Yellow Sisi: Revisiting the Light Skin/Black Skin Divide

by Jideofor Adibe

The recent revelation that during the last US presidential election, Harry Reid, the current US Senate Majority Leader, in private conversation, described Barack Obama, as “light skinned” and “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” made headlines across the world. Though Reid, whose off-the-cuff remarks are included in the book, Game Change, by Time Magazine’s Mark Halperin and New York magazine’s John Heilemann, has since apologised, the gaffe enraged much of Black America. It should be recalled that in 2007, Vice President Joe Biden, then one of the Democratic presidential candidates, also reportedly described Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy… I mean, that’s a storybook, man.” The Delaware Senator’s remark drew outrage and he quickly apologised. In accepting Biden’s apology, Obama said: “I didn’t take Sen. Biden’s comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate. African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate.” Obama’s answer was a delicate balancing act between the hurt feelings of his primary Black constituency and the need to play down the issue of race, which would not do him any good in the election. There are indications that since becoming the first African American President of the country, this has remained his strategy on issues of race. It was therefore not surprising that he accepted Reid’s apologies and played down the issue.

But how has Reid’s remarks played out in the wider Black America?

One of the fallouts appears to be a renewed focus on ‘colourism’ and the politics of hue among Blacks in America. Since the days of slavery, skin colour has been used as a tool of separation and preferential treatment within the Black community. This played out in the ‘house Negro’ versus ‘field Negro’ divide. The ‘house’ slaves, which were often products of a relationship between a master and a female slave, tended to have lighter skin and received the special favour of doing work inside the house, away from the scorching sun. Also because they worked in the house, they ate better, looked better and were often taught how to read and write. In contrast, the dark-skinned slaves, who worked in the fields, were rough-hewn – as some manual workers are wont to be. Understandably there was a lot of animosity and distrust between the ‘house Negro’ and the ‘field Negro’, which continued after the abolition of slavery. In other words, after slavery was abolished, ‘colourism’ continued, with one’s skin hue and hair texture often influencing one’s career prospects. One of the ways this happened was the “brown paper bag” test, in which Blacks whose skins were darker than the bag’s colour were denied inclusion into social events or organisations. In fact, a 2006 study by University of Georgia doctoral candidate, Matthew Harrison, showed that skin hue played a significant role in the hiring of Blacks. In the study, psychology undergraduates, most of whom were White, were given fake photos and CVs to make hiring recommendations. It was found that lighter-skinned women applicants were preferred over those with darker complexions but equal credentials. Similarly, the study found that light-skinned Black men were also preferred over those with dark skin who had better credentials.

Curiously ‘colourism’, which favoured the light skinned also created identity problems for them in America: the lighter the skin, the better the acceptance by White America but the greater the problem of acceptance by the Black community – for not being black enough. The problem here is that under America’s ‘one-drop rule’, you are classified as Black if there is a drop of Black blood in your gene. This means that many who are officially classified as Blacks such as people from mixed race relationships are viewed with suspicions and never fully accepted within the Black community.

If slavery could be used to explain the preference of light skin in the USA, how do we explain the phenomenon of many dark skinned Blacks from the Caribbean and Africa resorting to bleaching cream in a bid to be light skinned?

A documentary by ABC News on January 12, 2009 entitled “Senegal’s Fashion Victims,” found that in many African countries such as Senegal, trying to change one’s skin colour was still seen as a way to get ahead. Again a study by Malangu Ntambwe and a team from the National School of Public Health at Medunsa, published in the online journal, Science in Africa, in March 2004, also found a widespread use of bleaching creams in Africa. In Bamako, Mali, the researchers calculated 25% prevalence, while in some studies in Dakar, Senegal, up to 52% prevalence was observed. A study in Pretoria, South Africa revealed up to 35% prevalence, while the most disturbing was a study in 2002 which showed up to 77% prevalence in Lagos, Nigeria. If the figures about Nigeria are correct, then the country has a potential public health time bomb – given the health concerns associated with bleaching creams. One would have thought that skin lightning declined after the late Afrobeat king, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, mocked those who indulged in the practice in his album Yellow Fever (1976), and street kids subsequently began making caricatures of ‘bleachers’ as people with ‘Fanta Face but Coca-Cola Legs’.

Bleaching is also widespread among Blacks and Africans in the Diaspora, especially by women.

In a blog on 2 Feb 2009, entitled: “Bleached Skin Isn’t The New Black”, Folake Kuye Huntoon, reviewed a show by Tyra Banks in which the latter hosted some women who bleached their skin. Some of the women in the show confessed that they also bleached the skins of their children. According to Folake: “These folks, whom I pitied so much, claimed that light skinned women were more beautiful, got more attention and that they defined beauty in every sense of the word.” Ms Huntoon posed a pertinent question: “Are these folks victims or do they really need to start taking responsibility for their actions and stop pointing fingers? I thought we had progressed from this and the media has somewhat embraced black beauty; have we not?”

The remarks by Senator Harry Reid may have refocused attention on the politics of colour hue among Blacks in the USA, but for Africans, both in the Continent and in the Diaspora, it is an opportunity to revisit the ‘complexion complex’ especially among women, and the resort to bleaching creams. Is bleaching cream not the clearest evidence of ‘bleaching complex’ – another name for self-hatred? What has happened to all those notions of ‘black beauty’ and ‘black and proud’? Haba, Yellow Sisi! What coded message are you sending out to the wider world about your people by lightening your skin with dangerous creams that could cause you skin cancer?

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