How an entire generation of Nigerians grew up disliking their dark skin

Last week, British-Nigerian actress, Beverly Naya released an hour-long documentary titled ‘Skin’, a personal project which is close to her heart. In just over an hour, she compiled the stories of dark-skinned women in Nigeria who have been treated differently because of their skin colour and the country’s sordid relationship with skin bleaching products. Through ‘Skin’, the actress allows us to see ourselves and our experiences on screen, as any woman in Nigeria will immediately recognise familiar sentiments about growing up in their skin.

The women that Naya interviews as she travels through Lagos are raw, open, and deeply expressive about their struggles with acceptance and their decision to use skin bleaching products. Despite this, the Internet was up in arms about some of the less welcoming parts of the documentary, such as the inclusion of Eku Edewor and Phyno – two light-skinned celebrities whose contribution they complained didn’t really add much to the subject matter. Rather than use this as an avenue to talk openly about the privileges light-skinned people in our country face, people felt that their inclusion was offset by their lack of engagement with the subject matter.

Edewor complained about wanting to gain access to roles reserved for dark-skinned females, and how she was constantly told she could make it abroad, but maybe not in Nigeria. She spoke about wanting to leave Lagos, as she brandished her dual passports, but admitted she rethought her move when job offers kept coming in. While it’s her personal experience of the entertainment industry and valid, it’s hard to ignore that she didn’t particularly recognise the privilege she is afforded based on her complexion in a society which favours that over darker-skin.

In the world we live in, which has been the case since the dawn of time, dark skin is heavy to walk around in. Many black women you come across will be able to point out various moments of misogynoir and colourism during their lives. While colourism isn’t quite the same as racism, the two are inherently connected. Back in 2019, the Oscar-winning actor, Lupita Nyong’o told the BBC that colourism “is the daughter of racism” in “a world that rewards lighter skin over darker skin” and that sentiment is not lost on any of us today. While songs like Beyoncé’s “Brown Skin Girl” celebrate and uplift black women and embrace them as they are, this has not always been the attitude towards black women in our society, and dark-skinned black women in particular.

Colourism isn’t something that exists in America alone. In fact, it’s a global crisis, as skin bleaching market is booming in many countries around the world, particularly here in Africa. Growing up in Nigeria, where everyone wears their blackness in different shades and tones, you quickly notice that darker skin is put down and often made to look inferior to lighter skin.

The colour of one’s skin is typically used as an identifier, as we commonly throw around nicknames such as “yellow paw paw” or “blackie” when referring to a person. Whether this was caused by a faint lingering of colonialism, and how the colonisers separated lighter and darker-skinned people or internalised hatred for darker skin from an upliftment of lighter skin, the glaring result is that people saw dark skin as something to hate, dislike and change.

Like many of us who watched ‘Skin’, I left the documentary wanting to know and learn more about how deeply entrenched the effects of colourism are in my generation. Especially considering that just a few weeks ago, it was a topic of conversation on Twitter, as old tweets from black British influencers resurfaced and led to deeper conversations on the lasting repercussions of colourism on dark-skinned women. To this effect, we spoke to a number of dark-skinned women in our community and learnt about their experiences with colourism while growing up in Nigeria.

 

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Many dark-skinned black women all over the world have been made to bear the brunt of society’s obsession with a proximity to whiteness, and it’s no different in Nigeria. Right from the moment we are born, the colour of our skin becomes the topic of conversation and something to take pride or shame in, you’ll often hear comments like “she’ll still get dark, look at her ears” or “your baby na blackie”, all reinforcing that skin colour is a metric of perceived social value. Even the formative systems which are meant to protect us, contribute to this harm, and from schools to our homes, we are often reminded that our skin colour is something to be changed.

Take for instance the way Nigerian schools treat lighter-skinned children in their care over the darker-skinned kids. Light-skinned or biracial students were glamorised and given preferential treatment because of their skin colour, and the internalised idea that they were softer and more delicate and thus something worth protecting. I distinctly remember the lighter-skinned girls at my secondary school being exempt from cutting their hair while the rest of us were asked to pay an unwelcome visit to the school barber if our hair so much as grew an inch.

