Mzungu and Colorism in Africa

by Miho Tanaka

Reading “Skin Lighteners in South Africa: Transnational Entanglements and Technologies of the Self (2009)” by Lynn M. Thomas, I was reminded of and reflected on my experiences in Africa. It was inconsiderable that South African care so much about their skin color even though skin lighteners sometimes bring problems to their skin.

However it is true that the people I met in Kenya put value on light skin and they connect it with high social status very much. The other internship students from Europe, the United States, and Asia and I were called Mzungu by Kenyans. I saw Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans, Americans, Brazilians, Swedes and Germans all called Mzungu. Mzungu is the Swahili word that describes rich and White people from African people’s perspectives. More specifically, not only Caucasians but also people from developed countries with light skin of color are Mzungu. It seems that many Swahili-speaking countries use the term Mzungu, as some websites and blogs show on the internet (Hoff n.d.; Duara 2008). Both Hoff and Duara write that Mzungu is used in central and Southern Africa. When I visited Rwanda this summer Rwandan also called us Wazungu, the plural way to call Mzungu.

Interesting are those African people who are eager to have networks or connections with Mzungu people. For instance, while I and the other internship students were in a community in Kenya and belonged to a Community Based Organization, some Kenyans suddenly joined the organization and many HIV-positive people started to attend our meetings as well. However according to local members in Kenya, they began to be absent from meetings after all of the Wazungu left. However, some of them have tried to maintain their connections with Wazungu. Most importantly, they strongly connect idea of economic and social status mobility with being Mzungu. If they could have been married with a Mzungu woman or man, they would not have to be in trouble of impoverished in Africa anymore. They would be able to get out of their homeland and have a better life.

Considering the case of South Africa, the tendency that they would like to have lighter skin color must be much higher than the other countries since they were harshly segregated by skin color during the period of apartheid. Even though they might have skin troubles from using skin lighteners, upward mobility would be more important for them since it would determine their entire life and success. Therefore, they care more about their skin tone rather than their health. However the status in South Africa must be changed since the abolition of apartheid. Nowadays there are poor Whites going begging in South Africa, and it also might be a factor that changes preference of white or light skin. I suppose the tension between Mzungu and Black Africans, which connects social upward mobility with light skin color, would not change because Black Africans regard Mzungu as coming from totally different background and statuses. However, it might create new black movement as their economic status changes with economic growth.


Duara, D. (July, 19th 2008). The Mzungu term : get it right! Retrieved on November, 22nd 2013 from

Hoff, W. (n.d.). Mzungu Design. Retrieved on November 22nd 2013 from

Thomas, M. L. (2009). Skin lighteners in South Africa: transnational entanglement and technologies of the self. In Glenn, N. E. (Ed.), Shades of difference: why skin color matters. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Skin Color and Beauty: Historical Bias and Social Change

by Cindy Seo

For a long time there have been dolls with white skin but there were no dolls with black skin. The princesses in a fairy tale or Disney animation always have had white skin color or blue eyes. How did white skin and blue eyes come to be the factors that decide the beauty of human beings? Everyone knows that the beauty standard changes by the transition of cultural value, but how come it became so hard to jump over the wall of beauty standard for white people?

Every standard is determined by that era’s powerful nation or advanced country. The standard of beauty is not an exception, so I have to explain how the white people became to gain supremacy. Considering that Africa or Asia were all cradles of civilization in the past, we can imagine that they had rich soil, abundant resources, and calm weather unlike today. In contrast, the European countries were disadvantaged in these things, so they felt the ‘necessity’ to pioneer and find new country. This ‘necessity’ became the driving force so helped them to accumulate experience and capital, leading the Europe to the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution triggered the developed use of steel, and this eventually increased the productivity of food. This caused dense population and system maintenance, and led to superiority of power. The white people who became superior by this set of process became to assert the racial ideology which justifies their superiority and domination. This wrong ideology which made through long term colonized era is now still dominating the black people, even though they are virtually liberated.

The culture hegemony which uses media as its method is now even fixing the beauty standard of whole world. Since the characteristics of white people which emerge in movies or advertisements are directly connected to the beauty standard of white people, the non-white people who consistently keep in touch with mass media come to internalize that as their beauty standard. Then the non-white people who lost their own standard of beauty should always feel sense of inferiority and take discrimination for granted?

In the book World hunger explained to my son, Jean Ziegler says that hope exists in public awareness that slowly changes. Therefore, the long-term fixed beauty standard is hard to change but is not an unchangeable thing. As the ‘Black is beautiful’ movement once spread in the United States and endeavored to remove the wrong ideology of thinking the black people’s feature as essentially ugly, people who are living in current days should also self-examine from cramming themselves into biased beauty standard which is made by white people.

In order to change deeply fixed and rooted standard, influential stimulation is needed. The Miss Bronze competition was one of the endeavors and stimulations to change people’s perception on widespread beauty concept. In this case, the Civil Rights Movement was the driving force of the stimulation. As the black people’s right became an issue due to the Civil Rights Movement, people increased their thought to the discrimination that black people receive, and eventually became to challenge on beauty consciousness which has been the most discriminated part. Through this endeavor, people’s beauty consciousness on black people, which seemed immutable, wriggled, and positive outcomes began to appear.

As an example of these positive results and transitions, there are Barbie dolls and Disney animation. The Barbie doll has been controversial due to the problem of racial discrimination. The first black Barbie was made in 1967, but this was criticized since it excluded the black people’s indigenous characteristics. The early black Barbie was just colored in black, maintaining the features of white people. Until 1980s, the Barbie doll company adhered to its method of production regardless of the criticism of being called as white supremacy. However starting from 2009, the company finally began to produce black Barbie which realistically describes black people’s features. In addition, in the Disney animation ‘The Princess and the Frog (2009)’, people could see the first black princess coming on. Also in 2008, the United States chose a black man as their president. These series of events show how the world became more generous toward black people. This, in a manner of speaking, shows the miracle of hope that has been built through gradual change in public awareness.

