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Patriarchy, Sexual Abuse and Impunity: As the Catholic Church Confronts Its Crisis, Will the UN Follow Suit?

10 min read.

So ingrained is the Old Boys’ network within the UN that persecuting whistleblowers is part of a culture of male privilege. Will Sec-Gen Guterres turn the tide?



Patriarchy, Sexual Abuse and Impunity: As the Catholic Church Confronts Its Crisis, Will the UN Follow Suit?
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In an unprecedented move, the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Pope Francis, has decided to finally address an issue that has plagued the church for decades: that of sexual abuse of women and children by priests, a scourge that has left many victims around the world broken. The bold step by Pope Francis to confront this uncomfortable issue – even at the risk of tainting the Catholic Church’s reputation – is one that even the aid industry, particularly the United Nations, has been reluctant to tackle head on, despite growing pressure from the #MeToo movement. Many observers, including yours truly, believe that recent efforts by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to address sexual harassment and abuse by UN employees could be merely cosmetic; they will not change anything because the UN has a strongly embedded culture of impunity. As one former UN staff member wrote in the New York Daily News, the UN has “an anti-MeToo culture” and is “an old boys’ club”.

Nine months ago, I wrote an article on why I believed that the #MeToo movement would have little or no impact on the United Nations’ male-dominated, highly hierarchical and secretive work environment. I was convinced that because the UN is generally unreceptive to criticism, it was highly unlikely that victims of sexual harassment or assault would come forward or be listened to. I showed, through various examples that UN employees accused of sexual harassment or assault are rarely reprimanded or punished. In fact, some of those implicated have been conveniently transferred or allowed to resign or retire quietly with full benefits – a practice that the Catholic Church perfected when confronted with sexual abuse cases.

However, internal surveys and pressure from women’s rights advocates may have finally forced the UN to take a good hard look at itself, and could bring about some changes in how the world body is governed and managed. An internal UN survey, conducted by Deloitte, whose results were released in January this year, found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed. The survey noted that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44. Two out of every three harassers were male and only one out of every three employees who were harassed took any action against the perpetrator. About one in ten women reported being touched inappropriately; a similar number said they had witnessed crude sexual gestures.

Internal surveys and pressure from women’s rights advocates may have finally forced the UN to take a good hard look at itself, and could bring about some changes in how the world body is governed and managed.

Abuse of authority and defective leadership

However, the UN Staff Union says that sexual harassment is only one among many abuses of authority that take place at the UN. Results from its own survey show that sexual harassment makes up only about 16 per cent of all forms of harassment. Forty-four percent of those surveyed said that they had experienced abuse of authority; of these, 87 per cent said that the person who had abused his or her authority was a supervisor. 20 per cent felt that they had experienced retaliation after reporting misconduct: “The results confirm that this has a debilitating effect on staff morale and work performance, and that there are continued barriers to reporting, including fear of retaliation and a perception that the perpetrators, for the most part, enjoy impunity,” admitted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a letter to UN staff.

An internal UN survey…found that a third of UN staff members surveyed had been sexually harassed. The survey noted that the most vulnerable targets were women and transgender personnel aged between 25 and 44.

Findings from the two surveys come at a time when women’s rights activists, including the International Center for Research on Women, the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and Gender at Work, have been advocating for a more “Feminist United Nations” that fosters gender equality and parity, especially at the highest levels. The upper echelons of the UN are still predominantly male and no woman to date has served as the Secretary-General. The activists would also like to see the UN to take sexual harassment cases more seriously.

In response to this campaign and the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement, Guterres has taken some actions, including installing a sexual harassment hotline and establishing a Task Force on Sexual Harassment.

However, he has not taken any action against senior officials accused of sexual harassment or against those who protect the perpetrators. For instance, no action has been taken against the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, who has been accused of failing “to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” at UNAIDS. An independent panel also found that Sidibe’s “defective leadership” had fostered a dysfunctional work environment at the organisation where employees believed they could get away with anything. Meanwhile, Sidibe has not been fired by the UN Secretary-General though he has said that he will step down in June this year, a decision he made voluntarily without any pressure from the UN Secretary-General and without any sanctions.

In response to this campaign and the momentum generated by the #MeToo movement, Guterres has taken some actions, including installing a sexual harassment hotline and establishing a Task Force on Sexual Harassment.

Systematic racial discrimination

A recent spate of revelations by whistleblowers at the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows how ineffective leadership allows abuse to continue. Three emails addressed to WHO directors, which were leaked to the Associated Press, complained of rampant racism at the organisation and theft of funds intended for Ebola victims. At WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, stated one email, African staff members suffer “systematic racial discrimination”.

