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Chapter II: Moving Mad in these Streets
This post in-part takes its name from a book by the late Whiteness Studies academic Ruth Frankenberg (1993) and is the second of three that will discuss Whiteness, women, and racism.
If you grew up racialised outside of Whiteness in Britain or really any Anglo-European country, the chances are you will be asked “where are you from?” on a regular basis. After reading some poems on this very issue at a Northamptonshire arts and heritage festival, I was walking home only to be stopped in my tracks by a White woman probably in her late 40s / early 50s saying “people like you aren’t really British.” Whilst I have been asking myself similar questions, for a White person to do this so confidently is unsettling … they’re moving mad in these streets. In this blog post, I will discuss this racial micro-aggression, underpinned by racist epistemologies with us Black people viewed in this country as immigrant; interloper; Other, whilst simultaneously Whiteness being synonymous with “localness” (Brown, 2006). In this encounter just outside of Northampton, I was further reminded that to be Black and British in this country is to live in a perpetual state of “double consciousness” (DuBois, 1903: 1).
Rather than identify with “Black Britishness”, (a pigeon-hole in my opinion), the term ‘afropean’ (Philips, 1987; Pitts, 2020) feels much more appropriate and fluid. However, the term Karen is one I don’t particular enjoy, but the woman in question could be described as such. In using this label, I am trying to create a frame of reference for you (the audience), not allow the person in question to escape scrutiny. This woman was a Jane Bloggs, I had never seen her before and she felt entitled enough to stop me in the street and continually criticise my right to belong. For those of you local to Northampton, I was walking between that stretch of path on Wellingborough Road, between Weston Favell Centre and Aldi. This encounter reminded me of my place in Britain, where ‘British-Asianness’ (Shukla, 2016; Riz Ahmed, 2019; Shukla, 2021) and ‘Black Britishness’ have frequently been difficult to define (Rich 1986, Gilroy, 1987; Yeboah, 1988; Young, 1995; Christian, 2008; Olusoga, 2016; Hirsch, 2017, Ventour, 2020). Even amongst White subjects themselves, what it means to be British has often been a question of challenge (Fox, 2014), and when I articulated that both my parents were born in the UK (Lichfield City and Northampton), she was visiblely upset and put-out.
The term ‘Karen’ comes from a name that was frequent among middle-aged women who were born between 1957 and 1966 with its peak in 1965 (Social Security Data). The name is also the Danish rendition of Katherine associated with the Greek for pure. Yet, the meaning of the word has undergone pejoration. In sociolinguistics, ‘pejoration’ is when a positive word becomes negative over time. ‘Karen’ as it has come to be known today has uses as early as September 2016 and as we know now, Karen has become synonymous with racist middle-aged White women, often associated with their harrassment of Black people just minding their business. On my way home, this harrassment found me walking while Black. For others, it has occured shopping while Black; birdwatching while Black; jogging while Black; listening to music in their house while Black, and more. The encounters we know about are generally examples that make news headlines but there are far more examples that do not make the national press, because they are pervasive.
Writing my MA dissertation on the 1919 Race Riots, I saw even in Edwardian Britain the nationality and citizenship rights of Black people in this country were contested (Belchem, 2014: 56), both those born British subjects in parts of the British Empire and those that were in fact born and raised here (May and Cohen, 1974), in spite of their legal status under the 1914 British Nationality and Aliens Act. Today, we are asked “where you from?” underpinned by historical racist epistemologies that defined Englishness as White (Dabiri, 2021). However, even in the image of so-called multiculturalism in the UK, the Britishness of Black and Brown people still has qualifiers attached. Watching ‘Homecoming’, the finale of David Olusoga’s popular series Black and British, the historian claims “… there is one barrier that confronted the Windrush Generation that we have largely overcome, and that’s because there are few people these days who question the idea that it is possible to be both Black and British” (54:46-55:00).
