I’ve got a (yellow) bone to pick.
Of late there has been resurgence in the availability and use of skin lightening creams and pills amongst Zimbabweans and many other Africans as well. Skin bleaching is predominantly done by women by women but more and more evidence suggests that even men are jumping onto the bandwagon as well. It seems everyone wants to be light skinned. Why? Well, because they all want to be ‘Yellow Bones’, every black men and women’s supposedly most sought after skin tone. Yellow bone is a colloquial term that is popular amongst people of African descent. The term Yellow bone refers to the lightest skinned black woman. They sometimes have a mixed race gene somewhere in their family tree and their skin tone appears golden yellow. An example of a Yellow bone in popular culture is Beyonce’. She is the definition of Yellow bone in all its aspirational glory. To put her Yellow bone credentials in context, her former band mate from the girl group Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland is considered dark skinned. They are both black, but they are for lack of a better term different shades of black. One is a yellow bone and the other is not.
The reason for the resurgence of these skin lightening creams is partly a result of the pedestal that most black men and women usually put those regarded as Yellow bones. Yellows bones are to black people what blonds are too white people. The general consensus is that yellow bones by virtue of having a lighter skin tone are more attractive and appealing. As such the Lupita Nyong’os and Kelly Rowland’s who make up team dark skinned are unfortunately resorting to applying these creams in a bid to become lighter and by default be regarded as more attractive. They try to cosmetically become Yellow bones. Further evidence of this yellow bone bias is found in this qualifying statement given to dark skinned girls, ‘She is beautiful for a dark skinned girl’. The inference being that by being darker she is already at a disadvantage in the beauty stakes. I don’t know if I necessarily agree with this thinking. It is an overgeneralisation to assume that all light skinned black women are more attractive than their darker counterparts. Beauty is more subjective than that and definitely not limited to ones skin tone. The unfortunate reality though is that most black men and women don’t see it this way and hence the skin bleaching.
To further compound matters these skin lightening creams and pills are not only harmful but illegal in Zimbabwe. Researchers have indicated that most of the products that are currently being sold on the market contain a cocktail of compounds like hydroquinone and tretinoin, which if used for a long time can lead to skin cancer, permanent pigmentation of the skin, liver damage and mercury poisoning. The creams are illegal because they contain harmful substances and are not authorised by the Medicines Control Council of Zimbabwe, the body responsible for regulating medicines in Zimbabwe. The creams are classified under the country’s Dangerous Drugs and Substances Act, and the Drug Control Council of Zimbabwe banned the creams in 1980.
So why are many women and some men willing to risk their health and possible incarceration when they buy and apply these creams and pills? The answer to that is that they want to be beneficiaries of what I like to call yellow bone privilege. Yellow bone privilege is similar but not exactly the same as it’s more pervasive big brother white privilege. White privilege is not to be confused with racism. Those are two different things. White privilege is assuming the best intentions when it comes to a white person than when it comes to a black person given precisely the same circumstances. Taking my lead from that description of white privilege a case can be made that yellow bone privilege assumes default attractiveness when it comes to a yellow bone than when it comes to a member of team dark skinned given precisely the same physical attributes such as height, weight etc.
Personally I have always gravitated towards natural yellow bones. And so do most of my male African friends. I could argue that it’s just my type, the same way someone can argue that blondes are his type. That being said I do not limit myself to dating yellow bones, but just admitting to myself that I me and most of my friends seem more drawn to yellow bones I start to understand the motivations behind some people resort to skin lightening. They are the same motivations that make people undergo cosmetic procedures like Botox and breast implants. They are aspiring to meet what they perceive to be the societal standards of beauty.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a yellow bone but I am aware that I am lighter skinned than the average black person. So I have experienced and have been a beneficiary of yellow bone privilege. When people have referred to my skin tone it has always been in a complimentary manner or enviously. This thinking isn’t just unique to my generation but it goes way back. My paternal grandmother was considered the most beautiful girl in her village. And yes , she was a yellow bone. Even to this day her reputation has outlived her. Those who knew her when she was in her prime still talk about how beautiful she was. And this often goes something like ‘Mbuya wako wanga vari tsvarakadenda chaiyo, kutsvuka kwavo,waitoti vaigezi nemukaka chete.’, Your grandmother was very pretty, she was so light skinned you’d think she bathed in milk. Yellow bone’s have clearly been a thing for some time now.
The more I think about the more ingrained I realise this bias is in our culture. Dark skinned people are often referred in sometimes derogatory terms by other black people. In my native Shona language darker skinned people are often described as ‘akasviba’ which loosely translates in English to ‘they are dirty’. This is because some black people misguidedly believe that being dark skinned is a result of a lack of hygiene. Often you will hear people saying ‘haagezi’, he/she doesn’t bathe. No wonder naturally dark skinned people are resorting to skin lightening albeit with disastrous consequences.
I believe yellow bone privilege has its roots firmly implanted in colonialism. It was drilled into our forefathers that white was better, and naturally the closer you were to white the better you were assumed to be. This is obviously not true and it is unfortunate that many years after the dismantling of colonialism yellow bone privilege is even a thing. There could be a more sinister element to the skin beaching as well, that some people want to purposefully erase what defines their ethnicity because they hate their own skin colour. As black people we need to free ourselves from this kind of iternalised oppression. We need to decolonise our minds.
Fixing internalised oppression is never easy but not impossible to accomplish. It takes time and effort from citizens to assimilate and change the way they think and act towards race. If writers, the media, and teachers continue to inform us about the effects of internalised oppression that we are confronting, then our society will be more educated about it, and they will know how to handle the situation better. It is in your hands to work with others as a community to eliminate internalised oppression so we can all be free to look, dress, act, and think in our own positive ways. All it takes is time to see a change in our community. But everything depends on you to take action and eliminate internalised oppression. I know it’s going to be tough, but I know that together we can make a change.