The daunting effect of colourism in modern day Nigeria

Nigeria gained independence from British colonial rule in 1960. Yet over half of a century later, the scars of colonialism remain embedded in Nigerian beauty standards. 

Artwork by @liv.ligt

It is no secret that the glorification of fair-skinned women and the fetishization of mixed children is rife in many regions of the African continent, and fairly-speaking across the globe. But what is the history behind this way of thinking? 

In an article published in The Guardian, Eniola Anuoluwapo Soyemi’s encounter with a skin-bleaching Nigerian woman exposes the colonial mindset that remains implanted in many Nigerians living today. While Soyemi was waiting for her 10-week-old son’s vaccination in a private hospital in Lagos, a Nigerian woman with skin red and poisoned by bleach praised Soyemi’s son for his “light” and “beautiful” skin. Despite Soyemi’s attempts to assert that her son’s beauty was unrelated to his skin colour, the woman still persisted with her belief in the superiority of lighter skin. Soyemi links this way of thinking to a lack of “black consciousness” and a rather “colonial mindset”. 

“I want to inspire young people to love themselves. And I decided to use my documentary, ‘Skin,’ because I didn’t want to restrict my message to a small community. I knew it was important to get the message further.” 

Beverly Naya, “Skin” Netflix

What is currently being done in order to battle this struggle to restore “black consciousness” and emancipate the black mind? 

Colourism is a widespread problem in Nigeria that dates back to colonial rule. According to a 2020 report published in the journal E-International relations, a preference for lighter skin complexions can be traced back to slavery in the 1600s. Slave masters would give lighter skinned slaves household duties whereas darker slaves would often be assigned more straining work out in the cotton fields. According to an article published on ThoughtsCo, slave owners would give some light-skinned slaves preferential treatment as they were illegitimate family members. Although the enslavers did not formally accept their mixed-raced children, these light-skinned slaves were given certain privileges that their dark-skinned counterparts could not obtain. This could explain the division within the black community due to colourism. 

Naya told CNN that as a dark-skinned young girl growing up in the UK, she had low self-esteem because of her skin tone. This is a widespread issue that extends beyond the UK. Naya’s documentary reveals that in many regions in Africa, women of a fairer complexion are deemed as more attractive. Moreover, light-skinned women tend to thrive in the entertainment, marketing and tourism sectors. The media reinforces negative stereotypes that devalue the beauty of dark skin by depicting fair-skinned black women on the front pages of magazines whilst dark-skinned black women are frequently on donation advertisements. 

The link between skin colour, beauty and economic success has caused the skin bleaching industry to grow at a rapid pace in Africa, Asia and the Middle East despite its negative health effects. A WHO report conducted in 2011 revealed that 40% of African women use skin lightening products. In Nigeria specifically this percentage stood at 77%, highlighting the severity of Nigeria’s skin-bleaching problem compared to Africa as a continent.

To try and tackle this harmful practice, activists from across Nigerian society are coming together to raise awareness of the history behind colourism and how it has shaped beauty standards in Nigeria. Naya’s emphasis on empowering dark-skinned young black girls and promoting self love is complemented by the work of actresses such as Diana Yekinni and other members of the entertainment industry. 

 “Kicking colourism out of Africa is the only way skin-lightening practices will ever be truly eradicated.”

Anita Benson

Similarly, Nigerian anti skin-lightening activist and dermatologist Anita Oghenekome Benson is trying to eradicate colourism in Africa by educating people on its colonial history and informing them of the dangerous side-effects of skin-bleaching products. In 2018 she called for various African governments to put an end to discrimination by providing tighter regulations on the sale of skin lightening agents and ensuring that the side-effects of skin-lightening products are crystal clear on the packaging. 

Benson’s demands were set back in 2018 and after further public demands by a plethora of individuals there have been some major improvements in the African continent. Last year, President Paul Kagambe initiated a nationwide ban of skin bleaching products in Rwanda. Similarly, several other African nations such as Ghana, South Africa and Kenya have stopped importing skin lightening products. 

However, despite these transitions elsewhere on the continent, as of yet the Nigerian government has not taken any steps to address colourism. Ongoing struggles against tribalism, corruption and terrorism tend to easily overshadow the prominent issue of colourism. As a result, the Nigerian government has failed to introduce new restrictions to limit the sale of skin bleaching products. and colourism still remains a huge societal issue. 

Colonisation was a pivotal occurrence in Nigerian history and still has a profound effect on beauty standards for Nigerians and the African diaspora. The scars of colonisation remain embedded in Nigeria’s beauty standards. However in a time of racial injustice, Nigerians from across society are coming together to try to change the narrative and emancipate black people from the “colonial mindset” that has been inflicted upon them.