My experiences as a child and as an adult still tell me that Black Britishness is an increasingly contentious question, but even more testing … to be Black and English. In August 2021, MP David Lammy defended his right to call himself Black English from a caller into his LBC show. Whilst he was later met with lots of support online, what is interesting was the numbers of Black people on Twitter that challenged him on his right to be Black and English. If English is a nationality, better yet, a “civic identity”, nobody should be argueing someone’s right to choose where they belong. Furthermore, David Olusoga’s comments in ‘Homecoming’ seem blinkered and out of touch with people on the ground that still experience this epistemic racism on a daily basis. Especially my generation navigating the superhighways of identity where as one scholar writes, “The BBC had a whole series dedicated to ‘Black Britishness’ [Olusoga’s], which essentially amounted to propaganda for the idea that we are now accepted as part of the nation …” (Andrews, 2019: xiii).
My encounter with the woman on the street is one more example of racial privilege knowing full well that her Whiteness protected her from repercussions. Furthermore, whilst the ‘Karen’ meme started as a commentary on racial privilege (Williams, 2020) and White women in histories of racism (Ware, 1992), it’s a shame that is has been co-opted by people as a catch-all term for any woman that happens to annoy them. I think my encounter is certainly definable under the remits of the original Karen mythology, but there are those out there who would also argue my thoughts as misogynistic, namely because of what the mythology has become. In the UK, this mythology is “more proof the internet speaks American” (Lewis, 2020). And how Black Lives Matter is still spoken about is a reminder of the divides between anti-Blackness in the US and anti-Blackness in Britain. Yet, discourses on “Karen spotting” online also speak an American voice even though equivalents exist in Britain – especially in schools, colleges / universities and healthcare.
Those interested in the cultures of Black and Brown people; it would be more useful to ask about heritage over the racist “where are you from?”, as for me at least the latter is underpinned by racist binaries that say POCs cannot relate to ‘Anglo-Europeanness’, whilst the former speaks to the fluidity of an individual’s relationship with Home.
Andrews, K (2019) Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century. London: ZED Books.
Belchem, J (2014) Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th Century Liverpool. Liverpool: University Press.
Black and British (2016) Episode 4: Homecoming [BBC iPlayer]. London: BBC 2.
Brown, J.N. (2006) Dropping Anchor Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool. NJ: Princeton University Press.
Christian, M. (2008) The Fletcher Report 1930: A Historical Case Study of Contested Black Mixed Heritage Britishness. Journal of HIstorical Sociology, 21(2-3), pp. 213-241.
Dabiri, E. (2021) What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition. London: Penguin.
DuBois, W.E.B. (1903) The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Dover Thrift.
Fox, K. (2014) Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Frankenberg, R. (1993) White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. MI: UoM Press.
Gilroy, P. (1987) There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack. London: Routledge.
Hirsch, A. (2017) Brit(ish). London: Jonathan Cape.
Lewis, H. (2020) The Mythology of Karen. The Atlantic.
May, R and Cohen, R. (1974) The Interaction Between Race and Colonialism: A Case Study of the Liverpool Race Riots of 1919. Race and Class. 16(2), pp. 111-126.
Olusoga, D. (2017) Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan.
Philips, C. (1987) The European Tribe. London: Faber & Faber.
Pitts, J. (2020) Afropean: Notes from Black Europe. London: Penguin.
Rich, P.B. (1986) Race and Empire in British Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University.
Riz Ahmed (2019) Where You From? YouTube.
Shukla, N. (2016) The Good Immigrant. London: Unbound
— (2021). Brown Baby: A Memoir of Race, Family, and Home. London: Pan.
Social Security. Top 5 Names in Each of the Last 100 Years.
Ventour, T. (2020) Where Are You From? (For ‘Effing Swings & Roundabouts’ by Lauren D’Alessandro-Heath). Medium.
Ware, V. (1992) Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History. London: Verso.
Williams, A. (2020) Black Memes Matter: #LivingWhileBlack With Becky and Karen. Social Media + Society. 6(4), pp. 1-14.
Yeboah, S.K. (1988) The Ideology of Racism, London: Hansib.
Young, R.J.C. (1995) Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, London: Routledge.