However, Guterres has not taken any action against senior officials accused of sexual harassment or against those who protect the perpetrators. For instance, no action has been taken against the UNAIDS Executive Director, Michel Sidibe, who has been accused of failing “to prevent or properly respond to allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, bullying and abuse of power” at UNAIDS.

The emails also spoke of widespread corruption and mismanagement of funds. One whistleblower claimed that logistics and procurement officers at WHO are known to be corrupt and that during one Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo last year, a plane was hired to transport three vehicles from a warehouse in Dubai at the highly inflated cost of one million dollars.

Last year, Al Jazeera featured a documentary that showed how Big Pharma is also influencing the way WHO’s senior management makes decisions about global public health crises. The documentary suggested that the 2009 swine flu pandemic might have been fabricated to benefit pharmaceutical companies manufacturing the swine flu vaccine. One former delegate to the European Council stated: “The WHO officials have no idea about such things [pandemics]. They depend on scientists. And the scientists are allocated to them by the countries and by the organisations that finance the WHO. And many of them gave advice and made decisions that benefited the pharmaceutical industry.”

One whistleblower who has for years been seeking compensation from WHO for a work-related injury told me that her ordeal was so harrowing that it had left her emotionally depleted and had ruined her financially…

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s Director General, has promised an internal investigation into the recent racial discrimination and corruption allegations. While this is a good sign, we must also remember that the UN is essentially a political organisation and that influential member states and its biggest donors often have a greater say in how the organisation is run – and who gets punished – than those who have less influence and clout. There is also a general tendency to cover up a wrongdoing than to address it, and to punish those who expose the crimes committed.

Shooting the messenger

Guterres’ stated commitment to improve gender parity and to look more seriously into sexual harassment cases could just be a whitewashing exercise to calm down critics until the dust settles. This is what has happened in the past. For instance, not one company or individual has to this day been charged with diverting money or receiving kickbacks from the scandalous UN Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq, which resulted in the loss of billions of dollars that were supposed to help the Iraqi people. By the time the Kofi Annan-initiated Volcker Commission came out with its findings on the programme and revealed names of those involved in the theft, Saddam Hussein had been deposed by American and British coalition forces, and the programme had been closed.

Similarly, UN peacekeepers accused of raping or sexually exploiting displaced or refugee women and children in strife-torn countries suffer few consequences; recent such cases have not resulted in any convictions though there are now efforts to bar countries whose peacekeepers have been implicated in sexual abuse from serving in peacekeeping missions.

On the other hand, the majority of UN whistleblowers who have reported misconduct, including corruption, abuse of authority and sexual harassment and assault, have been fired, demoted or reprimanded. Few of their allegations are investigated, and even if they are, the findings are rarely made public. In 2014, for instance, Anders Kompass, the director of field operations at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was suspended and even “investigated” after he revealed to French authorities cases of sexual abuse of displaced boys by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. Kompass eventually resigned from the organisation. He told a journalist that his ordeal had left him “disappointed and full of sadness”.

Those who have sought justice from the UN’s internal justice systems have hit a wall, which suggests that these systems were designed to protect the perpetrators and the UN’s reputation rather than to safeguard whistleblowers and to bring about remedial action.

The majority of UN whistleblowers who have reported misconduct, including corruption, abuse of authority and sexual harassment and assault, have been fired, demoted or reprimanded.

In my own research, I found that the emotional toll of whistleblowing in the UN is so huge that most whistleblowers never fully recover from their traumatic experience. The decision not to report wrongdoing is thus often based on self-preservation.

The irony is that most UN whistleblowers don’t even realise that they are blowing the whistle; most believe they are simply doing their job by reporting wrongdoing. It is only when the retaliation against them begins that they realise that they have stepped on some very big toes.

Those who are fired from the organisation or whose contracts are not renewed find themselves shut out of the closely-knit international development community, which blocks their future career development. Vindictive senior managers are known to blacklist whistleblowers and ruin their reputations, which results in the latter not being considered for jobs in similar organisations. One whistleblower who has for years been seeking compensation from WHO for a work-related injury told me that her ordeal was so harrowing that it had left her emotionally depleted and had ruined financially – this from an organisation that is committed to promoting global health!

Toxic work environment

Many people have asked me how an organisation that is so multicultural and which is devoted to the advancement of human rights can allow sexism and racism to thrive within its own corridors. I tell them that an organisation is only as good as its people; if you hire racists and sexists, you will end up in a racist and sexist work environment, regardless of the noble aspirations of the organisation.

And if the organisation does not have in place policies and practices that deter abuse and discrimination – and especially if these policies and practices are not followed diligently – then that organisation will simply reflect the negative values of the wider society (possibly at its worst because there are few or no penalties for those who demonstrate racist or sexist behaviour). This creates a highly toxic and unhealthy work environment, especially for women.

