Over the weekend, Peter Okoye, one half of the popular musical duo, P-Square, celebrated his traditional wedding. Celebrity gossip sites were awash with pictures of the smiling couple and everyone seemed to be in agreement that the bride was stunning. On Monday, Okoye posted a photo of his new wife proudly calling her “lovely and beautiful.” However, one thing stands out to any casual observer, Lola Okoye’s skin tone is quite fair. And for good reason; it turns out her mother is white.
The near-universal agreement that Mrs Okoye is extraordinarily beautiful may seem natural, but it’s actually not. What any society deems beautiful is often an artificial construction based on what is considered desirable at any given time and in Nigeria, it is but a small symptom of a deeper malaise.
It is no coincidence that prior to a recent video shoot in Ghana, Nigerian musician Whizkid and US artist Akon, reportedly requested only “half-caste” (mixed-race) girls be featured, barring all darker-skinned women who had already been picked for the shoot. Nor is it unrelated that half-Lebanese Nollywood star Queeneth Hilbert, is regularly voted the most beautiful actress in Nigeria.
Nigerian women have long understood that there is a hierarchy of beauty in the country that prizes lighter-skinned women over their darker-skinned counterparts. It is not an accident that Nigeria has one of the largest markets for skin bleaching products in sub-Saharan Africa, despite their proven dangers, from cancer to physical disfigurement. Fair skin is considered “smoother” and “healthier” and generally more attractive. The question is: Why?
Some sociologists believe the global preference for lighter-toned skin reflects a deeply-rooted association with class. Historically, fairer skin meant that the bearer was more likely an aristocrat who did not have to work in the fields under the sun. In the Americas, in countries like the United States, Brazil and the Dominican Republic, fair skin also meant that the bearer was less likely to have descended from the slaves brought from West and Central Africa. Despite the fact that most of these populations were fairly “mixed”, skin tone was an easy way of classifying and identifying one’s place in the social hierarchy.
In Nigeria, those historical class perceptions have merged with the ugly legacy of slavery and colonialism and left many of us with aninferiority complex – one that has little regard for the indigenous and prefers the foreign, the Western, the other instead. It can be seen in the fact that we often treat light-skinned foreigners with more deference, we hire them with fewer (if any) qualifications and we pay them far, far, more. Whenever we want to cite progress, we point to examples in the West where someone (usually whiter than us) “over there” is doing it better.
However, until we begin to rediscover and celebrate our own beauty – whether in our complexions or in our systems - there can be no true progress for us. And because the imitation can never be as good at the real thing, this celebration must be genuine and non-reactionary. Too often we confuse self-esteem with self-aggrandisement and privilege the surface over the core - as if our possessions are a reflection of our worth.
As Solomon Sydelle, in a column in a 2007 column put it:
“…as a people, we must remember that we can only rely on ourselves to improve our lot. No amount of ‘white man’s magic’ can solve our problems without commitment and cooperation amongst ourselves. It is only Nigerians, with conviction and confidence in our abilities, despite our failures, that will turn Nigeria into a place we can and will all be proud of.