ACCRA, Ghana — Semiratu Zakaru was standing in the hot sun on a crowded noontime street explaining why Ghana’s new ban against certain skin-bleaching creams was unlikely to work, when her friend, Desmond Kwamina Odonkor, walked up and interrupted our conversation, oozing confidence and game.
“You have to stop bleaching,” he said, sotto voce. Then he winked at her and sauntered off.
Ms. Zakaru, a 23-year-old hairdresser, rolled her eyes. His advice, in her view, was rubbish for the simple reason that “all of his girlfriends are light-skinned.” She said she wasn’t about to stop using the Viva White cream and Clinic Clear lotion that had, over the last year and a half, made her skin several shades lighter than her original chocolate-milk complexion.
Here in the heart of the multibillion-dollar industry of products in West Africa that are meant to whiten skin, it is a world of mixed messages. Women are now being told that it is wrong, and even illegal, to bleach their skin. At the same time, they are flooded with messages — and not even subliminal ones — that tell them that white is beautiful.
On Aug. 1, Ghana’s Food and Drug Authority began a ban on certain skin-whitening products that include hydroquinone, a topical ingredient that disrupts the synthesis and production of the melanin that can protect skin in the intense West African sunshine.
With some estimates putting the number of women in West Africa using lightening cream at 70 percent in some places, officials say they are worried there could be a sharp uptick in skin cancer because these products attack the skin’s natural protective melanin.
But the ban in Ghana hasn’t extended to removing the countless billboard advertisements on how to get “perfect white” skin. Nor have the creams and lotions disappeared from stores.
In the Makola Market here, endless shops and stalls had walls filled with potions dedicated to the lightening of skin. There is Ultra Fair Super Whitenizer by Caring Chemistry promising “restorative ultrafast action whitening” and Grace White 100% Double Action Whitening Body Lotion by Grace White Cosmetique that even features helpful before-and-after photos; the “before” photo is a light-brown pair of legs, crossed, while the “after” shot shows white legs.
Nor, for that matter, have men here suddenly abandoned their decades-long pursuit of light-skinned women. Most of them won’t say so. But it’s long been the case here that the higher in society the man, the more likely his wife or girlfriend will have light skin. Do a Google-image search of “wives of African presidents” (“professional football players” and “wealthy businessmen” can also be substituted).
In Accra, one of the authority representatives sent to speak to reporters about the ban sparked hilarity among cameramen over what they said was her own artificially lightened skin.
Not long after, the Ghanaian government’s chief officer in charge of putting the ban in place, during an interview at his office, expressed relief that his 3-year-old daughter’s skin is not as dark as his own. “Luckily,” said Emmanuel Nkrumah, “she’s lighter than me.”
In expressing a father’s natural wish that his child will not face the racism that he has faced, Mr. Nkrumah, in one word, captured the inherent conflict in what Ghanaian officials are trying to do. They are banning the products that give women lighter skin (although no one believes the ban will work) without banning the social messaging that tells women they should have lighter skin.
Walking out of Mr. Nkrumah’s office after our interview, my two colleagues and I kept tripping over his use of the word “luckily.”
“I can’t believe he said ‘luckily,’” I said to Eugenia Tenkorang, a Ghanaian who came along with me to the interview.
But I knew what he meant.
“Luckily” because his daughter was less likely to be told that she was too dark- skinned to be beautiful. “Luckily” because his daughter wouldn’t see billboards in Accra and wonder why no one up there looked like her. Mr. Nkrumah’s “luckily” was an acknowledgment of a fact of life without the filter of the politically correct.
That fact had been made clear to Eugenia and me as we reported this situation.
Along with photographer Jane Hahn, we called ourselves the “bleach squad” as our interviewees kept turning the table on us and making our own skin tones part of the story. Jane, an American of Korean descent, lives full time in Senegal, so she is far more tanned than Korean women in Seoul, many of whom use bleach themselves. But in West Africa, Jane is viewed as white.
