Shadeism from Shadeism on Vimeo.

“Shadeism” produced by Nayani Thiyagarajah

I teach a group of girls at a grammar school in Buea, Cameroon. They are vibrant. Smart. Brave. But, all carry the beauty complexes passed down by their mothers.

In the cosmetics stores a popular whitening lotion with a picture of a woman whose skin is digitally altered to change from a brown complexion to fair tone fills the shelves. The soaps are most popular and each product comes with a “guarantee” to lighten skin in weeks. I see the effects these images have on my girls.

When we took headshots to post on their brand new Facebook pages, many of the girls said the pictures were too dark though they were taken outside. I looked at each of their faces. They winced and handed the camera back.

Since writing the first post on the skin whitening craze in Africa I've become increasingly interested in this idea of social acceptance byway of skin tone, or “shadeism.”

 Passed down from slavery and colonialism, “shadeism” is the discrimination against darker-skinned individuals and the pursuit of fairer skin within a community. To my surprise, it's not just a “Black thing.” Growing up in Bangladesh, family members called
NadiaMali” (which means soil) because of her darker complexion. Nadia is featured in the documentary “Shadeism” produced by Nayani Thiyagarajah whose family hails from Sir Lanka.

The documentary opens with Nayani's four-year-old niece tracing her finger down the highlights of a blonde-haired model in a fashion magazine. “Do you like this skin color?” Nayani asked, rubbing on the back of the girl's small, brown hands. She shook her head. Nayani asked her why not and her niece squealed: “Because I need to become white!”

The five young women in the film all represent different corners of the African, Caribbean, and South Asian diasporas. They watched a commercial that aired in India promoting a skin lightening product called Fair and Lovely. A lively conversation sparked after seeing the Indian woman go from her natural complexion to a pale white after using the whitening chemical at her husband’s demand.

Bleaching is such a common thing in the African community,” said Muginga whose family is from Angolia. “Your mom does it, your aunt does, it your dad does it and they give it to you to put on your elbows and knees.” Amanda from Grenada brought up a childhood memory. “We had a huge tub of whitening cream in our living room for years,” she said. “I don't think my family realized that this is not only harmful for your identity but it's damaging your skin.”

The damage is more than skin deep. Identities are lost and young girls begin to seek beauty in impossible European standards, neglecting the traits that make them special. I plan on showing this documentary to my girls and getting their perspective on how their generation can help reverse these destructive images. First, I must teach them that the images are indeed destructive. 
This lesson must start with me.Being so immersed in this culture has forced me to come face to face with my own prejudices and personal hang-ups. My students' reactions were not foreign. Lighter skin is considered a high beauty standard in my own North Carolina family. I too was given nicknames like “Little Dot” growing up and flinched at the back-handed compliment: You're cute for a dark-skinned girl. But, in Africa, the birthplace of civilization, the signs of self-loathing cut deeper.

The space to talk about this issue freely will my girls the courage to define beauty on their own terms.