As someone who has worked for the UN for more than a decade, I can tell you that the people who work there are not superhuman, nor are they particularly interested in the progress and protection of human beings. Some, especially at the top echelons, are political appointments who come with the baggage and privileges that they inherited from their own particular social, political or cultural backgrounds. They are simply reflections of their societies. And because they are political appointees, they feel no need to follow the dictates of the UN or its global mandate. (This explains why representatives from countries with some of the most dictatorial and repressive regimes end up being voted into the UN Human Rights Council.) There is no test that UN staffers have to pass to show their humanitarian or development credentials. Most are simply careerists who seek a comfortable job abroad with generous tax-free perks. So what you are left with are cynical and paranoid bureaucrats whose only mission is their own career development.

In my own career at the UN, I have seen how senior male professionals will have no qualms about ganging up against a female colleague to intimidate her or to force her out of the organisation. They will even go to the extent of assassinating her character to support a member of their “boys club”. The unwritten rule (which I found out about rather late) is that senior male managers will stick together and defend each other. In a highly publicised 2004 case, for example, the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, publicly stated that allegations of sexual harassment made by a Geneva-based UN staff member against his friend, the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, “could not be substantiated” even though an internal investigation had confirmed her account.

It is possible that the recent push by the #MeToo movement and women’s rights activists may finally turn the tide and make the UN a more egalitarian, woman-friendly workplace. It is possible that the UN is not completely beyond reform – that it can put in place systems that minimise abuse of authority and weed out those who are doing most harm to the organisation and to its ability to fulfill its mandate of promoting human rights and justice around the world.

One reform measure would be to order thorough and credible investigations into allegations of wrongdoing and to punish the perpetrators. This is a tall order because, like the Catholic Church, the tendency at the UN’s top echelons is to cover up the crime (especially sexual abuse and theft) rather than expose it, and also because the people who report wrongdoing are often junior or mid-level professionals who can be easily intimidated by their superiors and bullied into not speaking up. Unless the culture of retaliation against whistleblowers is stopped, there is little hope that whistleblowers will get any justice and that wrongdoing within the organisation will be curtailed.

Like the Catholic Church, the tendency at the UN’s top echelons is to cover up the crime

The most effective method, both in the UN and in other large bureaucratic organisations like the Catholic Church, is for the leadership to take action against those committing offences. Even Pope Francis has acknowledged that this is an important deterrent – and is the kind of justice that victims of sexual abuse would like to see in the Catholic Church. Sexual abusers and their protectors and those who abuse their power should be fired and stripped of their titles. The UN Secretary-General can establish all kinds of hotlines and task forces, but unless he is seen to be going after those who are abusing their authority, sexually harassing employees or sexually exploiting and abusing vulnerable women and children in poor war-torn countries, nothing will change, and the UN will continue to remain a safe haven for sexual predators and bullies.

The UN Secretary-General can establish all kinds of hotlines and task forces, but unless he is seen to be going after those who are abusing their authority…nothing will change, and the UN will continue to remain a safe haven for sexual predators and bullies.

This would be unfortunate, because in a world witnessing rising ultra-nationalism, fascism, misogyny and intolerance, the United Nations is perhaps the only hope for a more just and inclusive world order.


Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).


Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal

Working from home (WFH) certainly has its advantages, but studies have shown that prolonged isolation can have dire mental health consequences. As societies change their behaviour to adjust to COVID-19, they must take into consideration the innate human need for physical interaction.



Why Physical Distancing Should Not Become the New (Ab)Normal
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Many office workers are celebrating working from home (WFH), which has become the “new normal” in the age of coronavirus and lockdowns. Introverts who hate the prospect of making small talk with colleagues they secretly loathe have welcomed the idea of working remotely from home in their pajamas and setting their own work schedules. Those whose working experience was considerably diminished by office politics find that it is much easier to ignore these politics on Zoom.

WFH certainly has its advantages. Time spent commuting to work (which in Nairobi can be as long as two hours due to the city’s horrific traffic jams) can now be spent working. This is good for the environment, which is already choking from vehicular fumes, and for productivity. I have worked from home for several years and find that I am more productive at home because I spend less time getting dressed for work, travelling to work, and conducting idle chitchat with colleagues, time that is essentially wasted. Twitter has already told its employees that they can work from home for the rest of their working life at the company if they choose to do so.

With the advent of WFH, it has also become evident that showing up at work is not the same as working. Many of us have worked in places where it is not clear what work people actually do or why they were hired. Their output appears negligible or insignificant, but because they show up at work, it is assumed that they are working. With WFH, managers might be more diligent about monitoring “deliverables” (NGO-ese for outputs) by employees. After all, if you say you are working from home, and cannot show what you did, then it becomes clear that you are not actually working.