Chapter I: No More White Saviours
This post in-part takes its name from a book by the late Whiteness Studies academic Ruth Frankenberg (1993) while the subtitle is taken from a journal article by Brittany Aronson (2017), the first of three blogs that will discuss Whiteness, women, and racism.
In the middle of August 2021, I saw a Facebook post by an institution platforming one of their staff who happened to say that she helped build a playground in an African country. I shared this post with a gentle critique of Whiteness attached. In the comments some of my friends and colleagues gave their two cents, with comments such as ‘white privilege’ and ‘gap-year activism’. It would be useful to say this staff member was White. A week to ten days later I recieved of a hostile message from one of their friends claiming I had upset the person in question with the comments. In the conversation I had with the third party (over messenger), I was witness to the hostility that Black and Brown people often experience from White women via tone-policing and their emotions as weapons (Hamad, 2018; Phipps, 2021). Her friend thus began to lecture me on the work of East African Playgrounds and use the so-called ethnically diverse makeup of the group that built the playground as a cover for the friend’s participation. In short, “I have Black / Asian / POC friends so it’s all good” – not, let me check my White privilege.
After being called a “bully” I did apologise, as maybe some of the comments did make it about the individual in question. However, in hindsight I do not think I should have (I was manipulated). I do not think the comments were bullyish, but this was simply a response consistent with ‘White defense’ (Lewis, 2000; Gunaratnam, 2003; DiAngelo, 2019), and I was not as savvy because it happened online rather in person. I was bullied as a youth so I have done my utmost since to not be one of those people. However, in this first act of ‘White defense’ it brought me to think about charity as one of the sectors where Whiteness is most pervasive. As an undergrad, I remember attending a presentation evening at Park Campus aiming to convince students to do aid work in East Africa, presented as “good for the CV”. How HE works with charities to send students to these places is problematic revisiting violent histories of colonial paternalism and the place of Blackness and Browness in the White imagination. Or as one postcolonial theorist writes:
“The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other. In addition, the Orient has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience.”Said, 1978: 2
The “helping hand of the West” in countries that are seemingly presented as unable to help themselves (or so is the concept / idea that White Western Aid presents) is rooted in White supremacy. When White people go to these countries under the guise of “good intent”, it brings the histories of White supremacy in these nations back to the floor. For Black/Brown people, who do this work, irrespective of our ancestries in global southern countries, I have to ask myself if I’m wanted there. Although I’m racialised outside of Whiteness, I was still reared in Europe. It is also a reminder of the differences between race and culture, as a Black person that was raised in Britain compared to my grandfather, for example, who spent nearly all of his childhood in Grenada. “Aid” reminds me of Othering through how previously colonised nations “still apparently” need “the help” of the West, countries that were never able to realise their potentials because of colonial exploitation wrought by Europe (re: the plot to Black Panther) colonialisms they still continue to do through different means. i.e the Israeli state’s illegal occupation of Palestine. Colonialism never ended.
It reminds me of the so-called “inferiority” of countries in the Global South (what many sectors call developing nations) when westerners continue to go there in the name of aid, whilst at the same time not helping these countries to be self-sufficient. Simply we just send people there hoping that is enough. And we do this yearly without thinking about the broader problems. The roles of individuals in doing that, is really complicit into Whiteness through aid AKA White savourism. Short term, it feels good; long-term, this does more for the West than it does for those we want to help.
Aid aside, a comparison could be how following the Murder of George Floyd, lots of White people felt the euphoria of the protests and solidarity, but when it came to making good on pledging to dismantle systems of violence they benefit from, I could hear a pin drop. Seldom do we seek to empower these nations. What we frequently do is send westerners, often (but not always) for that feeling of goodness in building schools and their CVs, but at the end of it all, these tourists get to come back to the West. And when global sourthern nations have organised themselves historically, western governments have assasinated their leaders (i.e Belgium and Congo’s Patrice Lumumba).
