White privilege; benefits entrenched in a society which apply to those who simply do not have an overabundance of melanin in their skin pigmentation. This is the norm in Western nations, whilst in a predominantly Black society I find it perturbing that it is also the preponderant influence over social status. I was born with extremely fair skin from a mixed background and although my ethnicity is Black, I have always been made conscious about the vulnerability of my skin tone as well as the privileges that come with it.
I grew up in Ibadan, which is one of Africa’s largest cities by area located in the most populous Black nation, Nigeria. I went to an American school and developed friendships with my peers who came from several different backgrounds. This exposure fortunately allowed me the opportunity to gain an understanding of diversity within my school setting. I was also fortunate enough to have parents that also believed in educating my siblings and I through travel and I was able to increase my knowledge on different cultures during my teen years. Growing up however, my mother always reminded me that I am vulnerable in Nigeria because of my skin tone. Of course the older I became the more I was able to see and experience this for myself. More recently, towards the end of last year, I received a phone call from a friend who cautioned me to be careful with my movements leading up to Christmas, due to my role as a TV presenter and increased reputation, with the concern revolving around ritual killings for which my skin tone would be more appealing to those who would make me a target. I laughed – not because what he said was absurd, but because it wasn’t the first time I’d heard that people with “yellow skin” are often targets for rituals; your body parts are basically worth more if you are ‘white’. Albinos are often the main targets for rituals as it is believed that they are ‘special’ people that are ‘marked’ by God. It all sounds grimey right? But unfortunately that is the reality right now in certain parts of Nigeria.
What strikes me more though is the fact it is common knowledge that there is a hierarchy or caste system in society, and that White people are considered as more worthy in the majority of societies especially in the West. However what I find most striking is that we ignore White privilege in Africa, especially West Africa, and we rather subconsciously support it allowing this remnant of colonialism and the subjugation of Africa to endure. This is a general and pervasive mindset that only succeeds in denouncing the already downtrodden. However I have witnessed moments that have instilled immense pride in my fellow countrymen. Having queued for passport control on arrival to MMIA, I watched four European men trying to barge past Nigerians in the security queue. A Nigerian immigrations officer set them right, unreservedly embarrassing them by sending them to the end of the line. Everyone there definitely felt a sense of pride and belonging thanks to the officers no-nonsense approach, but more importantly motivation to take a rightful stance as first class citizens.
As a TV Presenter I took a trip to Ghana last year to host for the Glitz Fashion Week 2017. The event took place at the gorgeous Kempinski Hotel and my crew and I set ourselves up in the lobby of the hotel on all the days of the event.
On the second day, we all needed WiFi as we didn’t have Ghanian SIM cards and I was asked by a member of my crew to request for WiFi. I responded stating that I would and before I stood up he added “you know you’re light, they’re more likely to respond to you”. As I stood up to walk to the reception, what he said to me started to sink in and I thought to myself: “Hold on, you’re in ACCRA, Laila. You’re in a proud Black country steeped in rich history and Black people are telling you to ask other Black people for the WiFi because they believe that their darker skin puts them at a disadvantage of getting what they want…” – My first enraged objection was, I AM BLACK TOO! Then I thought more and asked myself how have we reached a stage where we have allowed white privilege to commandeer our own societies?
The honest truth is that colorism (Race is a different kettle of catfish) is an issue that is grappling society and not spoken of nor dealt with enough. An example is Nivea’s advertisement featuring former Miss Nigeria, Omowunmi Akinnifesi, whereby her skin becomes visibly lighter as she applies the cream. As far as I am concerned, Nivea are aware of the huge market for skin lightening products and are ready to exploit it. We have allowed the international system to put us at a disadvantage and we don’t realize the deep and dark route that we are taking. To speak plainly, whether you look at multinational companies gerrymandering our governments to the United Nations influencing our national priorities and directing our sustainability and development issues, these governing bodies are actually being controlled by mainly men who are White. The fact that this is not being addressed despite the plainly overarching domination over our society’s structures and systems shows that we really have not grasped an understanding of the depth of this issue.
I recall hosting at the launch of the new Samsung Galaxy Note 8 in Lagos and the organizer of the event was of Oriental descent. He wanted the camera men to move back so that the guests could see and instead of speaking to them with respect, he barked orders at them as if they were somehow lesser beings. At that point I was motivated to make it clear to everyone in the room that we cannot continue to take disrespect from people that are coming in to Nigeria and believe that they are more significant than us. What I loved was the fact that the cameramen he was shouting at did not stand for what he said and stood their ground. That was another moment of pride and belonging that I have experienced regarding the issue of White privilege at home.
The problem definitely exists and I am not saying it isn’t recognized, but it definitely isn’t being addressed nor solved. As Africans we must endeavor to prioritize our heritage, culture and people; that is the key to our sustainable development and growth as a collective. Africans live in the most resource laden continent and hold incredible potential which needs to be fostered and maximized. We cannot continue to segregate and divide ourselves by accepting the actions of the ‘others’ – why do we feel like second class citizens abroad, but people come to us and we place them on a pedestal above ourselves? It is time for us to start paying attention to the things that are dividing us and stopping us from becoming a collective. Frantz Fanon spoke on this in 1952 when he produced his chief work Black Skin, White Masks. We need to explore historical interpretations of Blackness and understand how society has constructed our ethnicity as inferior. We also need to eradicate the hierarchy we have created within black ethnicity whereby we place more value on ourselves, placing value on our skin tone and celebrating the different hues of blackness. It is of no news to anyone that even the Alaafin of Oyo and his wives are known to bleach their skin. When you hold such a high title, you are automatically an influence on society and therefore by bleaching your skin, you’re definitely encouraging others to follow in your footsteps. We even support black artists discriminating against black people such as Kodak Black who confidently stated his distastefulness towards darker skinned women on social media last year. Yes, everyone is entitled to a personal opinion but opinions are always developed in accordance to exposure to societal status quo and that is where the grassroots of the problem lie.
Black does not come in one shade and that is the beauty of our heritage which we need to protect and cherish. If we continue to let others pick our ethnicity apart and we continue to also pick it apart ourselves, we will stop ourselves from maximizing our potential, which is extremely delicate. I would like to leave you with a few words from the poet Tupac Amaru Shakur, who famously wrote the following as a reminder to remember the value in one’s blackness; “Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. I say the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots”.