What has decided the superiority and inferiority of civilization in the first place was geography. White people could be the white people of today since there was ‘necessity’ which came from poor geographic condition. If they did not have to worry about climate and foods, did they have to go out into the world enduring danger? It is hard to say so. Maybe non-white peoples’ features would have been the beauty standard if they had been able to grab hegemony. Therefore, there is no superiority and inferiority from the first time. It was just the results of historical coincidence and inevitability.

In the context of beauty concept as well, it is not important to think which color is superior and inferior. It is useless and meaningless since these things do not exist from the first time. The beauty standard should be rather established above the acceptance of the phenotypical differences among people. What makes this possible is an endless endeavor of awakening unbiased consciousness on race and beauty.

From racism to colorism

Anonymous student post

In today’s society, anti-racist movements have been gaining support, to the extent that in most Western countries racism is punishable by law. Discriminating by race is starting to be acknowledged as a social taboo and discriminative actions such as declining  applicants a job opportunity due to race will not only bring negative image but can even lead to jail time. With such improvements in racial equality, one might expect that we are going towards a world without discrimination. Even though this would be truly wonderful if it were to be true, there still is room for improvement—as even in the most non-racist countries racism is still happening beneath the surface—not to mention the social phenomena (or, in other words, social problems) that are replacing racism.

One of the most widespread occurrences is racism changing to “colorism”. Colorism, is a term originally coined by Alice Walker in her 1983 book “In search of our mothers’ gardens” as she used the term to describe discrimination by color excluding factors such as bloodlines or ancestry. Even though racism also includes skin color, in colorism skin color is the sole factor behind discrimination. Especially present in Latin America, Africa, East and Southeast Asia and India however recent trend among various scholars are studies about how colorism has started to replace racism in most parts of the globe.

One could argue that change to colorism has brought several positive effects. Before it might have been impossible to break out of your “racial class”, for example if you were born to a black parent but had very light skin, you would have been deemed black nevertheless and thus discriminated against because of the bloodline. Even if you would not look that different from people around you, the race alone was enough to justify discrimination. Therefore the withdrawal of racism and change to colorism arguably brought some positive effects, as your birth would no longer decide your position in the social hierarchy.

However, when it comes down to comparing racism and colorism, rather than colorism being the cure, it is more like a “pick your poison” kind of a situation. In the 2009 book Shades of Difference, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and David R. Dietrich depict that colorism causes there to be competition even within the race while there still is competition between different races. For example, in the past blacks have been discriminated against because of their “race”, but now they are being discriminated because of the color of their skin. Not only that, but they also are discriminated among what used to be their “race”, depending on whether their skin color is lighter or darker, not to mention that colorism might take out the vocabulary to describe discrimination (Bonilla-Silva and Dietrich 2009).

So, is colorism the right direction? With colorism replacing racism and racism becoming a widespread social taboo, are we heading towards a less discriminating world? We can see that there is movement towards removing discrimination, as colorism is proof of that; however it is disturbing to see that discrimination still has its place strongly rooted in our everyday lives. It is hard to say if colorism is a proof of improvement, or if it’s just a way to sweep the problem under the mattress. Time will tell, is what I’d like to say, but then again just waiting patiently to see whether the situation gets better or not is a bad excuse not to take action.


Walker, Alice. (1983). In search of our mothers’ gardens: womanist prose. San Diego: Harcourt Brave Jovanovich

Glenn, Evelyn Nakano (Ed.). (2009). Shades of difference: why skin color matters. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Racism Does Not Exist?

by Hyeon Woo Lee

Discrimination between different ethnic groups is commonly reported throughout the world. Not to mention the racism against Afro-Americans in US, but also discriminations against Hafu people in Japan, unfair treatment against southeastern brides who came to Korea for marriage, etc. With no doubt such phenomena are spread widely over the world. Professor Terry Kawashima states that race works through several visual readings, or interpretations of the physical differences of a person. However I would like to raise a question of whether racism really exists. Is what we call racism really an act of discriminating other groups of people because of their physical looks? Or is there something else, some other factors that affects us but are hidden beneath the word racism?

In 1994, there was a systematic massacre of minority ethnic groups by major ethnic groups. The Hutu, a majority ethnic group in Rwanda, attacked the Tutsi, a minority group. Triggered by death of the president, Hutus started killing every Tutsi in sight. As a result, at least 500,000 people were killed. The point here is that in external physical appearance, the Hutu and the Tutsi had no difference at all. They all looked like the same black people. However Hutu accused them of being “different”. This may mean different genetics, but it doesn’t make sense since it is widely known that two members of the same ethnic group can be just as different genetically as two people from different ethnic groups. Then in this case, it is safe to say that physical racism was just an official reason, and the true reason mostly lied in the economic structure of Rwanda. The Tutsi monopolized most of Rwanda’s economy while Hutu had very little in it and was unhappy with the fact.

The history of mankind has been a continuation of conflicts, like constant war. Whether it is large or small, there was always war among different groups. The cause varies; it could be a fight for ideology, conflict over economic benefits, or even basic survival itself. However when people mention the difference in ethnicity as a cause of war, I seriously doubt it. It is not the difference that causes conflicts between ethnic groups, but it is rather the way we interpret it. All those conflicts claiming that were triggered by different ethnicities, like the case in Rwanda, actually has other reasons hidden behind the mask of racism. So come to think about it, maybe there isn’t any “true racism”, in which one is hostile to the other for the sole reason of being different, in the world. I believe that there is always something else.