So the above advert received quite a blacklash for trying to ‘push a racist ad’ on Africa and Africans. Before you read my brief opinion, I suggest you watch it. It is only 30 seconds long. In response to the ad, there were copious amounts of wig-snatching. Nivea basically responded by saying: ‘We are giving customers what they want and mean no offence’. Fair enough (See previous post on non-apologies). There were some high profile responses, mainly on social media. For example from Fuse ODG:
So Nivea has replied…it's time to unite as Africans and fight back harder!!
— Fuse ODG (@FuseODG) October 19, 2017
However, I agree with the idea that Nivea did not introduce the skin lightening agenda. So should not be castigated for pushing this ‘agenda’. See:
This one, well. They are simply profiteers in an already colorist society. Attacking Nivea is lazy. Let's talk about why lighter IS 'better' https://t.co/jRX8sS0JyE
— Elnathan John (@elnathan_john) October 19, 2017
My own experience of Nigeria is that colourism is embedded in the culture. It is difficult to ascertain when it became part of our landscape, but it does predate the colonial encounter. (Sorry folks, this is not one of the blogs where I just accuse the colonisers.) The timescale of precolonial colourism is proven by the cultural sayings that occur in precolonial writing. Keeping in mind that the colonial timescale is mainly 1861-1960. See for example: Smith, Mary Felice. Baba of Karo, a woman of the Muslim Hausa. Vol. 408. Yale University Press, 1954. This book contains pre-colonial descriptions of men and women that equate fairer skin to beauty. There are also similar precolonial proverbs/sayings/maxims. For example:
This one: Hilarious. Last part reads:
“…If you see us with a dark skinned lady it is only because we couldnt afford a light skinned one” pic.twitter.com/CuCmW149sm
— Elnathan John (@elnathan_john) October 21, 2017
There are many reasons for given for the colourism in Nigerian and African society. Primarily there is the class argument. If you are rich, you are less likely to work under the hot sun and so more likely to have fair skin. Fairness has always been a sign of class. Of wealth. Also now a sign of being able to afford expensive skin lightening products. In a culture(s) obsessed with ostentation and affluence, wealth becomes a sign of virtue. Fairness thus becomes a sign that attracts. Fairness carries a weight it was not designed to bear. You can read Yellow Fever in which Ms Bakare-Yusuf explains how bleaching has become a tool of women empowerment within a patriarchal culture which predates colonialism and European standards of beauty. Women trade with fairness, natural and acquired, to obtain and maintain agency and independence within a culture predisposed to strip women of these things.
Thus colourism is woven into the fabric of our daily existence, speaking in so many ways more words than it was designed to speak. Speaking such that to unhear it, you must first listen carefully and hear exactly what it is saying. Not just about beauty, but livelihood, employment, marital aspirations, educational outcomes, punishments, expectations of criminality and intelligence that have been persistently trapped into the fair/dark dichotomy. No be today o! Overturning these colourful entrapments requires us to unravell our historical presumptions. Lay them bare. Which we should do, but this is not Nivea’s fault. We started the market. They want a share of it. Because they are a business, not a house of morality. They are not an ideological messiah.
Go into any Nigerian cosmetics store and the shelves are filled with all sorts of lightening products from the =N=50 ‘Tura’ to the =N=5000 branded cream. Probably Nivea. I remember trying to buy body lotion in the aptly named ‘Chupet Superstores’ in Ilorin. The shelves were crammed with all sorts of beauty products, 10 feet high. I ask Emeka, if there is any cream on the shelves that does not ‘tone’ (what we euphemistically call skin bleaching.) Nnamdi says, with much derision, go and buy petroleum jelly in the baby’s section, as if bleaching is a sign of maturity. So the only safe alternative for the Nigerian woman is body cream made for a new born baby. May be safe. Who knows. At University in Ile-Ife one of my friends only used baby lotion, hoping that it did not contain any skin lightening chemicals. We hope, because our relevant government agencies do not care.
Also interesting is the way bleaching products are micro-marketed!
I can remember on shop assistant telling me the cream would bring my true colour out. I said 'what colour is that? Blue?' https://t.co/5D2gW2YPh5
— Dr Foluke Adebisi (@folukeifejola) October 19, 2017
So do I have a beef with Nivea? Yes!!!
First, there are the health implication of using skin lightening/bleaching/’toning’ products. There are too many stories and adverse reactions of the use of these products. The woman who died during a Caesarian because her skin could not be stitched together. The women who can no longer go out into the sun, in a country where the sun never goes out. Sitting beside people whose skin emits a stench akin to rotting flesh. Watching blood flow under papery skin. And always the big C.
'A test of common skin lightening creams available in Nigeria showed that they caused mutations in bacteria and were possibly carcinogenic' https://t.co/V24amMKSEM
— Ola Brown(Orekunrin) (@NaijaFlyingDr) October 20, 2017
See also the NHS warnings on using these products.
The US FDA also have a list of warnings.
As with many products specifically marketed to black women, the health implications are either obscured or not investigated. Hair relaxers are another stark example. Read:
- The Effects Of Toxic Beauty Products On Black Women
Think about how products such as cigarettes, alcohol (and now maybe even sugar), are restricted, not advertised, and controlled. Then compare how relaxers and bleaching creams are aggressively advertised. No warning accompanying them. I blame most of all the governments of African countries for not stepping up to the mark. But really, If you can, should you market harmful products just because you can? Evidently some people think so. Res ipsa loquitor.
Secondly, a minor legal point related directly to this advert. Can we really say that fairer skin makes one look younger as the above video suggests? Can we date humans based on how fair their skin is? How old is black as koro isin? Older than Methuselah?
So my beef with Nivea is not that they are pushing a ‘skin bleaching’ agenda on Africans. That is our thing o. Let’s own it. However, I think that somewhere along the line colourism blended itself with colonial ideals of beauty. Compounding this toxic mix, is the incapacity and disinclination of post-colonial African governments to protect their own people from dangerous ideologies, harmful products and unethical marketing. Pour in a measure of international nescience of the African condition and you get adverts and reactions like this. Occasional explosions. But constant corrosion. There are shades to skin lightening, it is not black and white, wrong or right. There are layers to be stripped back, but still we find evil inside. Still evil.