However, before we throw out our office suits and slip permanently into our comfortable bedroom slippers, we might consider this: the majority of essential workers in this world still have to go to work and make physical contact with human beings to earn a living. Doctors, nurses, retail store managers, food vendors, hawkers, need to physically interact with the people they serve. No WFH for them.

For those of us who were already working from home before the pandemic and lockdowns started, the new normal might appear like the old normal, but it is not for one simple reason – this lockdown is enforced; it is not voluntary. People working from home can decide when to go out and socialise to recharge their batteries or to make human contact; now that option no longer exists or is restricted.

Studies have also shown that while many women prefer the flexibility of working from home, a majority find that leaving the house to go to work is actually therapeutic. A survey by Gallup, for instance, found that two-thirds of working women liked the “social aspect” of their jobs. Working from home alone doesn’t provide the social contact and camaraderie that an office can provide.

There are other disadvantages of WFH and using online platforms to communicate with colleagues. As Jennifer Senior wrote in the New York Times recently, “Remote work leaves a terrible feedback vacuum. Communication with colleagues is no longer casual but effortful; no matter how hard you try, you’re going to have less contact – particularly of the casual variety – and with fewer people”.

Senior says that it would also be a mistake to assume that toxic office politics will not find its way into the WFH space. “They [office politics] are much easier to navigate if you can actually see your colleagues – and therefore discern where the power resides, how business gets done and who the kind people are”, she wrote.

When the home becomes a battlefield

The lockdowns around the globe are also testing marriages and giving rise to mental health problems that are breaking up families and leading to increased domestic violence. As the war against the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, another kind of pandemic is raging across the world. Reports indicate that violence against women has increased since lockdowns have been enforced in various countries, and that women are bearing a disproportionate burden of taking care of their families.

United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, raised the alarm recently when he stated: “Over the past weeks as economic and social pressures and fear have grown, we have seen a horrifying global surge in domestic violence”. He noted that “violence is not confined to the battlefield”.

According to a recent UNWomen report, “COVID-19 and Ending Violence against Women”, in France reports of domestic violence increased by 30 per cent since the lockdown on 17 March. In Argentina, emergency calls on domestic violence cases increased by 25 per cent after the lockdown on 20 March. In Cyprus and Singapore, helplines registered an increase in calls by 30 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively. Demands for emergency shelter for domestic violence victims have also been reported in Canada, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“As stay-at-home orders expand to contain the spread of the virus, women with violent partners increasingly find themselves isolated from the people and resources that can help them”, says the report. “The surge in COVID-19 cases is straining even the most advanced and best-resourced health systems to the breaking point, including those at the front line in violence response”.

“It’s a perfect storm”, said the CEO of one British charity. “Lockdowns will lead to a surge in domestic abuse, but also severely limit the ability of services to help”.

In many countries where there are few services for victims of domestic violence, or where reporting physical abuse, especially by an intimate partner, is difficult, women are trapped in a vicious cycle. In situations where healthcare services are already over-stretched, women victims of domestic violence are also less likely to seek medical attention.

The closure of schools has also placed enormous pressure on women, who tend to be the main caregivers in families. For women who are poor, and who live in cramped housing, the pressures can be overwhelming. With stay-at-home children and a spouse who has either been let go at work, or who cannot work because of the lockdown, the home can become a pressure cooker ready to explode. Men who feel more insecure due to their unemployment status are likely to take out their frustrations on their wives. Sometimes this can result in physical violence, even murder, as has been reported in Kenya, where there appears to be a surge in intimate partner violence, sometimes resulting in death.

The looming mental health crisis

In my view, the idea that self-isolation and working remotely from home should be accepted as the new normal is terribly misplaced for one simple reason: human beings are wired to be social animals, and depriving them of social contact has dire psychological consequences. WFH advocates fail to consider that humans have an innate need to physically interact with other humans.

There is a famous experiment conducted by the American psychologist Harry Harlow that is often cited to underscore the above point. Harlow’s work with primates, particularly infant rhesus monkeys, showed why isolation can be detrimental to human development. His experiments showed that when baby monkeys are taken away from their mothers and raised in a laboratory setting, they start engaging in disturbing behaviour, including self-mutilation. It didn’t matter how well fed the monkeys were, their need for maternal comfort and love proved more critical to their development than their need for sustenance. The infant monkeys placed in cages did not thrive; some held in prolonged captivity even died. The experiment highlighted the importance of maternal care and touch in infant development. Those who believe that hugs, cuddles and handshakes are gestures that will no longer be tolerated in a post-COVID world might want to refer to Harlow’s groundbreaking work.

