Food for thought

The colour of privilege: the effect of white privilege on the beauty industry 

South Africa welcomed 2016 in on a very racially tense note. People have lost their jobs due to racist remarks, companies are being sued for unfair dismissal. The notion of white privilege has been the hot topic of conversation and it’s a conversation that we all need to have.

What is white privilege?

Wikipedia : White privilege (or white skin privilege) is a term for societal privileges that benefit people identified as white in Western countries, beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white people under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. 

Frances E. Kendall: What is white privilege? Privilege, particularly white or male privilege, is hard to see for those of us who were born with access to power and resources. It is very visible for those to whom privilege was not granted. Furthermore, the subject is extremely difficult to talk about because many white people don’t feel powerful or as if they have privileges others do not. It is sort of like asking fish to notice water or birds to discuss air. For those who have privileges based on race or gender or class or physical ability or sexual orientation, or age, it just is- it’s normal. White privilege is an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions. One of the primary privileges is that of having greater access to power and resources than people of color do; in other words, purely on the basis of our skin color doors are open to us that are not open to other people.

In essence, white privilege is not something that white people necessarily do, create or enjoy on purpose. But it creates real advantages and generally makes life easier, for white people.

Hold up, you thought this was a beauty blog?…….Consider the following  ‘cosmetic’ advantages:

  • Plasters that match your skin tone
  • The complimentary shampoo at a hotel being suitable for the texture of your hair
  • Stockings labelled ‘nude’ actually appearing nude on your legs
  • Finding a foundation shade that matches your skin perfectly

In 2016 there is still no makeup brand that caters for ALL shades of dark skin.  Yes, there are many brands that cater for dark skins, but the countries that are producing makeup are producing makeup for the lighter range of dark skins….Halle Berry, Beyonce, Nicky Minaj, Rihanna, Kerry Washington.  Dark skin in America does not equal dark skin in Africa.


The majority of makeup is produced in the USA, Europe and Japan… countries with the lightest skin tones. Hello Africa?

Among the darkest skin tones in the world are the Dinka people of south Sudan. The most famous being Alex Wekart_Alek-Wek-585x378

If you find yourself thinking she’s not THAT dark, take into account that a highly skilled makeup artist had to combine a number of different products to match her skin tone. And what we see isn’t always what we get….gabourey-sidibe-photoshop-450-thumb-450x300-764251.jpg

Gabourey Sidibe Elle Magazine, Sept. 2010. She is of  Senegalese descent

(Read this article about whitewashing in the beauty industry: )

This is a real, no filter photo of a south Sudanese person.boswell_sudan_0902

Malik Agar, south Sudanese politician. Picture taken from Google

I repeat, dark skin in America does not equal dark skin in Africa.

South Africa is far away from pretty much anywhere. We don’t have access to most of the good makeup brands in the world, brands that have a wide variety of skin tones. The imported brands that are available here are quite expensive.

It’s not just the shade selections that are subject to white privilege.  The naming of products excludes a majority of African women who have not been exposed to the experiences that white people take for granted.  Nutmeg, mocha suede, caramel, carob, sandalwood, rich mahogany, these are the names of dark skin foundations…these are not household terms for most Africans; however, they are for white people. In order to avoid that pitfall, some cosmetic companies use a numbering system instead of names…. but not everyone in Africa is literate, those numbers mean nothing.

You could argue that cosmetic companies do not target women from very rural areas and that they assume their customers can read and have some degree of general knowledge. A very dark skinned woman, with discretionary income, who is educated, and uses makeup products on a regular basis, would also struggle to find a perfect match for her skin tone. Her main problem would be “I can’t find my colour”. The main problem a white girl would have is “I can’t find a lipstick to match my new top/shoes/handbag/hair colour”.

White privilege extends to knowledge gained from our mothers about makeup use. Many older African mothers have never even worn a lipstick, either because of a lack of funds or a lack of product knowledge. Playing in your mom’s handbag and smearing one of her many lipsticks all over your face is a fond childhood memory of most white girls. Learning how to apply makeup is not a rite of passage for everyone, which makes it especially intimidating to stand in front of a cosmetics counter and not be able to find a shade that suits your skin tone.

