The colourism debate rears its head…again

Radio DJ and TV presenter Khanyi Mbau set Twitter ablaze over the weekend with a picture she posted of herself boasting a near pink complexion

The post, which she uploaded on Sunday evening, has once again set the cat among the pigeons with black Twitter hurling relentless, negative commentary at Mbau, with many ridiculing her conspicuously lighter and somewhat ‘pink complexion’.

The image went viral within hours, with a mixed bag of reactions, and has been among the top trending conversations taking place on Twitter over the past two days, indicating that the colourism debate is is still well alive with no conclusion in sight.

It also begs for the ‘elephant in the room’ question to be asked and to search for reasons to explain black women’s fascination with skin lightening.

Local research conducted by Professor Ncoza Dlova, head of UKZN’s Department of Dermatology, around skin lightening practices in sub-Saharan Africa found that the prevalence rate of skin lightening use in the region is between 25% – 67%.

READ MORE: Lil’ Kim, colourism and self-hate in the black community

“A survey looking at the reasons why some people use skin lighteners showed interesting results. A third of the participants were using bleaching creams to treat skin conditions like acne and eczema, others wanted to treat pigmentation or marks, and a third of them just wanted to have a lighter skin because they feel that if you are lighter, you are more beautiful or attractive,” Dlova said in a previous interview with DESTINY. 

Professor and ethnographer Dr Yaba Blay whose work focuses on black culture and aesthetics, believes that the use of skin lightening creams on the continent is prolific.

She says the signs and images projected by mainstream media in certain African countries, like Nigeria, constantly push the idea that whiter is better, with Nollywood stars advertising skin lightening creams on billboards, radio and TV commercials, and with popular movies such as Beyoncé and Rihanna where mixed-race actresses play the much-sought-after love interest.

“You might ask an aunty in Nigeria if she bleaches her skin and she would say, ‘No’, but in her cabinet you would find bleaching creams,” she told DESTINY previously.

“I don’t think she’s lying, but in that particular social context you have people who deliberately bleach their skins and those who use products to do what they call ‘toning’ to even out the skin a little bit, but they wouldn’t call that bleaching, however they are still buying those products.”

READ MORE: Professor Dlova, leading the fight against skin lightening

She adds that despite the obvious damage and the risk of cancer, women persist in using these products. “They are aware that it’s going to hurt, but for them the benefits of light skin and the perceived social benefits far outweigh the risk. For them, the process of lightening the skin is less painful than having dark skin,” she said.

“It’s nothing short of a way of life for some people. In the same way that you would not think twice about taking a shower and putting on lotion, I think it’s the same sort of logic. Just as you don’t have to explain why you put on lotion, for many people using skin lightening creams it’s exactly the same thing. It becomes part of their daily ‘skin care’ routine and they don’t have to explain why.”

In 2014 – Ghanian website www.halfcastebabies.com, which reportedly sold the sperm of white men to African couples who wanted to have light skinned babies – was shut down.

While the peddling of white sperm is certainly extreme, we cannot ignore that there are some dark-skinned people, broken down by years of being discriminated against because of their complexion, who — consciously or unconsciously — seek to have children with white or light-skinned people to ensure their kids are fairer.

READ MORE: Illegal skin-lightening products still on sale in SA

“It’s a nuance, it’s a type of bleaching,” Blay said.

“There is no judgment, it is something that happened as far back as slavery days. Often we think of mixed race children being the result of rape, but throughout the diaspora, there are many narratives of African slaves who ‘tolerated’ sex with their enslavers in order to ensure that their resultant light-skinned children would have a better life than them.”

Blay referenced the book Cane River where four generations of women, who have internalised the ‘lighter-skin-is-better-than-darker-skin’ complex, systematically have children with white men so that by the time you get to the eighties, the surviving members are so light-skinned, they are effectively white.

Dating across race has become a way of life in a democratised world where colour no longer matters, but Dr Blay says we have to admit the hard truths that some dark-skinned people seek out these interracial relationships — not because they are so open and humanist, but because they want their children to come out with light skin and good hair.

“That is part of the conversation that we’re not having, but it’s the truth.”