For my part, I am a native of Liberia, but a descendant of the freed American slaves who colonized the country in 1822 and who had mated at one point or another with American whites, so I’m more of a coffee with milk, considered light-skinned by West African standards. Eugenia, from Larteh in Ghana’s eastern region, has a deep chocolate bark complexion. She is a head-turner.
And yet the three of us were told repeatedly that Jane and I had the preferred skin tones. “We wear it to look nice like you,” Beatrice Lampty, a market woman in the Jamestown neighborhood, had told me and Jane hours before.
“When I had a fair lady here as my secretary, people were trooping into my office all the time,” said Dr. Edmund Nminyem Delle, a dermatologist who for three decades has campaigned against skin bleaching, in acknowledging that women are pressured to bleach. “She was a half-caste lady. I wanted to marry her.” He ended up marrying a different light-skinned woman, and says that his sons, one dark and one light, both prefer light-skinned women.
“Please excuse what I’m about to say,” Mr. Nkrumah, the authority official, had apologized to Eugenia during our interview, before gesturing toward me and Jane. “But if you find 10 men, you will find only two who will say you are more attractive than these two ladies.”
Eugenia, who doesn’t bleach, exhibits a supreme sense of self-confidence. “I see them,” she said, referring to all the ads and messaging. “Do they bother me? No. I’ve grown to appreciate me.”
But many women don’t have Eugenia’s innate sense of self-worth.
“My younger sisters were light-skinned and I was dark,” said Comfort Arthur, 31, an animated filmmaker. “The whole while we were growing up, people always said how beautiful they were.” When her mother gave her a black Barbie doll, she remembers crying that “I want the white one.”
As a child, the constant comparisons to her sisters became singed into her psyche and stayed; at 23, she started bleaching her skin and turned several shades lighter until a close friend sat her down and gave her a lecture. Ms. Arthur’s looks had completely transformed; in addition to the lighter skin, she had a shoulder-length hair weave. “What have you done to yourself?” her friend asked her.
Ms. Arthur eventually stopped bleaching and got rid of the weave. “I realized I had low self-esteem,” she said. Which was crazy; in addition to being naturally beautiful, Ms. Arthur had two master’s degrees.
It took her skin a year to return to its natural chocolate hue, and Ms. Arthur has been working since then on coming to terms with her view of herself. She wrote an animated film, “Black Barbie,” that touches on her childhood experience.
Her mother, Agnes Arthur, 55, said she is proud of how far her daughter has come. But Mrs. Arthur, who is lighter-skinned than Comfort, acknowledged that she, too, used to bleach. “I stopped,” she said, “when a friend told me, ‘Why are you being stupid? You are light enough already.’”
To be sure, people bleach their skin all over the world. They do it in America. Earlier this year, the American rap star Lil’ Kim sparked a huge social media furor when she posted photos of herself on Instagram that are virtually unrecognizable compared with photos of her in the 1990s. And the skin tone of the retired baseball star Sammy Sosa lightened considerably once he started using a lightening cream.
In the United States, the election of Donald J. Trump, who largely won on the strength of the white vote, has deeply unsettled many African-Americans, raising in the black community dormant questions about how great a role in daily life skin color still plays.
The Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, in a New Yorker essay called “Mourning for Whiteness” that was written after Mr. Trump’s election, explored long-running assumptions that even Americans believe that white is better. As an example, Ms. Morrison wrote of simple day-to-day assumptions that accompany whiteness, including the “confidence that you will not be watched in a department store.”
And people bleach in Asia — lightening creams and lotions are as ubiquitous in drugstores in Seoul as eye shadow. They do it in Europe, despite the restrictions there on sales of hydroquinone. You can walk into any number of black beauty salons in London and find bleaching creams and lotions.
But Africa? If you can’t be dark-skinned in Africa, then where can you?
The “why” goes back centuries, and says much about the searing effects of colonization that lingers today. When the Europeans colonized Africa, they brought with them centuries of belief that they were racially superior, and established a class structure that exists today, 50 years after African countries regained their independence.
