Colour me right
RWANDA this week once again made global headlines for all the right reasons after the East African country announced that it has begun a nationwide ban on skin lightening products.
Although the ban has left the nation divided on whether or not the move is fair to the women who want complete autonomy over their bodies, Rwanda’s ministry of health is pushing forward with its plans to remove whitening creams and soaps from shelves nationwide after President Paul Kagame instigated the crackdown when he publically condemned the use of the products last year November.
On home soil, the decision forces us to reflect on colourism and the association between status and lightness, coupled with Western influence, which continues to reverberate throughout Africa today and has spawned a global, multibillion-dollar industry in cosmetic creams and invasive procedures.
Colourism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group.”
The idea of attributing social capital to race has been around of centuries and particularly has its footprint in the American slave trade, where white masters showed preferential treatment to light-skinned or mixed-race slaves – often the product of the rape of dark-skinned women.
Slaves with a fair skin were made to work in white-owned, well shaded houses where less physical labour was required and the darker-skinned slaves in the fields under the scorching sun, coining the terms “house negro” and “field negro.”
Understanding the types of discrimination that links power to desirability and privilege to a particular skin shade within black and brown communities requires a more nuanced analysis. It also demands that we examine what it means or possibly means to be dark-skinned in a society obsessed with fair skin and mixed-race children.
The debate about Rwanda banning skin bleaching products once again exposed how many in our society, especially dark-skinned men, have been conditioned from childhood to treat women with lighter skin more favourable while simultaneously subjugating women who look like them.
So normalised is this pre-existing trend that we have ignored it for years even when our own surroundings have revealed that dark-skinned women are facing oppression to a point that they are altering their skin colour using harmful skin bleaching products.
Hydroquinone, found in popular skin bleaching products, has been known to cause side effects like skin irritation, blistering, and severe discoloration.
It has also been suggested that skin-lightening products have the potential to cause skin cancer. To the millions of dark skin women using them, however, these risks are worth it if it means their communities will view and treat them better, as well as present better opportunities.
Colourism is undoubtedly a symptom of racism.
It may not have been borne of struggles within black and brown communities, but it is upheld through the fabric of racist societies. We need to do serious introspection and change our attitudes and it starts with the simple message that black is beautiful, no matter what shade.