Johann Hari also highlights the importance of social contact in his book, Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope. Hari, a journalist who had been on anti-depressants for years (without much success) embarked on a journey to find out why depressed people remained depressed even after years of taking drugs or undergoing therapy.

He found that depression is not so much a clinical condition that can managed with the right medicine, but essentially a social disorder whose cure lies in connecting with other like-minded people. He found that depressed people are not only more likely to feel lonely, but also tend to feel insecure. They have few friends and little social interaction.

Despite the proliferation of social media and the billions of “friends” on Facebook, an alarming number of people around the world are reporting being both lonely and depressed. Hari found that social media cannot compensate for the psychological loss of social life. He quotes the biologist E.O Wilson, who said that “people must belong to a tribe” to thrive. People must feel a sense of community and have friends they can count on. This involves physical interaction.

Unfortunately, our modern world has made connection and a sense of community harder to achieve. Social media has replaced physical contact; online shopping has replaced the pleasure of physically touching an object before buying it; the neoliberal capitalist world order has made it much harder for people to form relationships that have nothing to do with money. This has severely impacted the mental health of societies.

The social cost of rising inequality

The world has also become far more unequal, with a handful of people and corporations owning most of the world’s wealth, and a large majority eking out a living from paycheck to paycheck, and with few prospects of owning a home. An Oxfam report released last year showed that in 2018, the 26 richest people in the world had the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, or 3.8 billion people. In addition, the wealth of 2,200 billionaires increased by 12 per cent in 2018 while the wealth of the poorest half decreased by 11 per cent.

Studies have found that millennials are less likely to own their own homes during their lifetime than their parents and grandparents. This is partly the result of the “gig economy”, which has become the new normal, with young people taking on short-term contractual jobs rather than more secure long-term employment that can provide things like health insurance and pension schemes. While the gig economy has been lauded by some for offering people more flexibility and variety in the kinds of jobs they do, it also has several disadvantages, the primary one being lack of financial security, which has led to mounting uncertainty, particularly among people approaching middle age.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent global recession is likely to increase inequality in an already highly unequal world. With more people losing their jobs or earning less, the gap between rich and poor is likely to widen. This has mental health and social consequences.

In their groundbreaking book on inequality, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket show a strong relationship between inequality and mental illness. The researchers found that highly unequal societies tend to have a higher incidence of depression, obesity, drug addiction, and violent crime than societies that are more equal. One reason for this is that in societies that place a high value on having money and possessions, people who judge themselves through this value system are more at risk of depression and anxiety.

Highly unequal societies also tend to value competition more than cooperation. They tend to be individualistic and materialistic. Hence, they tend not to take care of the “public good”, and so are less likely to invest in good quality and affordable healthcare and education, or in things that have no commercial value, but which are essential for the well-being of societies, such as public parks and social security systems. This affects the overall mental health of people living in these societies.

Human beings need other human beings to survive and thrive. They need to cooperate and make physical contact with others. WFH and self-isolation are already impacting the mental health of people. If physical distancing and self-isolation become the norm in the long term, then hospitals might reduce the number of coronavirus patients, but mental asylums and counselling services will become overwhelmed. In poor countries, where psychological counselling is a luxury, expect more violent crime, suicides and drug and alcohol addiction. The new normal will, in fact, become the new abnormal.

While there is no doubt that social behaviour will be impacted by the pandemic in the short term, it would be a tragedy if human beings shut themselves off permanently from other human beings in the long term. As I have tried to show, long-term self-isolation is neither healthy nor desirable. The emotional and social costs are simply too high.

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My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa

As in other parts of the world colonised by European powers, the politics of skin colour in South Africa have been importantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation.



My Black Is (Not) Beautiful: The Complex History of Skin Lighteners in Africa
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Somali-American activists recently scored a victory against Amazon and against colorism, which is prejudice based on preference for people with lighter skin tones. Members of the non-profit The Beautywell Project teamed up with the Sierra Club to convince the online retail giant to stop selling skin lightening products that contain mercury.

After more than a year of protests, this coalition of anti-racism, health, and environmental activists persuaded Amazon to remove some 15 products containing toxic levels of mercury from its website. This puts a small but noteworthy dent in the global trade in skin lighteners, estimated to reach US$31.2 billion by 2024.

What are the roots of this sizeable trade? And how might its most toxic elements be curtailed?

The online sale of skin lighteners is relatively new, but the in-person traffic is very old. My book Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners explores this layered history from the vantage point of South Africa.

As in other parts of the world colonized by European powers, the politics of skin color in South Africa have been significantly shaped by the history of white supremacy and institutions of racial slavery, colonialism, and segregation. My book examines that history.

Yet, racism alone cannot explain skin lightening practices. My book also attends to intersecting dynamics of class and gender, changing beauty ideals and the expansion of consumer capitalism.

