Skin Lightening: Situated Geographies of Colourism

During the autumn of 2019, bringing researchers from the humanities and social sciences together with medical and pharmaceutical sciences, skin lightening emerged as an interdisciplinary thematic research focus within the Health, Politics, and Culture in Africa project. Cosmetic depigmentation as the method of skin lightening, which directly changes the body, is a global practice that is intrinsically linked to colourism – hierarchies and discrimination based on skin tone. Acknowledging that skin lightening practices are grown out of colonial power hierarchies, structures and processes, the aim with this research focus is to move beyond generalized discourses and instead position the practices of skin-lightening within localized experiences of the world.

The collaborations and years of discussion and debate around colourism, racism, and global health have developed into a research network led by Clementina Amankwaah, Oulia Makkonen, Véronique Simon and Ulrika Trovalla. In addition, a regular international seminar series was launched, gathering scholars and activists from different horisons.

The team is and has been focusing on:

  1. The continuous networking with researchers and activists in medical and pharmaceutical sciences as well as in social sciences and in the humanities.
  2. The seminar series on Skin-lightening.
  3. The organisation of a Round-table on Skin-lightening: Navigating Situated Geographies of Colourism at the West Africa Conference in June 2021.
  4. The writing and editing of a collaborative volume to be published in Uppsala Papers in Africa Studies.
  5. The planning for an event in collaboration with the Lilian Thuram Foundation.

In June 2023, Ulrika Trovalla and Oulia Makkonen successfully obtained a research grant from Stiftelsen InDevelops ulandsfond. The project includes exploratory fieldwork with dermatologists (one of the categories of health care workers that most often come in contact with skin lightening within the health care system) in Zambia in Southern Africa and Togo in West Africa, as to initiate a comparative investigation into the various driving forces and motivations of skin lightening.