It was Richard Wright who first introduced to me the concept of blackness. In one of my favourite books of all time, Black Boy, I saw the misfortune that came with carrying black canvas for skin – skin you had no hand in choosing.
As I read and continued to immerse myself in the plight of blacks in post-slavery America, I realized that though I had never left the shores of Africa, I’d walked this road of discrimination based on skin before. It is a road many dark-skinned Nigerians like me have trod, and although it will never compare to the plight of the Black Boy in America, it is painful nonetheless.
My family made me realise my Skin Colour
I have been aware of the colour of my skin since I was little. Not because I was born in a country like America where instances of racism are apparent, but because I was born into a family of fair-skinned children. 5 fair-skinned children with an even fairer skinned mother. I had the “misfortune” of being the exact copy of my father, only I was darker.
As a child, my siblings told me stories of how I was found beside a baboon while they were on their way to Zimbabwe, where we lived for a while. It was the only explanation for my dark skin; our small minds could never quite connect my darkness to that of my father’s, perhaps because he was rarely home. My parents never stopped them from teasing me endlessly with this story, even when I was obviously distressed by it. I remember crying into my pillow several times, wondering who could have dropped me beside a baboon. Why didn’t a kinder family take me in? Why hadn’t these guys just left me there?
Nigeria has a Light Skin problem
Colorism is a delicate subject here in Nigeria, and even with countless articles claiming to understand it, there are still nuances to it. Nuances you probably won’t be aware of unless you have had to deal with it. The blanket explanation for why thousands of Nigerians, both female and male, use what we call ‘bleaching products’ usually dates back to our colonial history. Most argue that it’s a form of neo-colonialism, that Nigerians aren’t yet rid of the terrible side effects of having the white man rule us and destroy our sense of self while at it. That we’re inherently obsessed with the idea of anything foreign, including the white man’s skin.
The elevation of the ‘Oyinbo’, a Yoruba word which either translates to mean ‘white person’ or ‘fair-skinned’, in the Nigerian culture cements this argument. White people, relevant or not, attract both attention and respect from us. A white person is seen as a sort of demi-god, and will usually get preferential treatment from natives, often times to the detriment of other natives.
For the Nigerian ‘fortunate’ enough to be born fair-skinned, the privileges are almost the same. It is even better if said person is female. The oyinbo woman is everybody’s darling – she is favoured above everyone else. In Nollywood movies and Nigerian music videos, she is portrayed as the epitome of beauty, brains and character – the standard all other women should aspire to. To be a fair woman is to be good. Fresh. Vital. In a recent Nollywood movie I watched, two female sex workers who got turned down because they were black, lamented their bad luck in life – their dark skin. There are stories of women who have curried favours, ranging from better grades to employment opportunities, because of their fair skin. Such is the romanticisation of fair skin, especially on women. It is really not surprising that a signficant number of Nigerian women turn to bleaching creams so that they too can experience fair-skin privilege.
The means for it is readily available too. Bleaching products are easy to get and their sales are not regulated, unlike in the United States where they are banned. Cosmetics giants like Nivea, Fair and White, and Dove are among those that have capitalized on the ‘Oyinbo Fever’. And the market is certainly huge. 77% of Nigerian women bleach their skin, the highest percentage in the world. This number is quite staggering considering the fact that even though fair-skin privilege is evident and rampant, there is a certain level of social stigma that comes with noticeably bleaching your skin. Yorubas will call skin bleachers ‘Faworaja’, a derogatory term that literally translates to mean ‘use your fair skin to buy market’ or metaphorically in this case ‘use your skin to prosper’.
In Ilorin, the small, quiet town in North-central Nigeria, where I grew up and where my mother still lives, Chupet Stores is the most popular cosmetics store there is. There isn’t a single day when the store isn’t overflowing with customers, its unnaturally fair-skinned, mostly male attendants constantly restocking and rearranging the shelves.
It is Chupet that many skin bleachers go to restock tested and trusted creams, or to seek recommendations for better buys. Popular among the products Chupet customers love are ‘toning’ creams like Fair and White and soaps like Tura. It was Tura my mother tried to use on me as a baby, but with little success. As soon as I popped out, she scrubbed tirelessly at my soft, black skin, trying to lighten it like my sister’s, Bisola – if only a little. But my skin proved too tough, and the dark coloring of my ears clearly showed that I would always be black, so she gave up.
I have found that while ‘toning’ actually refers to the deep cleansing of the skin, the word is used for skin whitening and brightening products in Nigeria. To say ‘I tone my skin’ sounds a lot less harsh, and more socially acceptable than to say ‘I bleach my skin’. It is also best not to let people know what exact products you use so they can’t figure you out. This is why when you ask someone who you noticed is glowing what they use, they reply with vague terms like ‘it’s God’. It is also the reason my mother, in further attempts to rid me of my dark colour, changed the containers of my body cream in my secondary school years and warned me vehemently not to reveal the contents of the cream container to any soul.
