Fair Skin vs Dark Skin: Why I agree with Fela

Fela Kuti is the grand-daddy of Afrobeat.  He is one musician I find it incredibly difficult to sit quietly.  Involuntary movements of my head, shoulders or hips are regular occurrences.  I don’t look as energetic as the dancers in this stage show dedicated to him.  Nevertheless you get the point.

However, it is the subject of one of my favourite songs makes me appreciate Fela even more.  Confusingly entitled “Yellow Fever”, you could initially think that he’s singing about his experiences with tropical diseases.  He is instead, denouncing skin-bleaching products.  Through the eloquence of pidgin English, Fela argues that people should leave their skin colour alone.  He also points out that the negative effects of skin-bleaching.  If you don’t believe me listen from 09:00 – 10:18:

To be honest, I couldn’t agree more with his stance.  Numerous medical studies have found overwhelming evidence of permanent skin damage as a result of using skin-bleaching products.  A study conducted by dermatologists in Senegal found that the cosmetics their patients were using caused and aggravated skin conditions such as acne, eczema and other infections skin diseases (Mahé,A. 2003).  This was mainly due to their use of products with high levels of hydroquinone, steroids and even mercury.  Cosmetics with very low levels these ingredients can be purchased over the counter in NZ to treat scarring and pigmentation problems.  For people with more serious problems, can obtain prescriptions from their doctors.  However these women in Senegal were desperate to become fair-skinned and were purchasing their skin-“care” from unscrupulous suppliers.  Such practice is wide-spread in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and possibly Southeast Asia.

Let me be clear.  My objection is not towards people who have issues with scarring and pigmentation.  It’s more with the thinking that light skin is more favourable than dark skin.  To some degree, this preference in and of itself is not bad.  Everyone has their preferences and nobody is ever satisfied with how they look.

For me, it is the sociopolitical dynamics of skin colour preference that I am concerned about.  In many countries (particularly former colonised nations), being light-skinned is associated with wealth, higher class and possessing European ancestry.  We are now in an age where an increasing number former colonies are intent on establishing economic, political and social identities that are distinct from their former masters.  I therefore find it bizarre that fairer skin-tones are still venerated.  It’s heart-breaking to see  beautiful ebony or espresso coloured women and men sometimes seen as less capable, even less valuable than their fellow brethren of milk chocolate or caramel variety.  As recent as 2005, Ronald Hall published a sociological study on the African-American finding just that (see references).

If it is still like this in USA in the 21st century, there’s no doubt that Africa, Asia (Southeast and South) and South America are also facing similar issues.  If you’re not convinced, do a quick Google Image Search on African, African-American and South Asian Indian celebrities.  Compare the number of them who are light-skinned to those who are dark-skinned.

Amidst this grey picture, it’s heartening to know that some people are not satisfied with the status quo.  Ghanaian business woman, Grace Amey-Obeng is one such person.  Well known for her contributions to the beauty industry in Ghana and West Africa at large leading the fight against the affectionately termed “Yellow Fever”.

Source: BBC News – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21173196

Ghana’s Grace Amey-Obeng, one of West Africa’s most successful businesswomen, made her fortune promoting products which emphasised the beauty of the black skin, at a time when many of her competitors were selling dangerous skin-bleaching formulas.

The business empire she started a quarter of a century ago with around $100 (£63) now has an annual turnover of between $8m and $10m.

 “Start Quote

Her FC Group of Companies – which includes a beauty clinic, a firm that supplies salon equipment and cosmetics, and a college – has eight branches in Ghana and exports to Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ivory Coast, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Mrs Amey-Obeng has won dozens of accolades and industry awards for her skincare beauty products and marketing.

But one of the things that make her especially proud is her FC Beauty College which, since its opening in 1999, has trained more than 5,000 young people, mostly women.

“It’s like a family bond. I’m so proud that they have managed to go through the programme,” she told the BBC’s series African Dream.

Equally important to her is her role as a medical aesthetician and she cites seeing a skin condition resolved as something that gives her “joy”.

“I’m so happy that God has given me that talent and that touch to heal people,” she said.

‘Irreparable damage’

Mrs Amey-Obeng studied beauty therapy in the United Kingdom and after graduation, in the 1980s, returned to her native Ghana.

She knew that in her country women take great pride in their appearance and was convinced that there was a niche market she could “tap into”.

Working out of her bag and going from house to house she advised people on skincare.

Soon, however, she became aware that there was “a lot of skin-bleaching going on”, a trend she found “alarming” and something that is common in much of Africa.

“The women in the market had destroyed their skin with all this kind of beauty products, bleaching products, and so I saw the need for assisting them to reverse the process because otherwise it would become a social problem,” she said.

“The level of damage – in this climate – bleaching does is irreparable,” she added.

Not long after her return to Ghana, she opened her first beauty clinic with financial support from her family.

“I couldn’t access any funds from the bank. I didn’t even think about it because everybody said ‘In this country nobody will give you money'”.

Business loan offers came pouring in only after her business had been running for three years.

Although access to bank loans in Ghana might be relatively easier these days, she advises that budding entrepreneurs should take care not to borrow too much.

Made in Ghana

Mrs Amey-Obeng explained that, once her clinic was running, she realised that the imported products they were recommending often proved too expensive for their clients.

This was often a result of currency exchange rate fluctuations.

“It was a challenge. They would come back with worse conditions, and so we said: ‘OK, why don’t we start our own line that we can sell to our people?'”.

Her skincare line, which she started in 1998, would soon have a huge success not only because of the products’ prices – which currently range from $3 to $15 – but also, in her opinion, because they were made taking into account black skins and the West African climate.

In view of her concerns about skin bleaching, the name of her brand, Forever Clair (Clear), may seem controversial to some.

However, she argues that “clair” there refers to “light, hope and strength”, not skin colour.

 “Start Quote

The joy of putting smiles on the faces of people that this business offers, that’s what makes me want to do it forever”

“Light shows the way. It’s not about complexion, it’s about the heart,” the entrepreneur said.

And she seems indeed bent on helping others to gain hope and strength. She is well-known in Ghana for her philanthropic work, especially through the Grace Amey-Obeng International Foundation.

Women leaders, she says, should offer a helping hand to less fortunate women, encourage them and share expertise.

“The joy of putting smiles on the faces of people that this business offers, that’s what makes me want to do it forever.”

Other References

Hall, R. E. (2005). An empirical analysis of the impact of skin color on african-american education, income, and occupation . Lewiston, N.Y.: E Mellon Press.

Mahé, A., Ly, F., Aymard, G., & Dangou, J. M. (2003). Skin diseases associated with the cosmetic use of bleaching products in women from dakar, senegal. British Journal of Dermatology, 148(3), 493-500. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2133.2003.05161.x



Journey upside my head

The past few months I’ve been on a journey upside my head.  However, my perfectionist tendencies have severely restrained me from sharing the goings on inside my brain.  This year, I vow to change this with regular updates of the meandering within my mind.

Some of it will involve theological bantering, sometimes sociological critique (a.k.a soap box rants and about popular culture), but most of it will be related to my continuous wrestling with my confused Afropolitan-Kiwi identity and my desperate desire to work for social justice and development.

You’re welcome to join me, if you like.  No pressure, though ;-).