What has become known as ‘poverty tourism’ is purported by not just White people from the Global North but also people like me who have ancestry in the Global South but were born and raised in the West. For those of us that do aid work, it would be worth thinking about how Whiteness can appear in the faces of Black and Brown people through the social, economic, and political investments institutions continue to have in these nations via the actions of individuals on the ground. That aside, it is seen as much more acceptable for a White person to do this work than it is for people of colour. When White people do “aid work” in previously colonised nations, it is viewed as “adventure” (i.e look at lit canon works of White westerners going to these nations). However, when Black and Brown people do this, in Northampton we just call it community work. To see an institution platform this ‘white saviourism’, it was insulting to many of my friends and colleagues, and their heritage, as descendants of indentured and enslaved labour.
Whilst I know there are many people ignorant to this history, I also know there are many people that know this and still continue to do it anyway. They may well go to countries in the African and Asian continents with good intentions, but those intentions are not divorced from histories of colonial exploitation these countries still haven’t recovered from. In seeing numbers of White people celebrating these “achievements” supported by White institutions, White privilege is evidently in-play in charity and in education, when the institutional thought plays into ‘institutional Whiteness’ because:
“the everyday work of establishing whiteness as a racialised enactment; of doing whiteness; of getting into it, is also institutional work. Whiteness is not just a personal investment practice it frames our chances for life or death, whether we are imprisoned or walk free, we are rich or poor, which university or not we attend, what marks we attain when we get there, if we do. The notion of institutional whiteness is a way of recognising the links between whiteness and institutional reproduction.”White Spaces
In charity and by association third sector, this is an environment dominated by White middle-class women and White women are not divorced from histories of racism, in fact they are an important part of it (Ware, 1992). Rather than send students into these countries, I ask what global northern universities are doing with their global sourthern partner institutions to help on the ground. It is all very well sending students to build schools, but decolonisation is more than a curriculum-focussed endeavour. We must understand as Prof. Tao Leigh Goffe writes, “colonialism is ongoing … profound, sad, and beautiful because … decolonization is a prophecy and urgent call to action” Decolonisation requires colonisers to give the colonised their lands back and she goes on to say that “…decolonize is a a verb not a metaphor as Tuck and Yang teach us they wonder why Afro-Asian solidarity and Afro-Native coalition does not always exist in the world where it should or could.” I question if it is appropriate for higher education to send, often people who are westerners, to these countries, without any prior exploration of Whiteness nor the overarching system of White supremacy as a social and political system (Mills, 2003; 2004). My encounter with this White woman also saw her position bodies like mine in effort to cover Whiteness, but when we have a history/present of Black/Brown bodies being used as a flimsy cover for White supremacy (Ash Sakar in DDN, 2021), it makes sense that she would do this.
As a precedent, discourses around David Lammy and Stacey Dooley are worth looking at. Brittany Aronson (2017) argues that in the system of White supremacy, “we are falsely taught that being white is better so it makes sense why we would instill our white values upon students of color.” The hostility of this encounter in my direct messages reflects the ongoing systematic racism that people of colour face, via tone-policing because so often White people do not like how we experess ourselves, be it through speech or even in body language. For me, this has come more from White women than it has from White men. Today, I am still more conscious of them in anti-racism spaces than men. With the added intersection of womanhood, women of colour frequently experience this, with one of the most vivid examples of policing women of colour being when Matt Hancock tone-policed Dr Rosena Allin-Khan MP in May 2020.
When White people go into these countries to build schools, it makes many of us Black/Brown people uncomfortable when we as POCs have done this historically, only for these buildings to have been destroyed by White supremacists, or when we do like-for-like community work in the Global North … it is scorned. And whilst the woman in my messenger praised the diversity of this project, this revisits how Whiteness as an action can also be done by people that are not racialised as White (i.e The Sewell Report). So, although POCs took part, they are enacting the dominant thought of the institution which is the White institution. Seeing that western institutions are shaped by Euroecentricism AKA White thought / epistemologies, we can see regardless of how institutions can sometimes position POCs on these trips, they are in some ways doing the bidding of the institution really showing how Whiteness can appear with Black and Brown faces. The comments from the staff member’s friend in my messenger claimed the comments of my friends were “hateful” and “bullying”, this is a covert example of tone-policing when White people are held accountable.
