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Yellow Fever, NKO?

Skin bleaching is often described as a manifestation of ‘colo-mentality’. However, argues Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, mimesis here is both an affirmation and a contestation of power.




From Lagos to Los Angeles, from the Congo to Cuba, who can argue that colonialism has not had a devastating effect on the black world’s perception of itself, its choices, its opportunities and even its life-worlds? Both colonial and slave societies created a world where lighter skinned and white people got more social and economic privileges.

When black people contest and reassert their renewed humanity, it is the skin that they return to as their primary canvas. This is why skin bleaching is viewed as such a negating experience, a sign of low self-esteem, self-loathing, and reflecting the triumph of the corrosive effect of Euro-Western norms of beauty. Bleaching is therefore seen as the very antithesis of the idea that “black is beautiful”.

While I would not argue against the view that white supremacy continues to wreak havoc on the black world in its economic policies, representational regimes, political manipulation and ideological impositions, I doubt that this is the only explanation for what Fela Kuti refers to as Yellow Fever. To continue to explain why millions of people can knowingly continue to use products that contain hydroquinone and mercury, which can lead to blood poisoning as well as skin disfiguration such as ochronosis, only in terms of “colonial mentality” is to deny the agency of those involved and their power of choice.

I think another interpretation is available which stresses agency rather than collusion with racial hierarchies. Skin bleaching can be seen as a superficial form of self-styling, a form of adornment and bodily enhancement, just like plastic surgery, make-up or hair straightening. The aim is to use the chemical opportunity afforded by bleaching to achieve a certain beauty ideal and spectacle that is not about devaluing blackness. Rather, it is about expressing one’s participation in the global fashion system, and showing off an ability to rework socio-biological memes.

We should remember that many of the people who unabashedly bleach their skin occupy the lower socio-cultural and economic rungs. For them, appearance is everything. It is often the only currency they have to trade with; their first and only engagement with the world. They therefore invest more in their physical styling. Part of that currency is to ‘step out’ with luminous, light, radiant skin enhanced by hydroquinone cream and layers of pale foundation, mascara, rouge, eye shadow and shimmering painted lips.

Some of the women I know on Lagos Island who bleach their skin do so on their own terms without any desire for whiteness and its privileges. Far from self-hatred, these women are so self-possessed they would find the idea of desiring whiteness quite ludicrous. For them, skin bleaching provides the opportunity to change what they don’t like about their appearance or to further enhance what they find beautiful with cream or ‘concoction’.

There is no shame or hatred or deep reflection behind the choice. It is a fashion statement, a way to show-off and be the subject of marvel. That bleaching should induce shame in the participant is more a projection of the bourgeois world that are so angst ridden they fear that yellow fever threatens to expose their own indebtedness to the European beauty ideal. Privileging whiteness and adopting yellow fever for these participants are not one and the same. Yellow fever connotes freshness and vitality, whilst whiteness is synonymous with fragility and bile.

Some of these partially literate women, those on Lagos Island and in large markets across the West African coast, control billions of Naira or local currency selling fabrics, fast moving consumer goods for multi-nationals or acting as ‘general contractors’. They prop up the economy of their cities. Heads of banks will readily pick up their calls in the middle of the night. These are women who command resources that educate children and grandchildren in private schools in England and Switzerland. They support entire extended families, neighbourhoods and political parties, including often errant and inept husbands. Such men are needed not only for procreation, but also to ward off probing, accusatory eyes as to the source of their wealth. Lest we forget, female economic independence and power still arouses fear and accusations of witchcraft. The presence of children and a token Patriarch without power reduces accusations of the occult.

Unlike their educated, middle class counter-parts who may bleach and hide that fact or believe in discrete and fine make-up, these women care for no such subtleties. They draw attention to their made-upness, and the transfigurative power of hydroquinone on the skin. The artifice of beauty is there to be revealed so that others can pause, wonder and hail their triumph against nature. Their glowing skin, flickering eyelashes, charcoaled knuckles and French tipped nails communicate in multiple languages. These women want to be seen as they enter the dance floor where the Fuji maestro, KWAM ONE, or the Fuji queen, Salawa Abeni, is playing and have everyone attest to the fact that the flashing, mascaraed eyes are speaking Latin, the shimmering red lips are talking Spanish and the hydroquinoned skin is radiating beauty. The very idea of o ju so Latin e nu so Spanish (the eyes are speaking Latin and the lips, Spanish) references both the parodic playfulness and the give-and-take agency involved in practices of beautification and corporeal styling.

Apart from skin bleaching being yet another superficial form of styling in the fashion system, it is also a form of mimicry. Mimicry can be ironic, playful and at the same time subvert the very structure of power and value it imitates. Mimesis here is therefore both an affirmation and a contestation of power. The practice of skin bleaching therefore shows that what had appeared to be the preserve of the few can in fact be taken up and replicated by the many on their own meaningful terms.

Bleaching shows that it is possible to take on any identity, skew it and reorder it purposefully. The superior logic of white flesh is critiqued and exposed as also unstable; a part of a wider field of representation and global signs that is available to be consumed in the same way that “blackness” is available for global consumption of coolness.

But the question remains, given the continued hegemony of white norms of beauty, is it possible to use the very tools of the master to dismantle the master’s house?

If we accept that a fundamental ambiguity and ambivalence haunts every expression of bleaching, then we might stop feeling so affronted by it. Instead, we see it for what it is, at least in the contemporary African setting, as a form of appropriation and expropriation that does not necessarily have deep political implications. Health implications? Of course! But as a site of cultural practice, bleaching is in murky territory. It is not either pure collusion to norms of whiteness or purely autonomous agency in opposition to it. It is yet another expression of the African world’s pragmatic and playful embrace of otherness in order to assert its own unique worldview and agency.


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