“Onye Ocha Biara Uwa Ojii”

(A personal tale of Colourism)

When I was a young boy, one of my aunts, who I hold in fond memories, often called me: “Onye Ocha Biara Uwa Ojii”. She hailed me with such joy whenever she set her eyes on me, that I knew to expect the eulogizing when I saw her from a distance. The literal meaning of her endearment was: “The white man that came to the world as black”. (Or “The white man that came to a black man’s world.”)

The nickname was apt because, though I am Nigerian, I am light-skinned. I am Igbo. When my aunt hailed me - calling me a white man metaphorically- it was rendered by the way of a preference, that is, the superiority of my lighter skin to others whose skin tones were of a darker hue.

This work is a continuation of my exploration of the subject of Colourism: the generalised skin tone bias amongst people of the same ethnic group or race.

Famed actress, Lupita Nyong'o once said, "Colourism is a daughter of Racism", a seed that blossomed into white supremacy: the idea that whiter and brighter denotes better. It runs deep in families, in peer groups, this penchant to allot higher esteem to people of a lighter complexion. Colourism has been around for centuries and is “thought to be a lasting relic of slavery; white masters showed preferential treatment to light-skinned or mixed-race slaves, who were often the product of rapes with darker-skinned women”. This preference and glorification of light skin isn’t an unknown phenomenon to humanity. Centuries ago in Europe, pale skin was desirable because people associated it with wealth and status. Women who could afford the luxury of staying indoors had pale skin in contrast to their counterparts who worked outdoors and whose skins were affected by the effects of the sun. As the inclination towards light skin isn’t new, so is the practice of digesting or rubbing in harmful substances to achieve this ideal skin type. In 16th and 19th century Europe, white lead and arsenic wafers — which are both extremely poisonous — were used to achieve a paler look.

The penchant for light skin found its way into the countries of Africa through colonialism. Although it is unknown if colourism existed in Africa pre-colonization, it is safe to say colonialism widely propagated it. Colonialism brought along with it the white supremacist ideology, which preached the superiority of all things white and the inferiority of all things Black, including dark skin, which was seen as dirty and ugly.

Having features closer to whiteness, including light skin, earned you certain privileges.

For example, in colonial Rwanda, privilege, power and opportunities were accorded to the Tutsi ethnic group because they had lighter skin, among other physical features that were closer to whiteness, while the Hutu ethnic group with darker skin were treated poorly. More African countries like Nigeria still perpetuate this belief in many ways. In the job market, some companies hire only light-skinned people. Dark-skinned people are told they won’t be able to attract customers with their dark skin or they are not the ‘company’s look.’ When I found out one of the major banks in the country practiced this, I was amazed that this happens in a place where most of the population is dark-skinned. But when I walked into the bank, I could confirm that all the people you make first contact with, like the customer service personnel, are light-skinned, while the actual bankers who were hidden upstairs were given the pass to be dark-skinned.

Colourism has grabbed the beauty standards by the neck. Here’s a proof: walk into any store in Nigeria from the small kiosk by the road to a branch of one of the big supermarkets and even on online stores, and you’ll be shocked by the number of skin-bleaching products disguised as ‘lightening, brightening, whitening or glow’ products that aim to reveal your ‘true colour’. Quack injections and pills are sold at alarming rates to achieve lighter skin and some parents bleach the skin of their babies and toddlers, despite the side effects including ochronosis.

And it begs to question: who deserves the right to allot superiority based on skin tone? When do we begin to see ourselves outside the lens of colourism and enjoy the contentment of being born with whatever skin we come clothed in? Shouldn’t the unlearning begin now?


The concept used to develop the images are symbols associated with the history of colourism especially in America. The use of the brown paper bag to represent the test carried out then to ascertain if new birthed slaves qualified to be classed as mixed or black. Also, the use of Pencil and Hair extensions to represent another test carried out in the same dispensation. Paints to represent the different skin shades. Okpu Agu, the red and white cap used in Eastern Nigeria. It’s used in the imagery to depict my history and the history of my people as it relates to slavery and colonization and how colourism became an inevitable consequence.

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