White privilege exists. We need to acknowledge it. Cosmetic companies need to acknowledge it. We want a makeup range that includes colour options for women of Nigeria, Congo, Sudan, Kenya, Senegal….all of Africa!

Skin-whitening products form a multi-billion dollar industry. They reinforce the idea that light skin is the beauty ideal, but these products either simply don’t work or contain dangerous ingredients that can lead to skin cancer. Why are we pushing to achieve lighter skin when we should be pushing for products that enhance and bring out the best of each and every skin tone? If every woman was able to feel beautiful in her own skin, we would break away from the ridiculous notion that black is not beautiful. We need to celebrate all skin tones and all women.

White privilege in the cosmetic industry is just a tiny aspect of it, of course there are other areas where white privilege has a much more profound impact. Makeup won’t end wars or find cures for diseases. What makeup can do, is empower women. And an empowered woman can take over the world!



3 thoughts on “The colour of privilege: the effect of white privilege on the beauty industry 

  1. I generally don’t even wear foundation because the fear of the make-up not being right for my complexion is enough to terrify me away. I saw many women of my mom’s generation for whom the ‘Casper’ look was the norm. Back then it didn’t occur to me it was because they weren’t privileged enough to have make-up for their skin tone.

  2. Hi there, thank you for your very insightful article, one that as a white person has opened my eyes to difficulties black women face in terms of finding the right makeup and products for their skin. Things like nude tights, shampoo in hotel rooms and plasters for your skin tone are something I never considered and I took for granted as a white person. The lightening of black women’s skin in the media is also problematic and I wish we lived in a world where everyone was comfortable in their own skin and the beauty industry catered to everyone’s makeup needs.
    However, I ask that you don’t generalise about every white woman’s experience: I for one never had anything called carob or sandalwood in my house growing up (I don’t even know what that is).
    Same with this line: ‘The main problem a white girl would have is “I can’t find a lipstick to match my new top/shoes/handbag/hair colour”.’ That is also a generalisation and it would help to rather say “The main problem some [or many] white girls would have is…”
    Personally, I struggled for a long time to find makeup that didn’t make my skin feel oily or look shiny; that is a difficulty I face when buying makeup even though I am white. Also, we don’t necessarily go into a store and find a perfect match straight away; it’s not that straight forward. I am always an “in between” shade.
    Seasonal changes also affect what shade we can buy, such as if we are more tanned in summer versus being paler in winter. So buying makeup isn’t as easy a process for all white people as you may think. It might be easy for some, or the majority, I have no idea; I am just speaking from my own personal experience.
    I know my problems are minuscule in comparison to the problems millions of black women face everyday when buying makeup, or even trying to find makeup that suits them. I can only imagine how frustrating it is to not find a foundation dark enough, or to have to buy more than one shade to mix the right one, or to not have any options at all.
    I am also not for one moment undermining any black women’s experience of buying makeup, or saying the potential problems a white woman might face makeup-wise equal the problems black women face on a daily basis. All I am asking is to perhaps, in future, not generalise about white women’s experiences, because everyone is different.
    Thank you again for the article, and I mean my feedback in the nicest and best possible way.

    1. Hi Lauren,
      The generalisation was used to emphasise the problem. Different women experience different difficulties when buying makeup, however, the problem of foundation matching is more common among black women than white women. If a typical foundation range consists of 16 shades, 12 of those will be for light skin and only 4 for dark skin – the probability of a white woman finding a suitable ‘in between’ shade is much higher. There are so many foundation ranges that cater to white women that a perfect match definitely is possible (even if that means mixing two shades), a lot of black women simply do not wear foundation because their shade does not exist and no two shades available create the perfect colour. White women simply have more options.
      I am also white, and I have been a professional makeup artist for over 8 years. I have worked with countless women, black and white. While I cannot speak for each and every woman in the world, the observations in my article hold true for the many women I have encountered.
      Thank you for the constructive criticism, it’s great to receive feedback!

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