Shades of a Race

The war on Colorism


7/14/20236 min read

Colorism is deeply rooted canker in our society, or dare I say, in the realm of race. Does colorism REALLY exist in Ghana and Africa as a whole? After all, we are all, in essence, different shades of dark skin tones. What IS there to prejudice?

Before I proceed to answer this question, it is imperative that we understand the defined concept of colorise. Doing so will help us establish a clearer path to the answer.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, colorism is defined as “the prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic or racial group”.

Now that we have the formal definition of colorism, the answer to whether or not colorism exists in our society becomes evident. It is surprising to discover that some people do not believe that colorism truly exists in Africa and is solely a Western problem.

The 2005 Ghana Health Service report revealed that approximately 30% of women and 5% of Ghanaian men were actively engaged in skin bleaching. The same report indicated that 50% to 60% of adult Ghanaian women have either currently or at a point actively used bleaching agents (Konan 2016). These data on skin bleaching in Ghana provide further evidence of the presence of colorism in Ghana and, to a significant extent, throughout the continent. This suggests that a considerable number of Ghanaians struggle, consciously or unconsciously, with self-identity  in relation to colorism.

Let's take a moment to reflect on the media and its evident role in perpetuating colorist ideas, particularly in advertising, especially within the beauty industry.  These advertisements ofter target vulnerable people affected by colorism in order to generate profit.

The notion that lighter or “fairer” skin tones are preferable has been repeatedly imposed on us. Marketing campaigns promoting skincare products tend to feature lighter toned models, reinforcing the idea that lighter tones ar more desirable. Skin care products promising “whiter” skin tones flood our markets while billboards juxtapose women with deep skin tones alongside lighter tones individuals suggesting a transformation from darker to lighter, supposedly more "refreshing' shades. These billboards are strategically placed in prominent locations in African cities.

What I find most disconcerting is that, these products loosely and interchangeably use the terms "skin brightening" and "skin bleaching" which can confuse those who may be not be aware of the distinction between the two. To clarify, skin brightening involves the removal of dead skin through exfoliation aiming to maintain a radiant complexion. The intention is not to whiten the skin, as skin bleaching does.

Unfortunately, many African women who bleach or take steps to lighten their skin tone do so because there is an unspoken belief in the desirability of fairer skin tones compared to their deeper toned counterparts.

Black African woman
Black African woman

It is indeed deeply disturbing to acknowledge that this prejudice is perpetrated by members of the same race and nationality. I have personally experienced numerous instances of prejudicial behavior from individuals within the similar skin tones.

The uncomfortable truth must be addressed and conveyed to those responsible for perpetuating this injustice.

However, it is important to note that colorism is not exclusively a Ghanaian or african problem. Individuals of Asian and Latino descent also struggle with colorism. Adverts for skin whitening products in some Asian countries which can be distressing to watch as a black person

I once came across a Chinese advertisement where a woman's boyfriend, who was black, was implied to be dirty due to his skin tone. The woman then proceeded to seduce him, and unfortunately, pushed him into washing machine. To everyone's surprise, the boyfriend came out a completely different race.

The rise of social media has brought the detrimental notion of “the lighter, the better” even closer to our finger tips. Influential social media personalities, who have an obvious Jedi grip on their followers, often showcase skin that shades lighter than their actual complexion. It is doubtful that they are aware of the subliminal implications of their altered appearance.

Can we entirely blame social media, bad marketing campaigns or even the skincare industry which lend their influence to the setting of the standards of beauty? The responsibility lies with both producers and consumers of such content, as societal norms and individual choices also contribute to the perpetuation of colorist ideas.

The belief that one's skin tone determines their worthiness for a relationship or marriage is not only ridiculous but also sadly prevalent. In my opinion, the measure of desirability as a partner should not be based on skin shade, but on the content of one's character and compatibility of personalities. 

I am reminded of an episode of Date Rush South Africa, a dating program where a suitor chooses a date from a group of contestants. In this particular episode, the gentleman proceeded to reject the women with deeper skin tones. The final two contenders were a lighter-skinned lady and a lady of Caucasian race. When asked why he chose these two, the gentleman had the audacity to say, “I only date fair ladies”.

It is disheartening to witness such biases openly expressed and promoted on national television. This episode passing through production and receiving approval for airing raises about the prevalence of such mentalities.

One can only imagine the number of people who share this same mentality, whether it is "I only date deep skin tones" or the opposite viewpoint.

It is crucial to instill positive self-love, self-esteem and self-appreciation from an early age. We need the younger generations to believe in themselves, to love themselves, not in an arrogant manner, but with confidence that radiates from embracing the skin that they have been blessed with. We must remind our daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, neighbors that all shades of skin are equal and that no one shade is more significant than the other.

Even seemingly insignificant comments and traditions contribute to colorist behavior. For instance, the practice of checking a newborn baby’s ears to determine the potential skin tone sends a bad message. The availability of skin lightening products for children in the market indicates a consumer demand.

How many times have our parents warned us to stay out of the sun for the fear of becoming darker? These subtle statements project a negative stereotype that associates dark skin with undesirability.

Recently, I overhead someone commenting that a beautiful dark skin 2 year old girl was “too dark” for her age. Such remarks highlights the prevalence of colorist attitudes in our society.

Fortunately, as we navigate through evolving social climates and witness the rise of social causes, it is encouraging to see an increased resistance to commonly accepted colorist statements and behaviors.

There is a noticeable wave of social change aimed at confronting and ending colorism. Difficult and awkward conversations are arising with the intention of dismantling colorist beliefs and practises.

I eagerly anticipate engaging in more discussions about colorism and skin bleaching in Ghana. The Netflix documentary "Skin" by Beverly Naya sheds light on the issues of colorism and skin bleaching in our sister country, Nigeria. It provides intriguing insights into the motivations some women, and a few men, feel compelled to bleach their skin.

In South Africa, scores of women were rightly outraged over an advert posted on the Clicks website, a beauty and pharmaceutical retailer, by the brand TRESemmé. This advert, intended to promote a haircare product and sorely missed the mark by displaying the images of dark skin and caucasian women side by side, describing the hair of dark-skinned women as dry, frizzy, damaged and dull, while portraying the Caucasian hair as normal, fine and flat. Many South African women rallied to callout the brand and its parent company, Unilever, for their lack of racial sensitivity and commitment to diversity especially in a pre-dominantly Black country .They demanded the removal of the advert.

It is my hope that we wholeheartedly reject ignorant colorist narratives and, on a broader scale, racist behaviors, striving to create a utopia of equality. However, this dream will only remain a mere fantasy unless uncomfortable conversations about these subjects are not initiated.

Let us initiate conversations, ask questions, be boldly speak out against discriminatory behavior and comments.

Be the CHANGE you want to see.