The melanin goddess fighting against colourism

Black and beautiful: Khoudia Diop was bullied for her dark skin while growing up in Senegal. © @melaniin.goddess

Is colourism the most toxic form of racism? As health authorities warn that skin-whitening cream is as poisonous as paint stripper, model Khoudia Diop is celebrating her dark skin tone.

Skin-lightening creams must be avoided at all costs, the UK’s Local Government Association warned this week. The products contain hydroquinone, a chemical as toxic as paint stripper that can cause cancer.

Despite widespread bans on hydroquinone, skin lightening is a global epidemic and it’s spreading. The value of the industry is expected to soar to $31.2 billion (£25 billion) by 2024.

Why are people risking their health to bleach their skin? The problem, commentators say, is colourism ⁠— a type of racism that discriminates based on skin tone, with light favoured over dark.

Khoudia Diop knows the harmful effects of colourism first-hand. Growing up in Senegal, she was constantly bullied for her dark skin.

“At first, I tried confronting them, but soon I learned to tune out the negativity,” she says.

Half of women in Senegal bleach their skin. That figure is 77% in Nigeria, and 40% in China. The biggest market for skin-lightening products is Asia, where colourism is driven by a toxic mix of British colonialism and class discrimination.

Today, Diop is a full-time model and a champion of the fight against colourism. Since her striking modelling shots went viral, Diop’s Instagram account, the “Melaniin Goddess”, has gained over half a million followers. After years of bullying, the 22-year-old is proud of her skin tone.

“Diversity is what makes life interesting. All women should feel confident in the skin they’re in — everyone is beautiful in their own unique way,” she says.

But studies show there is still a long way to go.

While light-skinned actors and musicians rise to the top of the entertainment industry, those with dark skin say they are languishing on the sidelines.

According to science journalist Shankar Vedantam, dark-skinned Hispanic Americans earn on average $5,000 (£4070) a year less than those with fair skin. A Villanova University study of 12,000 African-American female inmates found that women with lighter skin were more likely to get shorter sentences.

The impact of colourism runs through all levels of society. Is this the worst form of racism?

A toxic legacy

For author and journalist Poorna Bell, colourism is a “poison” that runs through families and communities. It is “fed to you from the moment you are born, continues to be administered as you grow up, and taints the entire foundation of your self-worth as an adult”. Because it is more subtle than all-out racism, the malignant influence of colourism has spread widely and deep.

But, ultimately, dark-skinned people are experiencing an exaggerated form of the racism still faced by people of colour across society. In the USA, just 43% of black families own a home, compared to 73% of white families. In the UK, ethnic minorities are twice as likely as white people to have been overlooked for a promotion at work. Colourism is an extension of a wider, lingering racism.

You Decide

  1. Have you or any of your friends experienced colourism?
  2. How can we combat colourism?

Activities

  1. Write a definition of “colourism” and a definition of “racism”. What is the difference?
  2. Using this story and your own research, make a video news report about the problem of colourism.

Some People Say...

“I am Hollywood’s acceptable version of a black girl, and that has to change.”

Zendaya, American actress

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Khoudia Diop is a 22-year-old model and actress from Senegal. In 2016, a photograph of Diop that was taken for a project with The Colored Girl diversity campaign went viral. Overnight, her Instagram followers soared from 300 followers to 350,000. Now, she has more than half a million, and works full-time as a model.
What do we not know?
How long it will take to rid society of colourism. As a form of prejudice, it has a long and unpleasant history. In the USA, colourism emerged from slavery, as masters favoured lighter-skinned slaves, who were sometimes the children of slaves raped by white masters. Well into the 20th century, black applicants would list “light-skinned” as a qualification when seeking employment.

Word Watch

Paint stripper
Powerful chemicals used to remove paint from surfaces.
Senegal
A country in West Africa, with just under 16 million inhabitants.
Colonialism
During the reign of Queen Victoria, the British Empire ruled over India and many countries in Africa, among other parts of the world. Native inhabitants were treated as inferior by the British.
Class
Historically, the upper classes had lighter skin because they stayed indoors, while the lower classes had darker skin from working outside in the fields.
Melaniin
A playful spelling of melanin, the pigment that makes skin dark.
Dark skin
Earlier this year, there was a row over colourism when it was announced that Will Smith would play Richard Williams, the father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, in a film about his life.

Subjects

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