But there’s a different set of skin bleachers; the ones who don’t bother to hide what they use or the fact that they use these products at all. It is this class that, according to an essay by Dr Bibi Bakare Yusuf, have no desire to be white or to even devalue blackness by bleaching. These semi-literate women control the means of production in large West African markets including the popular Lagos market, Eko Idumota, and are agencies unto themselves. It is not uncommon to see Mama Ekos, or Lagos Mothers as they are fondly called, heavily made up, whether at events or at their stores, with their faces glowing yellow and their knuckles and feet burning black. To them, bleaching is only a way to highlight their beauty and is not much different from using hair extensions or enlarging your boobs, and they actively seek out new skin bleachers to try.
Perhaps, cosmetics industries also have a share in the blame. By consistently pushing the rhetoric that fair skin is better, they may have led many to bleach. In others, they may have reinforced the idea that bleaching is a good idea. Although the campaigns may never stop, consumers have however stopped being passive: Africans are becoming aware of the subtle colorism embedded in these adverts and are kicking back. In a recent advertising mishap, cosmetics brand, Nivea, came under fire for a promo many Nigerians allege is insensitive and promotes colourism as well as encourages bleaching. In response, Nivea took its adverts down.
Facing my mother with my Dark Skin
The holiday season is coming. As I stand in front of the mirror, perusing my dark, scarred, facial skin with familiar self-disgust, I realize it’s almost time to visit my mother. The thought alone is shudder-inducing. In my head, I picture what our meeting will be like.
The scene is almost always the same. After a brief welcome, my mother’s face will squeeze into a frown, her mouth pouting as though the mere sight of my face has caused a bile spill in her mouth. She will give me several up and down looks, destroying whatever self-worth I have salvaged and then launch her verbal missiles. ‘Your face is too rough! Why do you look so dark? You don’t take care of your skin, that’s why!’ I don’t take care of my skin meaning despite her countless warnings, I still don’t use skin lighteners and she has not at all forgiven me for refusing to use the products she generously recommends. I will perch on the brown sofa waiting for the last of the attacks, my skin now several shades darker and sweaty from the rough 6-hour ride from Lagos to Ilorin.
Inevitably, one or two innuendos will be made about how my skin is the cause of my singleness. I will swallow everything, adamantly refuse her creams, and mark tracks to my room. Sometimes, when I get lucky and my skin is in an acceptable state, she will welcome me with smiles, tell me how I look less-terrible and immediately launch a campaign to get me to use products that will help me ‘maintain’ my colour. Yet, I refuse.
Learning to accept my Skin Colour
Coming home to myself has been a long journey, albeit a slow one. And to find myself inside myself I have learned to tolerate my appearance. I unintentionally fell several times into the rabbit hole that is skin-lightening. Because I have acne-prone skin bequeathed to me by my mother, I’ve tried creams and oils that would make me a tad lighter in an effort to clear my scars. And those few times I noticed just how much more I loved myself, how many more glances passers-by spared me. But something stops me from continuing every time. It’s not a high sense of self nor is it the overwhelming desire to keep my skin mercury free. It is, quite simply, the fear of turning into my mother. The fear of obsessing over my skin, yearning to strip it of every last dark patch and losing myself in that craze. The fear of loving one child more than another because of their complexion, of having them get the ugly brown towel because the pink one goes better with their sibling’s light skin.
My aunt once told me stories of how my mother suffered from severe acne as a teen. Until then, I had never understood my mother’s love for skin lighteners – she’s naturally fair skinned and doesn’t really need them. They say her acne was so bad, her entire face was covered in red and black spots and that her peers would refer to her as ‘the girl with boils on her face’.
I assume that in an attempt to stop the ridicule and ingratiate herself with her playmates, my mother had sought and found solace in cream mixtures at a very young age. So while I have a lot of internalized angst against her, I do understand what it means to be in pursuit of happiness, to do everything possible so you’re not the awkward sore thumb that stands out. In a society where the colour of your skin, especially as a woman, could guarantee whether you get a bank job or go home, unemployed, what right do I have to judge anyone, much less my own mother, for their choices and preferences?
AUTHOR BIO: Shola Lawal is a multi-media journalist living in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2014, she received a BA in Mass Communication from the University of Lagos, and an MA in Journalism from the same school in 2017. Her most recent writing explores the plight of Nigerian returnees held as prisoners in war-torn Libya. Shola is currently working on her next documentary – a film chronicling the lives of young, tech-savvy, traditional religion adherents in Nigeria.