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. 

Beyonce.

Beyonce.

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.