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The Complex Case of Colourism in Africa

Colourism (skin tone bias) is an intra-racial phenomenon which negatively affects the attitudes and opinions people of colour across the globe hold about each other. Skin tone bias manifests itself though stereotypes and prejudices especially in terms of beauty standards.

It is without a doubt, that racism is one of the building blocks of colourism. This is for example evident in how the Apartheid government in South Africa introduced the Population Registration Act (No. 30 of 1950), to provide social distinction between not only black and white individuals, but also “coloured” or “mixed race” individuals. This reinforced each group’s hierarchal stance in society as “light skinned” individuals were “runner-up’s” of white privilege. There were various tests used to determine which group one belonged to. The most notable of these was the pencil test in which a pencil was placed in one’s hair to see if the pencil would fall out. Through this test, the texture of hair close to that of a white person and it coinciding with light skin led to a person being categorised as “coloured”. Certain privileges were then appropriated to you relative to those afforded to individuals with darker skin tones.

This is not to say that light skinned black people are not at the receiving of discrimination. However, history and the present have proven on numerous occasions through media and other platforms of influence that lighter skin is perceived as being better than darker skin. From as early as the 19th century for example, Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of History’ depicted that a black person is a wild animal in an untamed state who lacks higher consciousness and civilisation and therefore needs to be saved and civilised by a white individual. Ideas such as these paved way for racism and constructs that place importance on one’s physical features being close to that of a white person.

In Sudan, popular phrases such as “beauty is red” (translated from Arabic) depict the descending order of standards of beauty. As you move across the colour spectrum, beauty is considered to diminish.Colourism has also led to the adoption of Eurocentric standards of beauty by those with dark skin. Media images of a fair skin tone and straight hair are classified to be synonymous with beauty. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 77% of Nigerians use skin bleaching products on a daily basis. Other countries where skin bleaching is popular include Kenya and South Africa. This subliminal conditioning that certain features are better was demonstrated in a 1947 experiment by Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted on 253 black children aged between 3 and 7.

Two thirds of the children who were presented with identical dolls, one white and one black, preferred the white doll. The experiment, which was later conducted in 2006 and 2010, revealed the same results- children preferred the white doll and regarded it as “prettier” than the black doll. In terms of skin tone and family dynamics, a recent study carried out on black children with varying skin tones revealed that while lighter skin was positively related to higher levels of pride in racial identity, darker-skinned individuals reported lower self-esteem. Many black females are aware that lighter skin is considered prettier. A study by Umberson and Hughes showed that from school to work life, these stereotypes are reinforced. The study shows that light-skinned black women are given preferential treatment when it comes to educational and work opportunities.

These issues on intra-racial bias and how it is reinforced by societal beliefs and standards, highlights that the black experience is not identical. How can people invalidate someone’s “blackness” based on something they did not choose for themselves? Light-skinned actors have expressed the discrimination that comes with being light-skinned as it is attributed to privilege. The colloquial narrative of “yellow bones/red bones” carries the assumption that those with lighter skin have a better life. One is sadly confronted with having to prove that there is no privilege that comes with being light skinned.

There are notable strains that accompany colourism in Africa that have unnecessarily created internal tensions. As Steven Biko put it, blackness is a reflection of a mental attitude and not the pigmentation of one’s skin. Our collective experiences as black people, and our struggles which have shaped our collective identity and life experiences is what defines individuals as black. Across the colour spectrum, lies the different variations and expression of the beauty that come with being black. What ultimately defines who we are, is our shared identity expressed through culture, experiences and the essence of being black in Africa.


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