Colorism in Africa: The Divide Between the North and South
By: Leena Elbayoumi
Colorism is not uniquely American. It is present in all countries, and affects all types of people. Specifically, in Africa, black is not beautiful.
Similar to Asian countries, skin lightening creams are highly marketed as a beauty enhancer. Expensive and dangerous, these creams have been directly linked to blood, liver, and kidney cancers as well as ochronosis, a condition that causes hyperpigmentation and turns the skin to a dark purple color.
African beauty standards clearly reflect Eurocentric features, and are often encouraged in young women.
Women are taught to conform to one standard, one that praises a skinny figure, straight hair, and fair skin.
An analysis conducted over 376 magazine covers between 2010 and 2015 over four African magazines (Drum, True Love, New African Woman, and Genevieve), revealed that 72 percent of the women on the covers boasted store-bought wigs or straightened hair. The study also revealed that 90 percent of the cover models had light to medium skin tones, and only about 9 percent had dark skin. 71 percent had thin, slight figures compared to 29 percent who had average or plus-size bodies.
The magazines represent the type of beauty that is valued throughout the continent, even in sub-Saharan countries.
Skin color not only plays a part in beauty, but also in socioeconomic status.
Writer Moses Mphatso says, “Those who worked in the fields, or lived away from the colonial centers of power, came into lesser contact with European Whites, and as such remained Brown/Black as they had always been. Those closer to colonial centers of power, or who lived within them, had higher frequencies of contact and thus became lighter (through interracial relations).” As a result, lighter skin is almost always associated with a higher social status. For example, dark skin is often associated with a low social status, such as a poor farmer who toils all day in the hot sun.
North Africans are victims as well as perpetrators of colorism.
Dark North Africans are assumed to be from sub-Saharan countries, and as a result are subject to everyday harassment and racism. On the other hand, North Africa consistently aligns itself with the Middle East (MENA), which is identified on the US Census as ‘white’, pushing away any relation to the rest of Africa. This can be attributed to the Arab culture that is prominent in North Africa, despite many North Africans’ Black ancestry or origins.
Black/dark people often endure slurs such as “kahlouche”, which means black in Arabic, or “Mamadou”, which is a common name in West Africa. Other slurs include the word “abeed”, which directly translates to “slave”.
In Libya, African migrants are captured and sold off into slavery.
They are extorted, beaten, and then sold off (auctioned off in some cases) to new people only to repeat the cycle again and again.
Sunday Iaborat, a man who left Nigeria to seek job opportunities in Europe, was left physically and emotionally scarred by Libyan human traffickers.
When he had finally reached the southern border of Libya, he was met by a taxi driver who generously offered to take him to Tripoli for free.
Instead of a free ride, Iaborat was sold to a light-skinned Libyan for the equivalent of two hundred US dollars. He was forced to repay his “debt” through strenuous manual labor.
Dark-skinned Black people are not equal to their lighter-skinned kin throughout the world, but it is especially saddening that the same standards hold in Africa. They are vulnerable to regular harassment and discrimination, and are treated as an expendable, cheap work force.
Though colorism and microaggressions are present in all of Africa (and the rest of the world), they are most prominent and most dangerous in North African countries. To reach any resolution to this problem, North Africans must come to terms with their African heritage and learn to embrace both Arab and Black aspects of their culture.