After to-ing and fro-ing, this conversation ended with an obligation for the commenters and I to educate her and her friend. I’m not against aid work per sé, simply the lack of analysis or critique of aid work through a Whiteness lens by the institutions initiating those projects is troubling. Furthermore, I do not see White people that want to think about their own complicity in White supremacy in this work. If I saw more of an anti-racist commitment from aid institutions and so proclaimed White anti-racists, I would be less cynical about it. Yet, until that day comes, it will always be an uncomfortable topic especially when these countries only need aid namely because of colonialism and the postcolonial aftershocks countries like Britain left behind. It’s one thing saying these countries are “unstable” politically and socially as I am often told (but when you start asking why, it leads in one direction). It’s really an open secret that lots of White people, do emotionally benefit from this work (verily women), and that is Whiteness. This happens at the same time as White subjects really benefiting from Black/Brown trauma. If all of the above is acknowledged and explored in doing the work, then I might relax a bit more but it looks to me that the West is still profitting from the issues they create(d).
We said our goodbyes. Actually, I said goodbye, and that was that.
One thing is certain, this encounter for me, assured the everlasting relevance of Critical Race and Whiteness Studies further showing how Whiteness happens on social media. The microaggressions felt like bell hooks’ “white terror” (1992: 167) … it’s violence upon the body via stress. I’m tired now.
Aronson, B (2017) The White Savior Industrial Complex … Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis, 6(3), pp. 36-54.
DiAngelo, R (2019) White Fragility. London: Allen Lane.
[DDN] Double Down News (2021) The Alternative Race Report. YouTube.
Frankenberg, R (1993) White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness. MI: UoM Press.
Gunaratnam, Y (2003) Researching ‘Race’ and Ethnicity: Methods, Knowledge and Power. London, Sage.
hooks, b. (1992) Black Looks: Race and Representation. MA: Southend Press.
Hamad, R (2018) How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour. The Guardian.
Lewis, G (2000) Race, Gender, Social Welfare: Encounters in a Postcolonial Society. Oxford: Polity Press.
Mills, C. (2003) White Supremacy as a Sociopolitical System: A Philosophical Perspective. In: Doane, A and Bonilla-Silva, E (eds) White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism. London: Routledge, pp. 35-48.
Mills, C. W (2004) Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness. In: Yancy, G (ed.) What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question. London: Routledge. pp. 25-54.
Phipps, A (2021) White tears, white rage: Victimhood and (as) violence in mainstream feminism. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 24(1), pp. 81-93.
Said, E (1978) Orientalism. London: Penguin.
Ware, V. (1992/2015) Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History. London: Verso.
White Spaces. Institutional Witnesses. White Spaces.
On Sundays, the slaves played music, sang, and folks danced.
Ev’rybody could see their spirits were lifted.
Human spirits need to be lifted in order for folks to live.
HUMAN ENSLAVERS must constantly stamp out the spirits in order to maintain slavery.
The masters’ arsenal included weapons for splitting their hearts from their righteous minds.
Slavery is a godless institution, so
They made a holy art from preaching and practicing duplicity – like Capoeira, only deadly.
So, slaves dancing and singing was restricted to Sundays.
All other days were reserved for the masters to sharpen their hooves.
White pastors reserved Sundays to forgive white sins.
Such sweet Sundays on plantations was all depicted in the 2016 remake of Roots.
The Sunday after the birth of Kunta Kinte’s first child,
The Fiddler and Kunta were out at night to perform the naming ceremony –
A tradition repeated across every generation in the series,
Which opened with Kunta’s own ceremony in Africa, presumably near modern-day Banjul.
3 slave catchers caught them out in a storm.
Fiddler gave his life so that the 3 slave catchers wouldn’t take Kunta’s “tar baby” as
“Nigger tax” for being caught out at night, without papers,
Not as if they’d asked. An escape was quickly plotted.
Fiddler caused a distraction,
Kunta started running, cuddling his newborn,
His gait hindered by the limp he got when catchers cut off his foot the 2nd time he’d escaped.
During this altercation,
Fiddler knocked one of the catchers off his horse, then
Wrangled the sword away from another, and
Stabbed him to death, only to be killed moments later by the 3rd catcher’s blade.
