The American celebrity Blac Chyna came to Lagos, Nigeria, on Nov. 25 to promote a product she is launching: "X Blac Chyna Diamond Illuminating and Lightening Cream." It's from the cosmetics company Whitenicious, a skin care line that has been controversial since its launch in 2014.
The new cream comes in a crystal-adorned jar and sells for $250 for 100 grams — about 3.5 ounces. That's a far higher price than for other skin-lightening products found in small pharmacies and shops along streets. Promotional material for the cream, like the image shown above, creates an image of glamour to appeal to a high-end audience.
The company says the product "restores, illuminates, tightens, firms and moisturizes the face."
Blac Chyna is partnering with a Cameroonian singer, Dencia, who started Whitenicious. The name of the company itself has received criticism for seeming to equate whiteness with beauty. In an interview with Britain's Channel 4 in 2014, Dencia stated that the "white" in Whitenicious means "pure."
As for the high price for Blac Chyna's cream, Dencia defends it, calling the cream a luxury product.
The market for skin-lightening creams in Nigeria is big — according to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, 77 percent of Nigerian women use skin-lightening products. As in other parts of the world, the reason is often a perceived social bias against darker-skinned women.
There is the potential for side effects with some lighteners. They can contain mercury, steroids and high levels of hydroquinine, which can lead to problems like skin thinning, blisters and acne. Some countries, including Nigeria, have banned the use of such ingredients in cosmetic products. Whitenicious states that none of these ingredients are in its products.
Blac Chyna's visit wasn't just about promoting the cream. Coinciding with her visit, Whitenicious opened its first store in Lagos, with Dencia and Blac Chyna in attendance. Blac Chyna, who was born Angela Renée White in Washington, D.C., also visited an orphanage in Lagos and made a donation. But in news coverage and on social media, this was overshadowed by the launch of her face cream.
Amid the hoopla, conversations on skin bleaching and beauty standards sprang up in every corner.
The role of Blac Chyna in the product launch is a very deliberate choice, says Shingi Mtero, a lecturer at Rhodes University who teaches a course on the politics of skin bleaching.
"African-American culture really does have a big influence on black African culture," says Mtero.
Mtero also points out that there are misconceptions about why people in Africa bleach their skin. There's a difference between using products to, say, correct skin conditions such as acne scarring and uneven skin tone, and products that lighten skin by several shades.
"There's an assumption that people who bleach their skin are irrational," she says. But she does not believe that is the case: "Black women who bleach their skin believe that it will give them access and power. They think through their decision."
In post-colonial Africa, there is still a premium on light skin, says Mtero. "Whiteness is something that many Africans aspire to, and light skin still has social capital."
As long as light skin represents social capital and privilege, she says, she believes skin bleaching will remain popular — and profitable for celebrities like Dencia and Blac Chyna.
Mako Muzenda is a freelance journalist and blogger from Zimbabwe. She is now studying in South Africa at Rhodes University. Reach her @MGMuzenda