On Brightening, Lightening and Whitening I

The first time I heard about skin-bleaching, I was a child (I can’t remember how old) and someone (I no longer remember who) commented that Michael Jackson had bleached his skin in order to become a white man. It didn’t really make much of an impact on me then (MJ could have been white, black, red or green and I’d still have loved his music and videos) and I promptly forgot that skin bleaching was a thing that existed.

Fast-forward several years to when I was 16. I was in my mom’s friend’s shop and a client walked in. It was impossible not to notice that her skin looked… odd. Aside from the general background of gingery-brown, there were several patches of shades of green, purple and black (and I mean black like the tar they use on roads). I thought she’d suffered some kind of burn. It turns out I may have been half-right. When we left the shop, my mother turned to me and said “see that woman, she bleaches; that is why her skin is like that”, in her cautionary tone of voice that implied, if you like, join her and bleach – you too you will end up with multi-coloured skin and people will think someone poured acid on you. I’ll never know for sure if that was the reason for the woman’s strange complexion, but this episode was the beginning of my foray into the world of skin-lightening. I did some research and found that there are people whose skin does end up discoloured or damaged due to repetitive use of (low-quality) skin-lightening products. They are the lucky ones. Some of them may get skin cancer or renal failure from mercury accumulation.

I am the only light-skinned person in my family. And I don’t mean just my nuclear family. Among all my cousins, aunties, uncles and relatives whose actual relationship to me I cannot trace, I am the only really fair one. However, this did not put me up on any kind of pedestal. As a child, if I messed up, my ass was nicely whooped. In fact, I only learned that I was light-skinned from outsiders who would say things like “you’re so fair” and it is only recently that I realize that this was intended as a compliment – when I was younger, I was very flummoxed as to why people took the time to comment on my complexion. Another thing that frequently happened was that random strangers would touch my skin and ask “what do you use on your skin?” and “how do you maintain your colour?” To the first question, I replied, “soap, water… err… vaseline1?” and the second question I didn’t answer because I didn’t understand what the blazes they were talking about. But now these encounters make much more sense; they assumed that as a young girl/teenager, I was bleaching, and that was how I came to be fair. I am not offended or outraged by any of this, just flummoxed and a bit amused.

But there are those who do not find the topic of skin-bleaching and society’s opinions on skin complexion amusing. One of such people is Elnathan John who believes that “Those who bleach are victims of a racist/colorist society and world and media where white and fair is better.” He has a (rather bitter) post about how he was criticized and unfairly treated2 because he is dark-skinned and postulates that people (women) who bleach ought not be criticized because they are simply trying to blend into a situation where lighter-skinned people are favoured. As in, they are considered more attractive and desirable. Aesthetically. And I suppose sexually. After decrying the evils of colourism in Nigerian society, he then, in what can only be described as hypocritical insularity, injects his own version of reverse colourism:  “ if you are light skinned or white, you are not allowed to use the term self hate for people who lighten their skin. Stop.” In other words, dark-skinned people can use the term, but not light-skinned people. When you make any kind of discrimination or prejudice based on skin colour, that is racism (or colourism – I don’t see much difference between the two). I personally don’t think anyone, dark or light, should flippantly throw around the term “self-hate” especially as it concerns people who lighten their skin. You are not in their bodies or minds, and especially if you don’t bleach yourself, you do not know what motivates them to do what they do.

Mr John gives the impression in his post that the people who bleach (at least in Nigeria) are dark-skinned people trying to “blend in3”, after bowing to pressure from society and media. But is this necessarily the case? Adaobi Tricia Nwaobani seems to think differently . Her opinion is that the decision to bleach has more to do with experimenting with a different “look” than suffering from colonialist mentality. Whether the two are mutually exclusive, we will never really know for sure, since Nigeria was colonised by white people and we currently live in a very racist world. Another thing Ms Nwaobani mentioned was that she knows light-skinned people who bleach. According to her, they do this to “reinforce what they already have”. Interesting theory, especially since I don’t know any dark-skinned people who go and stand out in the sun or rub soot on themselves in order to reinforce what they already have. Is their darkness not worth reinforcing? At the end of Ms Nwaobani’s article, I am left unconvinced by her proposal, but with some food for thought.

When I was 16 and I first really learned about skin-bleaching, my first reaction was disappointment. I was disappointed with the people who were “selling out” to The Man, by buying into the idea that lighter is indeed better. I didn’t wish them any ill-will or insult them. I just felt like by lightening their skin, they were reinforcing (to borrow Ms Nwaobani’s verb) the idea that Whiteness is superior to Blackness. I may have grown up ignorant about skin-bleaching, but I was acutely aware of racism and its devastating consequences in Nigeria4 and elsewhere in the world. The second thing I felt, was guilt. I felt like by being born fair, I had inadvertently contributed to a problem I had no part in creating. I wanted to get darker so that I could somehow resolve a part of that problem and prove to people that black is indeed beautiful. It is not easy for a light-skinned person pushing that slogan to be taken seriously. Thus started my brief stint with cocoa-butter lotion (I was told that it makes skin darker). It was brief because 1) it is more expensive than vaseline’s petroleum jelly, 2) I react badly to most cosmetic products and 3) I simply don’t trust 99% of the cosmetic products out there. I mean, if you really think about it, why should a lotion make your skin darker? (or lighter for that matter?) Ultimately, I abandoned operation go-dark altogether because I realized that what I was attempting to do was not the way forward. As Elnathan John said, I needed to just own my skin, societal biases or not.

At the risk of sounding like a Nollywood film, to be continued…

  1. Petroleum jelly, not the lotions.
  2. In one of Mr. John’s tweets that make up his post he says: “In school teachers were scared to touch the very light-skinned people. We darkies… they fucked us up with a clear conscience.” A friend of mine has a theory that this may be more telling of the specific part of the country he grew up in – he is from somewhere in Northern Nigeria, where in all likelihood, the Fulani elite who are often from rich and powerful families tend to be lighter-skinned and this may account for why the teachers were hesitant to beat the light-skinned students. It may have been more about not messing with the children of powerful people than it was about colourism. But this is just a theory.
  3. I suppose he means blend into a seemingly predominant idea that lighter skin is more beautiful skin.
  4. Indeed, there is racism in the world’s most populous black country, but I will delve into this another time.

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