Meanwhile, Kunta had stashed the baby beneath a tree.
He waited for the third catcher to chase him down on his horse.
Kunta knocked him down, grabbed the catcher’s axe and swiftly cut his throat wide open.
He picked up his first-born child, and
Stumbled back to check on Fiddler’s corpse before making his way safely home.
That Sunday, Kunta resolved to train his daughter to resist slavery.
As did their descendants – resist.
My favourite TV show - Narcos - I have always been fascinated with the story of Pablo Escobar. Narcos gives a very good insight into the corruption behind the Columbian Cartel and as a viewer you are immersed into the shocking world of drug trafficking My favourite place to go - The theatre, I have been to see various productions. My all time favourite show would have to be The Lion King My favourite city - I love the hustle and bustle of London. There are so many things to do. So many sights to see and it is brimming full of culture My favourite thing to do in my free time - Shopping My favourite athlete/sports personality - Usain Bolt, he runs with so much finesse My favourite actor - Christoph Waltz, I like how versatile he is. From his comical performance in Horrible Bosses 2 to his terrifying role in Inglourious Basterds, he is always on point in his roles My favourite author - Charles Dickens My favourite drink - A classic Mojito My favourite food - This is a hard decision to make as I am a real foodie. I would have to choose a classic Carrot Cake with cream cheese frosting My favourite place to eat - Ascough’s Bistro – Market Harborough I like people who - encourage others to do well and celebrate their success I don’t like it when people - are jealous and sabotage others My favourite book - Nicholas Nickleby, it reminds me of my teenage years My favourite book character - there are too many to choose! My favourite film - I am a big fan of 80’s and 90’s films, my favourite has to be Romancing the Stone. I love adventure films, I also love The Goonies My favourite poem - Still I Rise by Maya Angelou, I say no more My favourite artist/band - – I am a big music lover. I like music from all genres from Motown and RnB to Hip hop and Drum and Bass. Whitney Houston will always be my number 1 female artist My favourite song - I don’t have one, but Chris Brown's Indigo Album has been on repeat since 2019. This album is a masterpiece My favourite art - Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. This reminds me of the winter nights during my favourite time of year, Christmas My favourite person from history - Queen Nanny – she was a lady captured from the Asante people and brought to Jamaica and sold into slavery. She is an important figure in the Jamaican rebellion against slavery. She escaped the plantation she was held on and settled in the Blue Mountain region of Jamaica. There she set up Nanny town which was a free village for Maroons/ African slaves and Arawak that had escaped their slave masters. This settlement was a key element for the uprising against oppression. Queen Nanny was not only a liberator of over 1000 slaves, she was also a warrior and is Jamaica’s only female national hero.
Shahrukh Khan (SRK) is arguably the Indian film industry’s biggest global star and commercial brand ambassador. In one early advertisement, he strikes a match from a dark-skinned kid’s face to show just how abhorrent it is as a trait. In another ad, ostensibly more humorous, SRK disses a group of traditional Northern Indian wrestlers for wearing skirts and make-up. The star chides them for using the feminine product instead of (converting to) the newly available male version (i.e. re-packaged in gray rather than pink). The product? The skin bleach Fair and Handsome. In both ads, the transformed, ‘fairer’ skinned consumer is pummeled with young girls virtually appearing from nowhere.
This follows the typical consumerist trope: The product makes users more popular and sexually appealing. Yet, things got worse. Clean and Dry’s ‘intimate’ bleaching shower gel for women (C&D). Yes, you read right: A bleaching shower gel aimed at lightening brown women’s crotches. There’s no male equivalent, save for a well-circulated spoof called Gore Gote: India’s #1 Testicular Fairness Cream (Mukherjee). In the initial shot of the C&D advertisement, a pouty-mouthed (fair-skinned) woman is ignored by her (fair-skinned) husband in their (upper-middle-class) apartment. Naturally, it seems, she bleaches her labia with C&D. After displaying the product’s virtues, the husband literally chases the wife around the fancy flat as she playfully dangles (his) keys. Her secret to happiness: A newly bleached intimate area. Is this a proxy for a white woman’s vagina?
