Of Light Skin and Social Status

Posted by | July 27, 2016 | Blog_Post | One Comment


Do Kenyans have a higher regard for lighter skinned people than darker skinned people?

In the past few years, the stunning and intelligent award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o has emerged as a refreshing image in popular culture. Her dark skin and African features are credited with presenting the world with a new standard of beauty.

Lupita Nyong'o at the Toronto International Film Festival 2013 *2013-09-16

Paradoxically, in Lupita’s homeland of Kenya, bleaching and skin lightening amongst young women is alive and well. In fact, it appears to be on the rise. This begs the question, is the yelo- yelo or light skinned person more appreciated and desired in the Kenyan context? This question can only be answered by exploring colorism.

Colorism means many things based on the context. In the Kenyan context, Ngen’do Mukii’s  Yellow Fever captures some aspects of colorism that are noticeable within the country. One theme she explores in her mixed media animation is the internal struggle of darker skinned Kenyan women to perceive their physical appearance as beautiful.  She portrays the media promotion of Eurocentric ideals of beauty as destructive for the self-image of African women.

In the USA, social scientist Margaret Hunter defines colorism as skin color stratification or a process that privileges light-skinned people of color over darker people in areas such as income, education, housing and the marriage market. There is substantial USA context research evidence that light skinned people of colour earn more money, complete more years of schooling, live in better neighbourhoods and marry higher status people than dark skinned people of the same race or ethnicity.

Of Kenya, academic and social science research in this area is almost non-existent. Do Kenyans have a higher regard for lighter skinned people than darker skinned people? This is an interesting question and would be a great social science research question. My opinion on the subject is that in some contexts the answer is a definite yes and in others it doesn’t really matter. When younger, I definitely perceived lighter skinned people (especially lighter women) as more beautiful. Even better if they were Caucasian or point 5’s(colloquialism for mixed race people) with  flowing  hair. Back then it was common to follow up the words she’s very light and yelo-yelo with she is very beautiful. In current times? More shades of skin colour and natural kinky or curly hair are more socially acceptable. However, very many women bleach their skin to attain a Eurocentric/ Western ideal of beauty. Socialite Vera Sidika is one of many young women who have bleached their skin. For those who don’t know Vera, she is a famous socialite who publicly admitted to undergoing a skin lightening (bleaching) procedure in 2014. Vera claims that her skin lightening procedure resulted in more job opportunities and contacts. Her public admission led to a debate about the pros and cons of lightening of skin. She also prompted social commentators to openly discuss colorism and the idealization of whiteness and lightness.

There were two camps. Those who openly discouraged her actions and loudly criticised her actions. Whilst there were those who lauded her for being brave and open to discuss something that many African American and African celebrities have also undergone.

 Photo credit: africacelbritynews.com

Photo credit: africacelbritynews.com

I was in between. Bleaching of skin is an action I find very disturbing. However, it is an action that I understand. Many African women feel that if they can attain fair skin and long, silky straight hair, they are more beautiful and classy. In contrast to images of Africa as the dark starving continent, the imagery of Europe and America is dazzling and spectacular. The high costs of travel and visa restrictions means that many young Africans do not get the chance to cross borders and mingle freely with Caucasians in their Western context . Therefore, they foster a very superficial and idealized image of them. The academic research often implicates colonialism and media imagery as the root of Western idealization but I also believe limited exposure to Caucasians in their contexts has a role to play.

When I got the chance to live and study in the UK, I actually became more secure in my Africanness. Interacting with white people from all over the world in the university setting was very useful. They had different skin and hair but more often than not, we were concerned about attaining the same things and values in life. When I speak with other Kenyans who studied or lived abroad for some time, they also say they developed a greater appreciation of Kenya and Africa as a whole. The image of the West as socially and culturally superior slowly faded to a sensible appreciation of the positive and negative elements of the context. Living abroad helped me accept that I will never be more British than the British(or sound like the queen). I realised it was more useful to discover my unique Africanness.

During my school holiday breaks, I would arrive at the airport and be immediately overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Kenya. The instant humidity would force me to remove my fluffy socks and scarf. Cheerful smiles and forced conversations from complete strangers would welcome me home. Just before the plate of ugali, sukuma wiki and nyama choma that I would eventually share with friends. Kikois’, kitenges and leso became more attractive and I would find myself looking for more African looking prints to wear.

After a few days of basking in excitement and really bright sun, the social contradictions would start to arise. Some Kenyans would be very disappointed my lack of British accent. “You study in UK, where is your accent?” They would remark puzzled. Others would inquire, “Have you found a white man yet? You know your small body size is attractive to white men”. Others were insistent, “Make sure you look for opportunities there, huko ni kuzuri sana (It is very good there), not like Kenya”.

I had a beauty therapist friend who used to say (she eventually won a green card and moved to the USA), she would rather wash old people in America or UK every night and day than rot in Kenya. There are many who share her beliefs. However, there is a growing number of Africans who take pride in their African identity and context. The younger generation is particularly more encouraging. They foster a more nuanced understanding of the West in relation to their Africanness. When I asked a young year ten about natural hair and colorism at her very racially mixed international school she said, “Yes, the light skinned, mixed race and white people are usually identified as beautiful or cute. People want to make friends with them and associate with them. Nevertheless, people appreciate diverse looks. Having a natural hair afro is  considered cool”. In contrast, young girls at a Kenyan curriculum high school complained that their natural hair afros’ were perceived as untidy. They complained that students got their hair shaved off by  teachers of Kenyan descent as a punishment for ‘untidiness’. I did not get a chance to  ask the girls what they thought of colorism. However,  in a discussion with their mother, she complained that most of the young girls  aspired to be like Vera Sidika because of her light skinned physical appearance and money.

In summary, colorism and the idealisation of the West depend on the context. Many are looking for ways in which they can better themselves or alter their image so they can look ‘higher’ class or more European and Western. Higher class or higher social status to them is equal to a Western look of straight, long hair and lighter skin. A look that is often associated with more wealth and more class.

Do you have a different or complementary opinion? Feel free to pen a brief article response.

(Please send your comments or article response to Faith@urbancritique.com).


Some sources

Hunter, M. (2007). The persistent problem of colorism: Skin tone, status, and inequality. Sociology Compass, 1(1), 237-254.

Hunter, M. L. (2011). Buying racial capital: Skin-bleaching and cosmetic surgery in a globalized world. The Journal of Pan African Studies, 4(4), 142-164.

Mukii, N. (2015, March 18). Yellow fever. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/ngendo

*Please note that the video may not be suitable for all viewers, it has some reference to non-sexual and non-explicit nudity.





About Faith

Ph.D Media & Communication

One Comment

  • brian says:

    Extremely nice article Dr. Faith 🙂
    We need to encourage many in our generation to look beyond the face value of people and things and have some depth to consider fundamentals. In an urban society with limited time and immense competition, individuals often pursue an easier route to make sound judgement. The role of media has been crucial in the spread of certain perceptions which lead many to have misconceived prejudices ultimately resulting in the reshaping of various societal opinions. Many would label this act within media as “propaganda”, but whether it is the spread of truth or falsehood, we need individuals in society who have sufficient depth and well founded premises, principles and values to make sound judgement. As for our local bleached yelo yelo’s, beyond their light skin, I see a poor soul completely uncomfortable with who she is. Such inferiority complex will never be treated simply by acquiring lighter skin, there’ll always be something to fix… When does it stop?