In many West African countries, at the top of that class structure, sit white expats, whether they are European diplomats in affluent neighborhoods, the United States Embassy staff members in their walled compounds or Lebanese merchants in electronic shops.
Next in the hierarchy are the mixed-race people. The European colonists who came to Africa mated with Africans and produced mixed-race offspring, who were then deemed to be of a superior class to the full-blooded Africans. South Africa’s apartheid system went so far as to legally enshrine mixed-race people, called “coloureds.”
“Anyone in this country could see that the mulattos were given precedence everywhere,” Dr. Delle said. “They were more educated, they were viewed as superior.” In many African countries, the word “mulatto” does not have the negative connotation that it has in the United States.
The view that the lighter your skin, the “better” you are did not leave the continent with the Europeans, and eventually, science caught up, as skin-lightening products became available throughout the continent.
And it is not just women who lunged for bleach creams. Braimah Kamoko, the heavyweight boxer from Accra better known as Bukom Banku, caused a huge stir this year when he confirmed to reporters what everyone could already see: that he was obviously bleaching his naturally chocolate skin. Mr. Kamoko, in a few months, went from dark brown to a yellowish tan, courtesy, he said, of lightening cream.
“I am bleaching my skin because when John Mahama wins 2016 elections, he will make me Ghana ambassador to Germany,” Mr. Kamoko told Radio Gold, referring to the Ghanaian president. Having lighter skin, he said, would enable “German people to know that German people and Bukom Banku are one.”
Mr. Kamoko got a lot of public ridicule for his disclosure, and by the time Eugenia, Jane and I tracked him down near his house in the Jamestown neighborhood, he had apparently stopped bleaching, as his complexion was dark again. He wasn’t in the mood to talk. He gave us the slip, but not before saying that in his opinion, Ghana’s ban was not going to stop people from bleaching.
It’s certainly difficult to see how the government is going to enforce the ban without addressing the advertising. Accra — Lome, Monrovia and Lagos as well — are teeming with ads that depict beauty as light-skinned. It’s not just the bleach cream ads, and there are plenty of those — including one on Liberation Road, less than a kilometer from the Accra airport as you make your way into the city, that says “Perfect White,” under a photo of a smiling, light-skinned model with a ponytail. “Your dreams can come true,” the billboard promises.
But regular advertisements for computers, for clothing, for banking services all show light-skinned women playing and frolicking and cooking and being otherwise “fresh” (another code word for lighter-skinned). Two side-by-side billboards on Oxford Street for a casino show African men surrounded by and having fun with white and light-skinned women.
In fact, if you go by the billboards in Accra, you would be hard-pressed to believe that Ghana has any dark-skinned people.
“It breaks my heart,” said Ama K. Abebrese, an actress. “There’s not a day I don’t drive into town and see a billboard that tells me I need perfect white skin. We are here in an African country, and it’s like someone just hit you in your gut.”
Mr. Nkrumah acknowledged that the ban is a micro step, and that adjustments will need to be made in education and social marketing to change the way society views black skin. But as a food and drug official, his job, he says, is to try to protect people from the harmful affects of skin bleach in the hot sun. “When you bleach, it takes off the outer layers of your skin,” he said. “And this part of the world, the sun is always on. So there’s more skin cancer.”
He said there is a grace period until the end of the year, during which time there will be no prosecution of companies and merchants selling bleach creams with hydroquinone. After that, he said, enforcement authorities and even police officers will be going after sale of the creams.
Over in Jamestown, Lydia Neequaye, 46, a biscuit seller who started bleaching her skin when she was 21, said that she is happy the government is banning the creams. “What has it done for me?” she said. Her face is discolored, with dark spots in some places and light spots in others.
A few years ago, she stopped bleaching when she saw how discolored her skin was getting. Eventually, some parts of her skin returned to its original color.
But many light spots still remain.