What’s wrong with consumerism? The marketplace will not save you. As a Black person interested in self-love, it is clear that the market is murderous. There, the fetish of blackness is made widely available, as if one could bottle stereotypical ‘coolness’ and sell it to the youth in Asia, one of the largest consumer groups in the world. Fashion shops targeting youth regularly plaster posters of Bob Marley or Hip-Hop thugs to peddle goods to youth. Yet, standing in the rotunda of this mall, one could see shops of every major western cosmetics brand, including Clinique, Mac, Estée Lauder. Here in Asia, the flagship product in each shop is skin bleach! Black is cool, but white is power. Ironically, at the time I was modeling for a campaign in Vogue and Elle Décor in India, yet none of the make-up artists carried my mocha shade (shady, right).
The skin bleach industry is by far the most virulent of all consumer products – even fast food. The bulk of this industry is meted out on the bodies of women…and girls who learn early that fate of darkness (just check out any Indian Matrimonials page). According to an August 2019 article in Vogue: “Per a recent World Health Organization report (WHO), half of the population in Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines uses some kind of skin lightening treatment. And it’s even higher in India (60%) and African countries, such as Nigeria (77%).” After a 7 minutes instrumental intro to his 1976 hit, Yellow Fever, Fela Kuti chants: “Who steal your bleaching?/Your precious bleaching?…/Your face go yellow/Your yansh go show/Your mustache go show/Your skin go scatter/You go die o.”
It’s lethal, often a mercurous poison used to kill the soul. It is a fetishization of whiteness, that reveals the “internalization of the coloniser’s inferiorisation of dark skin as native and Other” (Thapan: 73). It’s euthanasia. Skin bleachers are painlessly killing themselves, willingly participating in their own annihilation. Not only does it quite literally murder the melanin in one’s skin, it symbolically kills one’s ‘dark and native’ self, giving birth to a new and improved modern identity. It requires constant application and reflects a consumerist’s self-regulation. Bleach is expensive, despite the industry’s ‘bottom of the pyramid’ approach to the marketing 4P’s – bleach sold in cheap tiny packages for the poor. Skin bleach is a form of mimesis, to actually embody modernity through crafting the ‘cultivated, developed and perfected’ self (Thapan: 70).
When I began teaching at UoN, I was asked to propose topics for business ethics modules, which were then optional. Hesitantly, I suggested skin bleach and hair weaves. Looking at the composition of the student body, this would be as familiar to them, as the products were locally available (see picture below taken in an ‘ethnic’ hair shop on Northampton’s high street). Several students have subsequently pursed these subjects in their dissertations. I was sad to learn that in colloquial Somali, ‘fair skin’ is a moniker for pretty, just as we western Blacks use ‘light skin and long hair’. Colourism makes dark-skinned people unsafe in our own homes.
I was pleasantly surprised at the support from the module leader, an older, straight white man. He said he knew little about the politics of black and brown skin and hair, yet listened with great interest and did his own research into the matter. What’s more, he stood by me both literally and figuratively. He was there when I was called to account for some negative student feedback such as “I’m a guy, I don’t wear make-up,” when asked to consider the differential impact of beauty standards on the psyches and earnings of women in business. He stood by me when I’d dropped the F-word (feminism) into the curriculum. This was before the Gender Pay Gap became more widely known or theBritish government required audits from large organisations. He is an ally. He stood by me in ways that may have been riskier for individuals outside the circles of normative power of gender, race and class. Talk about a way to use one’s privilege!
Kuti, F. (1976). Yellow Fever. [LP] Decca 8 Track Studios. Available at: https://genius.com/Fela-kuti-and-africa-70-yellow-fever-annotated [Accessed 13 Nov. 2019].
Mukherjee, R., Banet-Weiser, S. and Gray, H. (2019). Racism Postrace. Durham, N.C.
Thapan, M. (2009). Living the Body: Embodiment, Womanhood and Identity in Contemporary India. New Delhi: SAGE.