This is similar to the experiences of so many other Nigerian women today. 18-year-old, Victory, recounts how during her school’s annual class photo shoots, “they used “pretty” people and picked all the light-skinned people because they looked “fresher” according to them’. Consistently seeing this dynamic play out in front of you is sure to leave lasting effects about your a perceived inferiority, because majority of our time as adolescents were spent in school rather than at home. School formed our foundational basis for the way we viewed the world, so if the order of the day was an ingrained system of othering for darker-skinned people, you quickly understand why so many people have grown up with the beliefs they have.

Outside of school systems themselves, the way in which we interact with our school peers also has an effect on the way we internalise things, especially when it comes from those closest to us. For many dark-skinned women, their skin colour would become a means to attack them. Tiara, 20, tells me she was taught to love her darker skin at home, but when she got to school, she was constantly ridiculed. Her classmates would rudely compare her to her mum who was lighter than her, causing her to eventually resent herself and her mum. This affected her a great deal, and she tells me: ‘I would often ask myself whether God made me dark to punish me or something, because I took all of her features except her skin so why did everyone refer to me as the ugly version of her?’.

For 23-year-old A*, her dark skin was usually the subject of many heated arguments, ‘the first thing they’ll use as an attack will be to tell me I’m so dark. People will call me names like Blackie and [at a point] I had to adopt the name because if I’m using it then people can’t use it against me’ she tells me. The effects of those hurtful slurs last to this day as she sometimes catches herself wishing she were a little bit lighter.

“I mean even until today I wake up some days and I’m like yes yes yes I’m an actual babe and on some other days I’m just like I hate my skin I wish I was a bit lighter, not too light so it doesn’t seem like I hate the skin I’m in.”

Many darker-skinned women quickly noticed at a young age that they were never made the first choice and there was a different category of what was deemed ‘desirable’ because of society’s fixation with lighter-skinned women. This preference was (and still is) everywhere on our screens and it definitely also plays out in real life. 25-year-old Bahati Imaan Beauvais, tells me that having grown up around many dark-skinned women like her mum was a positive experience. She admired her mum the most, who was constantly praised for her rich dark skin and an awe-stricken Bahati wanted to be just like her. This was until she got into secondary school and suddenly learnt about society’s preference for light-skinned and biracial girls.

“The interaction with boys my age in secondary school tainted that perception. Although I never had the urge to change my skin colour, I remember feeling less than because I wasn’t light-skinned or biracial. The interracial girls were considered ‘elite’ and the lighter you were, the better you were treated.”

Skin colour and desirability have always been intertwined for as long as time itself.  We’re constantly told that partnering with lighter-skinned women is a personal preference, and while we agree it is, we can’t help but wonder whether this preference if examined, is probably rooted in misogynoir and colourism. Society, in general, has taught women that their worth is measured by how desirable they are to men, and it won’t be out of reach to have heard a comment in the past about how your dark skin could make you less attractive to men. For many women, romantic rejections at such a young age can change one’s perception of themselves, and if it’s linked to something which you feel can change (i.e the colour of your skin), it could probably drive you to. And as such, many of the women in ‘Skin’ cited romantic attraction as the basis for bleaching their skin.

For many other Nigerian women, colourism actually began at home. A* also tells me that her family was complicit in her internalising some of the harmful statements about her skin. ‘There’s a not so funny joke that goes on in my house on a daily about how I can get lost in the dark because I’m apparently too black for anyone to find me’ she explains. Even till today, she still gets told to wear makeup by her dad because she looks too dark.

Ade, 19, tells me her style choices have been dictated for as long as she can remember. It started off with being restricted from wearing black clothes and developed into her hair colour choices, as she was repeatedly told any other colourful looks would stand out glaringly on her dark skin.

