Last summer, I was told unequivocally that I should bleach my skin. It was a well-intentioned suggestion from a neighbor, a woman who bleaches her own skin and that of her three children, all less than 7 years old.
She is one of a reported 77 percent of Nigerians that uses products to lighten their skin, part of the $10 billion skin-bleaching industry that spans the world but has found its home in Asia and Africa. It is invisible to some, but still, it is pervasive, a global reality.
The next logical step after bleaching one’s skin is eradicating dark skin completely, before it gets a chance to take root in the next generation. So for $3,000, a clinic in Ghana is offering African couples the opportunity to use a White man’s sperm to produce mixed race babies, free from the scourge of excess melanin. The aim, according to owner Augustine N. K. Boateng, is “to bridge the racial gap between Africa and the rest of the world by promoting mixed race reproduction and developing these children for a new Africa.”
The response to the clinic’s new adverts was swift, and in the two weeks since they were posted, the company has received a torrent of inquiries from media around the world. At the moment, their website, www.halfcastebabies.com, has been indefinitely deactivated.
I asked a woman who bleaches her skin what she thought about the clinic, and if she would have used its services. Her answer was a resounding “yes.”
“That’s incredible,” she said. “Hell yes, I would do that if I’d had a chance. I like light skin, and I like light-complexioned people. Besides, in Africa, the moment you’re light-skinned, the doors open for you. We have a better chance in this world than dark people, so why not?”
Obviously, to those not surrounded by aunts, sisters, friends, church members, neighbors, uncles, brothers and mothers who bleach, a mixed baby factory and the idea of skin-bleaching is decidedly bizarre. But for many Africans across the continent, it’s not so far-fetched.
Naturally, there’s an almost cyclical cultural condemnation for bleaching, after favoritism for light skin shows itself, but it’s short-lived. There is public outcry and it’s a big deal, then it disappears until the next dust-up.
Certainly, there is a giant swath of the African public that loves dark skin, denounces bleaching and eloquently rails against it. But there’s an equally large group (the World Health Organization says nearly eight in 10 Nigerians use skin-lightening products) that says it’s just fine. It appears that for every person who bleaches, there’s another that condemns the action and preaches self-love and Black pride. So why haven’t we reached a place where Africans decide one way or the other?
While African-Americans are content to look aghast and judge the “self-hate” they insist drives skin-bleaching and biracial baby-making, it is relatively clear that at least part of the glamorization of light skin comes from American media representation of Black life in the U.S.—and not just in mainstream media, but also in venues controlled by Black Americans.
“African Americans are the leaders of the global Black community, because they are the most visible worldwide,” according to Amobé Mévégue, CEO of Ubiznews, a pan-African television network based in Paris, France. “They should know the impact they’re having on the millions of Africans watching.”
Of course, the desire for White skin started with the imperialism of Europeans and became entrenched during colonialism. But today, African-American culture and the light-skinned women chosen for music videos and featured on television, movies and magazine covers sustain it.
So when that woman suggested I bleach my skin last summer, I hesitated for a moment and allowed room for the idea to take root in my mind. Soon I came to my senses and rebuked the thought. But for someone as consciously and comfortably dark-skinned as I am to consider it, even for a moment, speaks volumes. I can’t comfortably condemn those who bleach, nor those who would make a half-caste baby.
Instead, I am waiting for Kenyan 12 Years a Slave actress Lupita Nyong’o, in all her chocolaty glory, to slowly but surely work her magic. As her beauty gets continually acknowledged in the American mainstream, it’ll hopefully help create a larger space for us to be us, look like ourselves, and be loved and appreciated as such.
Bolanle Omisore is a freelance journalist who covers business, energy and environment news from the African continent. Follow her on Twitter @venerableladyB.