A deep history of skin whitening and skin lightening

For centuries and even millennia, elites in some parts of the world used paints and powders to create smoother, paler appearances, unblemished by illness and the sun’s darkening and roughening effects.

Cosmetic users in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome created dramatic appearances by pairing skin whiteners containing lead or chalk with black eye makeup and red lip colorants. In China and Japan too, elite women and some men used white lead preparations and rice powder to achieve complexions resembling white jade or fresh lychee.

Melanin is the biochemical compound that makes skin colorful. It serves as the body’s natural sunscreen. Skin lighteners generate a less painted look than skin whiteners by removing rather than concealing blemished or melanin-rich skin.

Active ingredients in skin lighteners have ranged from acidic compounds like lemon juice and milk to harsher chemicals like sulfur, arsenic, and mercury. In parts of precolonial Southern Africa, some people used mineral and botanical preparations to brighten—rather than whiten or lighten—their hair and skin.

During the era of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, skin color and associated physical differences were used to distinguish enslaved people from the free, and to justify the former’s oppression. Colonizers paired pale skin color with beauty, intelligence, and power while casting melanin-rich hues as the embodiment of ugliness and inferiority. Within this racist political order, where small differences carried great significance, some people sought to whiten and lighten their complexions.

By the twentieth century, mass-produced skin lightening creams ranked among the world’s most popular cosmetics. Consumers of commercial skin lighteners included white, black, and brown women.

In the 1920s and 1930s, many white consumers swapped skin lighteners for tanning lotions as time spent sunbathing and playing outdoors became a sign of a healthy and leisured lifestyle. Seasonal tanning embodied new forms of white privilege.

Skin lighteners became cosmetics primarily associated with people of color. For black and brown consumers, living in places like the United States and South Africa where racism and colorism have flourished, even slight differences in skin color could have substantial social and political consequences.

The mercury effect

Skin lighteners can be physically harmful. Mercury, one of the most common active ingredients, lightens skin in two ways. It inhibits the formation of melanin by rendering inactive the enzyme tyrosinase; and it exfoliates the tanned, outer layers of the skin through the production of hydrochloric acid.

By the early twentieth century, pharmaceutical and medical textbooks recommended mercury—usually in the form of ammoniated mercury—for treating skin infections and dark spots while often warning of its harmful effects. Cosmetic manufacturers marketed creams containing ammoniated mercury as “freckle removers” or “skin bleaches.”

When the US Congress passed the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act in 1938, such creams were among the first to be regulated.

After World War II, the negative environmental and health consequences of mercury became more apparent. The devastating case of mercury poisoning caused by industrial wastewater in Minamata, Japan prompted the Food and Drug Administration to take a closer look at mercury’s toxicity, including in cosmetics. Here was a visceral instance of what environmentalist Rachel Carson meant about small, domestic choices making the world uninhabitable.

In 1973, the FDA banned all but trace amounts of mercury from cosmetics. Other countries followed suit. South Africa banned mercurial cosmetics in 1975, the European Economic Union in 1976, and Nigeria in 1982. The trade in skin lighteners, nonetheless, continued as other active ingredients—most notably hydroquinone—replaced ammoniated mercury.

Meanwhile in South Africa

In apartheid South Africa, the trade was especially robust. Skin lighteners ranked among the most commonly used personal products in black urban households. During the 1980s, activists inspired by Black Consciousness and the “Black is Beautiful” sentiment teamed up to make opposition to skin lighteners a part of the anti-apartheid movement.

In the early 1990s, activists convinced the government to ban all cosmetic skin lighteners containing known depigmenting agents—and to prohibit cosmetic advertisements from making any claims to “bleach,” “lighten” or “whiten” the skin. This prohibition was the first of its kind and the regulations immediately shuttered the in-country manufacture of skin lighteners.

South Africa’s regulations testify to the broader anti-racist political movement from which they emerged. Thirty years on, South Africa again possesses a robust—if now illicit—trade in skin lighteners. An especially disturbing element of the trade is the resurgence of mercurial products.

South African researchers have found that over 40 percent of skin lighteners sold in Durban and Cape Town contain mercury. Mercurial skin lighteners tend to surface in places where regulations are lax and consumers are poor.

The activists’ recent victory against Amazon suggests one way forward. They took out a full-page ad in a local newspaper denouncing Amazon’s sale of mercurial skin lighteners as “dangerous, racist, and illegal.” A petition with 23,000 signatures was hand-delivered to the company’s Minnesota office.

By combining anti-racist, health, and environmentalist arguments, activists held one of the world’s most powerful companies accountable. They also brought the toxic presence of mercurial skin lighteners to public awareness and made them more difficult to purchase.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans.