“I remember when I first started to experiment with my hair colours and how she [mother] and my other family members would say that my hair made it seem like I was trying to draw attention to myself, because of how it looked against my skin.

I’m lucky in the sense that I do what I want regardless but I can’t say I didn’t unknowingly internalise some of their biased. It can be very annoying, but every day is really just a process of learning and unlearning.”

FJ,23, tells me she first became aware of her darker skin on one of her many visits to her grandmother’s home. ‘On one of my visits, she placed her forearm next to mine and highlight the fact she was multiple shades lighter than I was, which at the time was funny to me’. Since then, she became hyper-aware of her skin and this persisted to secondary school where people would often remind her that she is pretty, for a dark skin girl – a comment we’re all familiar with.

It’s alarming to think how many dark-skinned women grew up in homes that marginalised them, in a world that already threatened to erase them. Your home is meant to be a safe space from the harsh realities of the world, and if your skin colour cannot be accepted here, it will come as no surprise that you internalise these beleifs and pass it on to the next generation.

Fortunately, not all dark-skinned women have had to deal with this. In fact, some came from nurturing homes that reminded them they were beautiful just as they were. The flip side of this is a family home which fosters growth and allows darker-skinned children to never feel inferior about who they are or how they look.

21-year old C* tells me they grew up in a home with lighter-skinned siblings but was never made to feel any way about it, especially by their mother. ‘Thankfully my parents, especially my mum, was very sensitive towards the fact that being darker skinned might have made me feel insecure, so they constantly provided me with positive reinforcement regarding my skin tone pretty much as soon as I understood what being dark-skinned meant‘. In a home where it was accepted, C* was able to go out into the world and not internalise the treatment from others due to the colour of their skin.

“Fortunately for me, my parents were never complicit in colourism. It was never a topic that was even discussed, all I knew was my mum was dark and beautiful so dark was beautiful”.

Despite growing up in this nurturing environment, C* isn’t afraid to point out that many people would like to deny the existence of colourism in Nigeria, and have chosen to ignore the lived experiences of dark-skinned black women in the country. ‘They think because Genevieve and Mercy Johnson are in Nollywood movies, then that means that dark-skinned women and femmes don’t get treated differently but it’s really not the case’. To this effect, they are constantly seeking positive representation of dark-skinned women in media and have actually been inspired to become a filmmaker championing women that look just like them.

“So many Nigerians, even the well-educated ones, put lighter skin on a pedestal without even realising it and it’s something children easily absorb early on in life. This will affect you no matter how much “self-love” you have.

So at the end of the day, there still needs to be more substantial work done to resolve it than just telling dark-skinned women to just “ignore the haters and love themselves.”

 

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Many biases toward dark-skinned people have been engrained from time immemorial, and we fail to consistently check and question them, which inevitably leads to them becoming the norm in society. These biases can be linked all the way back to the former British colonies in Nigeria, where white colonisers treated slaves inhumanely and left social implications that are still evident today. The role white colonial patriarchal systems have played cannot be divorced from the reality we are still facing, but in the work of dismantling these systems, we need to look inwards at our personal accountability.

Skin-tone-based prejudice used to be a subject only discussed in whispers, but slowly, and thankfully, that is changing. The existence of Beverly Naya’s ‘Skin’ documentary on Netflix Naija is a step in the right direction for opening up these conversations to young adults who grew up disliking their skin. Its shortcomings have definitely sparked open dialogue, and even inspired the basis for this piece. I think about the next generation often and while we grew up in a world where dark skin was insulted and degraded every other day, we’re coming into times where women are getting irreverently louder about their self-worth regardless of what society dictates.

Colourism and its harmful effects won’t just wipe away because black is now seen as beautiful, but it begins with being able to talk about it openly. We have a long way to go, and everyone has an individual responsibility to check their biases and make sure the next generation of women never have room to question their worth in this world.

*Some names have been anonymised for the protection of women in our community.

Featured image credits/Bodylore


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