject something when considered second rate. I.e the lonely child with cerebral palsy or the child that is very shy. Both are devalued and the colour issue has a relationship with this.
              Add marketing manipulation that's rooted in psychological study of human nature and you have this issue that's evolved today.
              Also the modern world that we live in today evolved out of Europe, particularly with England as the inventor of machines (industrialisation) and then to her colonies and with the machine came the wealth and to this day those colonies and the people of these colonies retain the old wealth. So wealth and power is related to white people and this still applies today. industrialisation was born out of white people but does not make white people smarter as its an invention with wide ramifications that we all benefit from today. Inventions have gone on since man walked upright but have had much less impact.
              intermarriage is the only way to get rid of the race issue. Everything else has been tried but has failed.

              Date and time
              February 04, 2014, 10:20AM
              • This is a cultural issue, deeply entrenched in many cultures, as you clearly state. And racism is sadly prevalent in ALL cultures. All this, while white/Caucasians have been aiming at being darker (since Coco Chanel, at least) with fake tans, unhealthy exposure to sun and other tanning methods.

                At least our coloured sisters will be less likely to suffer from melanoma and will probably have less wrinkling due to sun damage in their later years.

                Date and time
                February 04, 2014, 10:51AM
                • Interesting article... so what do you make of all the white people who use sun beds, lie outside for hours in the sun to bronze up, get spray tans, or buy those moisturisers that have tanning agents in them?

                  I think both light and dark skinned people are aiming for somewhere in the middle - I reckon olive skin seems to be the ideal destination.

                  Date and time
                  February 04, 2014, 10:58AM

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