Not Yet Uhuru: Why Postcolonialism Doesn’t Exist in France
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Racism and exclusion have always been at the heart of France’s neocolonial project in Africa. What is new, however, is the pervasive and active discursive process of making invisible, and therefore containment, of the violent reality of France’s policies and its devastating consequences for France’s racialised citizens as well as the African populations on the other side of the Mediterranean. Today it is important to consider what France has become: to slightly stretch the words of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, a one-dimensional society where repressive and exploitative forces of domination and injustice that have been at the heart of France’s national consciousness challenge any possibility of a genuine vision of change.

It is no longer shocking to witness the prejudice among French institutions and intelligentsia against Africa and Africans. The state, the media, and the academy in France actively embody the role of new agents of state neocolonialism to reject any resistance against racism and Islamophobia through complex methods of containment and abstraction.

Race blindness for instance becomes an effective tool to safeguard the neocolonialist foundation of France’s state apparatus and contain any possible threats to its national consciousness. As writer Lauren Collins observes, “There is a common belief that there cannot be racism in France because in France there is, officially, no such thing as race. The state, operating under a policy of “absolute equality,” does not collect any statistics on race or ethnicity.” By doing so, the state apparatus in France ignores its racialised and ethnic citizens and represses their rights to be fully acknowledged.

State neocolonialism in France has been impregnated in its national consciousness to the extent that its networks of domination and dehumanization have blurred the traditional distinctions that are made on the basis of colour and between racialised and ethnic citizens emigrating from Africa. In France, to draw upon Fanon’s analysis that racism is fundamental to the economic structures of capitalism, the political infrastructure is also a superstructure: you are French because you embody France’s state neocolonialism, you embody France’s state neocolonialism because you are French. The French state no longer presupposes certain racial and aesthetic characteristics of the ideal citizen: Black African intellectuals and brown Maghrebi media pundits can also be incorporated as new agents of state neocolonialism. In contemporary France, Africans are not othered and excluded on the basis of race, ethnicity, or colour, but rather on the basis of their politics, culture, and religion.

When Emmanuel Macron, the French president, decided in October 2019 to share his views on immigration and Islamophobia, he chose the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuellesdeclaring that “the failure of our (economic) model coincides with the crisis of Islam” and adding that this crisis leads to the emergence of more radical forms of political Islam. Macron criticized a demonstration in support of the right to wear veils as “non-aligned Third-Worldism with Marxist tendencies” (he used the word “relents,” which can be translated to hint or trace, but also to stink or stench). This interview was published a few days after a mosque shooting in Bayonne, in south-west France. No terrorism offenses were brought by the French government against the white shooter.

The media’s complicity overwhelms any possibility of a meaningful public debate. At its basic form, the process of invisibilisation in a one-dimensional society involves the dispersal of productive energies through diversion and abstraction so to ensure that a revolutionary momentum is as unattainable as the end of capitalism itself.

This complicit relationship between the media and the state in France is carefully exposed in Serge Halimi’s Les Nouveaux Chiens de Garde (translated to The New Watch Dogs, 1997-2005). Halimi, the chief editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, lays down a seething critique of a “capitalist” press and media in France that are heavily influenced by the elite interests of politicians and powerful corporations and likely to manufacture propaganda to serve their agenda.

This is exemplified by the controversial debate in France around returning works of African art, stolen during colonial times, to the continent after the publication of the report by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, and commissioned by Macron, which recommends to cancel the project of long-term loan of items to African museums and to support the full and unconditional restitution of the looted heritage back to Africa. The glaring discrepancies in reporting the ambivalent position of the French Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, a right wing politician, regarding the return of the stolen artifacts to Africa highlight the dangerous complicity between state institutions and the media in France. There were two opposing reports of this event: on the one hand, major French media outlets celebrated the efforts of the French government to return 26 works of art to Benin. Radio France International, for example, chose the title: “Restitution of works of art in Benin: France goes a step further” while Libération opted for: “Restitution of works in Benin: Paris says it works for a quick return.” But once we dive into these articles, we are faced with the many approximations and “possible scenarios” under which France will actually return the art. The conditional supplants the affirmative, and what remains is the strong belief that much has been left unsaid.

On the other hand, The Art Newspaper, a leading global art magazine, commented differently on the same event: “France retreats from report recommending automatic restitutions of looted African artefacts” ran the article. Here, what is emphasized is the strong opposition of France’s powerful gallery owners and art collectors against any form of permanent restitution and the pressure they put to change the “restoration without delay” decision into a “temporary return.” The new scenario, according to the minister’s comments, refers now to a temporary “exhibition dedicated to the diversity, complexity and aesthetic richness of these works” that will be held, not in Africa, but across France this summer as part of Macron’s highly publicized event entitled “Africa 2020.”

