photo cred: https://www.nccj.org/colorism-0
We’ve all had to get accustomed to various social standards of beauty, among them being the judgement that surrounds the colour of our skin.
Tanzanians come in diverse shades of skin tones and the relevance of these shades in society is ingrained in us beginning early on, in our childhood. We carry vivid memories of the words “beautiful” and “ugly” being defined by faces of light-skinned and dark-skinned women respectively in our primary school textbooks.
As Tanzanians, especially as Tanzanian women, we learn through our day-to-day interactions that our skin tones determine our beauty and desirability. It is uncontested that lighter skin is too often the defining feature of a woman’s beauty and repute. Unfortunately, like most other hierarchical systems of privilege, colourism is rooted in the long history of white supremacy, colonialism and Western imperialism.
Merriam-Webster defines colourism as “prejudice or discrimination especially within a racial or ethnic group favouring people with lighter skin over those with darker skin.” In an attempt to understand the way colourism functions in Tanzania society, we first examine its roots.
European settlers of the 19th century brought with them (amongst other things) concepts of racial profiling. They were the ones to institute skin tone as a marker of hierarchy. Light-skinned Africans were the ones that most resembled whiteness, and so they became associated with civility and beauty - more so than their darker-skinned counterparts. European settlers deemed colonised Africans with lighter skin tones to be superior, and effectively proceeded to award them more power and privilege. By no means are we attributing all roots of prejudice and discrimination based on skin tone to Western colonialism. Nonetheless, colonial authorities were the ones to exaggerate and enforce this hierarchy which many have internalised. The Swahili term “chotara”, for instance, is considered a marker of beauty and privilege because it describes a person born out of proximity to whiteness — an “exotic Tanzanian”.
We are socialised to associate a woman’s beauty with the lightness of their skin. Dark-skinned girls grow up being teased with statements such as “chausiku” (dark as the night) or “mweusi kama mkaa” (dark like coal). The term “mweupe” which simply translates to “white” is automatically accepted as a compliment in Tanzanian society.
Colourism affects everyone regardless of gender but it affects women differently. The patriarchal structure is one of the main reasons why beauty standards, such as colourism, are more extreme when applied to women. Misogyny dictates that women are supposed to strive to be desirable to men, and men are socialised to seek lightness as a marker of a woman’s beauty.
This double standard trickles down to the kinds of women that are featured in TV, magazines, billboards, advertisements and music videos. You see dark skinned women on billboards as the before picture of a bleaching cream advertisement. Tanzanian female celebrities with the highest Instagram following, for instance, are Wema Sepetu, Hamisa Mobetto, Jacqueline Wolper and Elizabeth Michael — all light skinned, and regarded to be an aspirational standard of beauty. What we see and what we take in from the environment around us, influences what we perceive as beautiful. Therefore, you find women choosing to bleach their skin so that they are seen as desirable by men who crave light skinned women as a love interest.
photo cred: (from left to right) @hamisamobetto @ireneuwoya8 @wemasepetu @elizabethmichaelofficial via instagram
We live in a society where there are evidently privileges of having light skin and disadvantages of having dark skin. Light skinned women seem to be regarded as more approachable, more beautiful and more desirable. They are more likely to be hired in interviews, more likely to be proposed to, more likely to be trusted. Dark skinned women are faced with stereotypes of looking “masculine” or “unattractive” and being “aggressive”.
This then leads us to the fact that bleaching creams are a prominent industry in Tanzania. They are often prescribed to fade acne scars because of their lightening properties, but there needs to be alternative acne treatments that don’t involve cancerous chemicals. More commonly, bleaching creams are advertised as a way to make one more “beautiful”. And yet, there is often a shame that comes with their use.
Women who find themselves bleaching their skin often don’t want people to know, it’s something they want to keep hidden. It is kept secret because people shame dark skinned women who turn to bleaching creams, laugh at them, humiliate them for trying to be “white”. So in essence, we live in a society that pushes women to want to use bleaching creams, and at the same time, a society that blames women when they do.
photo cred: https://www.cosmeticconnection
Recently, Tanzania among other East African countries has pushed towards banning bleaching creams but this is not going to solve the underlying problem. The problem lies in the fact that the beauty standards for women in Tanzania are still based on colonial and white supremacist mindsets. We need to stop socialising our children to conceive lightness as beauty and darkness as not. We need to change media consumption that paints certain standards of beauty as superior to others.
Beauty should not be synonymous with how “mweupe” someone is. If we grow up being taught to love ourselves, to love our skin no matter what shade it is, then we are less likely to seek to lighten our skin in order to meet problematic expectations. There needs to be a strong re-evaluation and challenge of what it means to be considered “beautiful” and “desirable” in our society. It is imperative that we teach the next generation that beauty is a construct and find ways to deconstruct these toxic standards.
By Kerin Shilla & Gloria Majule