Colorism, or discrimination on the basis of skin tone and complexion, is a pervasive scourge bubbling under the surface of daily life and affecting the lived experiences of black and brown women worldwide. Routine interactions, dating prospects, and employment are often determined by the shade of our skin. Where racism and sexism collide, light is too often considered right.
The effects of normalized white supremacy have long created global standards of beauty that frequently manifest in the form of skin-bleaching, a practice common across much of the world. Women from Africa to Asia resort to using damaging creams, pills, and chemicals to lighten their skin, risking their lives for impossible aesthetic ideals. Ghanaian-British actress Ama K Abebrese, best known for her role in Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation, has spent the past couple of years spearheading a large-scale public effort to counteract the practice of skin-bleaching in Ghana. We spoke with her about the epidemic of skin-bleaching in her home country and the success of her Love Your Natural Skin Tone campaign.
AMA K. ABEBRESE: I spent the majority of my life in London. London is pretty multicultural. So most of the [colorism] I had seen was vanity or preference. It was no big deal. And then when I moved to Ghana about six years ago, I was shocked. There are billboards in many places—I couldn’t even imagine anybody being allowed to put up a billboard like this in the U.S. or the U.K. Some of them will say “perfect white” or “get the perfect white skin.” You go to the markets and you see the worst cases of skin-bleaching. I mean, older women who’ve bleached for years and they now have a skin disorder [called] ochronosis. There’s a local name for it, which is nenso eben. I think the translation is something like “so what do you expect?” or “that’s what you get” because their faces have black and green patches. And you see this everywhere. You can go to a hospital and see the nurses have bleached; you go to banks, you see it. I mean pretty much all facets of society. It’s literally everywhere. And I was like, what the hell is going on? So the more I was having conversations with people about it, I realized that people talk behind people’s backs, like “Oh, this one, she’s a bleacher” or “This one, he’s bleached.” And it’s a bit of a big joke. But it was a conversation most people would not have on a platform, because probably almost every single person has a family member that bleaches.
People use very dangerous mixtures and concoctions with high levels of hydroquinone. They’re not going to a proper dermatologist, they just walk into any store. There’s even stories of people using mixtures where they use hair relaxer cream for fast action. And one of the worst ones I’ve heard is that one of the mixtures includes cement. They will tell you all sorts of things, and you realize there’s a level of shame for those that do it. It’s not something that people are out and proud about. They’ll call it other things, like, “Oh it’s not bleaching, I’m just toning.” That’s my favorite one. I was just baffled. I would look around me and see it everywhere. When I started talking to people about it, they were like, “Oh yeah, great, something should be done about it.” However, nobody was [doing anything].
Sometimes I feel like we’re fighting a losing battle. I don’t know how much damage has been done to us. But to be honest, and this is just me, I’m not speaking for anybody, but I do think there are some Africans who clearly do not like dark skin. I think my own feeling about it is that a lot of black people hate blackness, they hate the blackness of their skin. We have certain notions of the ideal level of blackness. It should be a bit more caramel-y.
Colonization obviously is a major factor. I’m no historian or anything, but if we look at what the white man’s presence meant—let me just stick to Ghana—a lot of people saw them as saviors. Colonization played a key role in how Africans saw themselves. This March will be the 59th year since Ghana got independence from Britain. Soon it will be 60 years. 60 is not that old. So I think a lot of the ideals that were left of “white is right” or “lighter is better”—a lot of those things are still certainly within the psyche of a lot of people, and they’ve passed it on to their children and their grandchildren. There’s a term of endearment: one of the most beautiful levels of affection you can call someone is mibruni, which literally translates to “my white person.” So it goes back. It’s part of the language and it’s been around for a while.
And with mainstream media, remember, we’re a global village. Whoever’s trending in America, whoever is the hottest artist in America, chances are they are the hottest artist in most other countries in the world. And I’ve seen this in this part of Africa, people love the same women that are highlighted in popular black culture, so Beyoncé, the Rihannas, and so forth. You get it here as well. People equate that same level of idealistic beauty, that this is the ideal black woman. Most people don’t want to admit it. But black people have placed a level of status, especially in Africa, on skin color, and it’s sad. But I think the entertainment industry is only a portion of the problem.
When I was doing my research, I found the only research that had been done about it, around 2005, from the Director General for Ghana Health Services. He had done an extensive report, and at the time it said about 30% of all Ghanaian men had bleached at one point and about 45% of Ghanaian women had at one point bleached their skin. And that was 10 years ago. I’ve now heard of official data that says it’s over 60%. I remember at the end of the report, it said something needs to be done about this. And I realized that no one had done anything. And I thought maybe being a celebrity with my voice, you know, if you wear an outfit they don’t like it becomes a story. So this campaign was essentially to get the dialogue going. I pulled a few other female celebrities together and we did a photoshoot with Rodney Quarcoo, an amazing photographer. We shot it, put up billboards, and from there did school visits, and we’re still on it.
Even though we didn’t have major money to put up huge billboards everywhere, it was important to me to put some up because there’s so many that you see with the message of “perfect white,” “live your dreams with your white skin,” all those nonsense ads. And the message was simple on [our billboards]: “I love my natural skin tone. Say no to skin bleaching.” That was it. There were so many of those messages bombarding you to lighten your skin, that let us, with our smaller billboards, let us with our little selves make that foundation. I’ve seen girls’ schools where there are skin whitening billboards next to them. I’m like, why, why? Can you imagine as a girl you go to school and that’s the message you’re getting? So it was important for us to put up billboards just to counter that message with “I love my natural skin tone.”
Usually when we go to schools it’s a little lecture hall; we get anywhere from 50 to 150 people. I’ve gone with other celebrities, and usually there’s a doctor there to give the scientific breakdown since I’m not a medical professional. We just dialogue, we have a very open discussion, we ask questions, and they can ask us anything. We ask who’s done it before and we try to dispel some of the notions people have. A lot of the girls say girls do it because guys like light-skinned girls. In every session I’ve been in, the guys will say, “No no no, it doesn’t matter.” The girls will say the guys are lying. I’ve had a girl stand up once and say she did it, and she said she stopped because it became too expensive. Some of them come up to you after, saying, “Oh I really wanted to speak but I didn’t want to be judged. But, yeah, I did it but I’m gonna stop.”
And I’ve said one of the major things since starting the campaign: this is not a skin-bleaching police, it’s not about who’s done it, who’s doing it, who’s done it before. It wasn’t a judgmental campaign because you’re not going to gain anything from it. It’s not a campaign to gain money. It’s the elephant in the room in our society. We all see it, but it wasn’t being spoken about enough. I’m really happy, a lot of radio shows, TV shows, have spoken about it, a lot of people were passionate about it, some people released songs about it.
The Ghana Food and Drug Authority contacted us and they said they’d been working on getting hydroquinone banned, and when they saw our billboards they were so happy. When they saw the celebrities on the billboard, they were happy that someone was taking the initiative. They had been working on it before, it was in their plan. The man who spoke to us, he was driving and he saw our billboard and he had to stop his car and he was like, “Wow.” The Ghana Food and Drug Authority are very serious about banning hydroquinone and other forms of skin lightening. Hydroquinone has been highlighted, some of the dangers. They want to eradicate it now. I pray. I think the ban comes into effect in August. It’ll be interesting to see if it really works, but we’ll see. I remember the day we read they gave them a certain amount of months to reformulate, I was just so happy. It’s a little step, but at least it’s a way. I’m not under any illusion that skin-bleaching will be out of the country in six months’ time. It could take 10, 20, 30, 40 [years], who knows? Think about how long it took the situation to get to here.