While most news outlets in France continue to briefly comment on the ongoing debate between supporters and critics of Savoy-Sarr report on the restitution of African art, The Art Newspaper insisted that “the report made international headlines, recommending the restitution of African artifacts in French museums, but the country has not returned a single item to Africa.” A year after the publication of Savoy-Sarr recommendations and Macron’s promise for a quick return, “neither the 26 pieces from Benin nor indeed the 90,000 other Sub-Saharan artifacts in French museums” have been returned to Africa.

What is often dismissed from the debate on the restitution of African heritage is the capacity of the French president to secure political and economic gains while asserting the hegemonic power of France over its neo-colonies. Macron accepted to temporarily return El Hadj Omar Tall’s sword to Senegal for a period of five years during another highly publicized ceremony, and at the same time he persuaded Macky Sall, the Senegalese President, to sign a new, multi-hundred million euro contract “for the construction of three offshore patrol vessels for the Senegalese Navy.” Again, there is nothing new here: as Sally Price reports, “[R]estitution is part of a two-way interaction, based on inequality and demanding something in return.” However, Macron successfully manages to obscure this inequality through a highly-calculated, affective, and Africa-friendly communicative strategy.

In France, as the old world is dying and the new is waiting to be born again, a specific breed of pseudo-intellectuals highjacks the public discourse to further promote a republicanism of inequality and exclusion. Among white French intellectuals, the complexity of the postcolonial field is often reduced to a corrupt discursive technology of deceptive arguments, false readings, and deliberate confusion. It is unconceivable to think of a public debate about, say, the case for reparations.

Whenever I am faced with the abysmal state of postcolonialism in France, I remember how Carina Ray, associate professor at Brandeis University, at a panel on the racial politics of knowledge production in November 2018, described the state of African studies in Europe: There are still issues that are “so 1940s and 1950s.” “White Europeness” has made it difficult to bring new perspectives on the postcolonial question. As she put it blatantly: it is a disaster.

The dangerous pseudo-intellectualism of Bernard-Henri Lévy, Alain Finkielkraut, Éric Zemmour, Raphaël Enthoven, Michel Houellebecq, Renaud Camus, Robert Ménard, and others – the list is absurdly long – has caused a permanent damage to any possibility of a qualitative change. There is no pause here: these figures have always been central to France’s neocolonial project of domination and exploitation.

As Marcuse writes, “The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.” The omnipresence of Lévy, Finkielkraut, and Zemmour in public discourse in France is meant to turn meaningful propositions of liberation into obsolete forms of insignificant punditry.

In an infamous manifesto signed by 80 figures of the French intelligentsia such as the reactionary Alain Finkielkraut and published in 2018 postcolonialism was deemed “a hegemonic strategy” that attacks the ideals of republican universalism, and it involves “the use of methods of intellectual terrorism reminiscent and far exceeds what Stalinism once did to European intellectuals.”

What is often recurring in these incendiary attacks on postcolonialism among the white French elite is this amalgam of postcolonialism with the North American scholarship. There is the tendency to believe that postcolonial studies, an interdisciplinary field of inquiry and activism, is due above all to the contributions of the American and Anglo-Saxon schools to the developments of its theories and practices. When the existing tensions between France (and Europe) and the United States on issues of knowledge production and cultural superiority is taken into consideration, one is inclined to consider that their attacks against postcolonialism are a deep and irrational fear of hegemonic American interventionism.

The view of postcolonial thought as a universal, progressive praxis that has been forged by the struggles of the peoples of the South is dismissed. The fundamental thrust of postcolonialism as moving beyond racial and identity issues to rethink also political, cultural, and utopian ideals is attacked. While the Americans and others have grasped that, in a world in flux, we cannot afford not to be postcolonial, France’s established networks of neocolonial power continue to dismiss postcolonialism as unpatriotic and as a homogeneous threat.

Faced with Finkielkraut’s racist and misogynist attacks during a televised debate, Maboula Soumahoro, the activist and chair of the Black History Month in France, was succinct in her reply: “Your world is ending! You can be panic struck as long as you want, it’s over!”

Meanwhile, the complicity between the political, media and cultural institutions in France continues to silently enforce the state neocolonialism against the African diaspora. The death of Zineb Redouane, the islamophobic attack against a French Muslim women by a white far-right politician during a school trip with her son and other children to the regional parliament in eastern France, the outrageous and ignorant falsehoods made-up by a white French writer about slavery, the racist mural of Hervé Di Rosa in the National Assembly, the decision of the French government to backtrack on the full and permanent restitution of stolen works of African art, and France’s murky role in Libya’s ongoing civil war are all visible signs of a pervasive state of neocolonialism that dictates the violent relationship between France and Africa.

This post is from a new partnership between the African website Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.
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