skin bleaching: who’s the fairest of them all?

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As part of our exploration of the many shades of black, Un’ruly contributor Perri Lembo takes a look at colorism and the impact of shedding your physical color.

“There is no shame in black beauty,” said Lupita Nyong’o during her speech at the Essence Women in Hollywood Luncheon in which she spoke about a young fan who, about to purchase Whitenicious “dark spot remover,” had a change of heart after seeing the success of the dark-skinned actress in Hollywood. Dencia, the Nigerian pop star who created Whitenicious, responded with a series of angry tweets, fiercely defending her product and the practice of skin bleaching as well as personally attacking Nyong’o.  This is but one of many recent controversies concerning the questionable yet widespread practice of skin bleaching—the act of chemically lightening one’s skin. Skin bleaching has occurred for centuries in different areas of the world for a variety of reasons. Today, skin bleaching is especially prevalent in Africans and people of African descent. According to a University of Cape Town study, one in three South African women bleach their skin. However, Nigerians are the highest users of skin bleaching products. According to the World Health Organization, seventy-seven per cent of Nigerian women use these products on a regular basis. India also has an obsession with skin lightening. In 2012, Indians purchased 233 tons of skin-whitening products, spending more money on them than on Coca-Cola. This practice is very common in many areas of the world but is not very well understood by those on the outside. Why do people bleach their skin? Is it a simple beauty ritual or is it indicative of something else?

why is white beautiful?

Many supporters and users of skin bleaching products claim that bleaching the skin is just another form of primping and has nothing to do with race. After all, everyone’s aesthetic preferences are different, and we all have the freedom to alter our appearance to suit our ideal self image. Although the shade of one’s skin is an important marker of race, race is so much more than color. Race is determined by other physical characteristics, and, more importantly, it is a construct that holds social meaning. Some argue that changing one’s outside can never amount to changing one’s inner cultural identity. When asked about her skin bleaching habit, Dencia, the creator of Whitenicious, said:

Why did I get a couple of shades lighter than I was? That’s a personal choice. That is what I wanted to be. And honestly, I just wanted to. I’m very daring. I like trying things. I’m not doing it because I wanna have boyfriends. And I’m not doing it because I want anybody to accept me. It’s because I just wanted to do it.

South African singer Mshoza, who has also come under fire for her skin bleaching practices, says, “I’ve been black and dark-skinned for many years, I wanted to see the other side. I wanted to see what it would be like to be white and I’m happy.” Although skin bleaching can be seen as an individual choice, the social and historical context in which skin bleaching occurs cannot be ignored and can very well be creating unconscious motivations for this practice. It is no coincidence that skin bleaching is practiced in Africa after white colonialism. Nor is it a coincidence that it is practiced in America while racism and colorism continue to be a reality. If skin bleaching is merely a way to achieve beauty, it begs the question as to why whiter is more beautiful. Like most beauty standards, the ideal of white skin is rooted in class and power structures.

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Skin whitening has been practiced for different reasons in different parts of the world. In Asia, skin whitening has its roots in Ancient China. Only rich people were able to stay indoors while poor people had to work in the sun. Thus, there became an association between skin color and economic and social class. White meant wealthy and sheltered, while a darker complexion meant peasant or working class.

The causes of the phenomenon in certain areas of Africa are not perfectly clear, but research has linked interest in skin bleaching to South and West Africa’s history of white European colonialism. Like Asians, Africans wanted to emulate those in power. The key difference is that the people in power not only happen to have lighter skin but are of an entirely different race. In this way, African skin bleaching can be seen as more of a cultural crisis and question of identity than simply a quest for certain beauty ideals. In an interview for BBC, Congolese hairstylist Jackson Marcelle says, “I like white people. Black people are seen as dangerous; that’s why I don’t like being black. People treat me better now because I look like I’m white.” This quote is a startling illustration of the use of skin bleaching to change (if not one’s race) at least the exterior perception of it. Unfortunately, today there are many negative associations with being black that some individuals try to escape through skin bleaching in an effort to improve their social standing. Often times, blacks are seen as dangerous, primitive, or unsuccessful and the darker a black person is, the stronger these associations are. Colonialism may have triggered a desire to shed one’s color in Africa, but the persistent negative connotations of blackness may be what’s keeping that desire alive.

the affects of darkness

Indeed, skin whitening isn’t just about appearance. It’s about the opportunities and treatment people receive because of their color. Colorism is a form of prejudice in which people are treated differently based on social meanings attached to skin color. This differs from racism because race is not only determined by skin color but is also determined by other factors such as eye shape, nose shape, hair texture, and culture. Colorism in Africa affects many facets of life. Educational attainment is one reward of bleaching the skin. Studies have shown that black people who have lighter skin have more educational opportunities and even earn more in the workplace.¹ Bleaching also helps marriage prospects, at least for women. Although there are African men who bleach their skin, much more women bleach than men. Women are harshly criticized for having dark skin and feel pressure to bleach so that they can get married. In this context it seems practical to use skin lightening products in order to benefit the most from this system, since Africans who choose not to bleach their skin are at a social disadvantage. The idea of skin bleaching has become a vital part of some African cultures instilled in childhood, much like other behaviors meant to maximize one’s prosperity and survival.

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Colorism is prevalent in America as well. Skin bleaching is also practiced here, but to a much less extent than it is in Africa. While colorism in Africa has its roots in colonialism, American colorism has its roots in slavery. During slavery, if someone was perceived as white, they were a free man, but if someone was perceived as black (or known to have any black ancestry) then that person was a slave and the type of slave (house slave or field slave) would be determined according to skin tone. Lighter-skinned blacks, especially ones who were biracial, were seen as more valuable and more intelligent and thus were given better treatment as house slaves. Today, dark-skinned African Americans continue to experience mistreatment and discrimination. The documentary Dark Girls revealed that dark-skinned black children are teased by lighter-skinned black children and are called derogatory names such as “tar baby.” Many black men, especially those who are darker-skinned, will say that they prefer light-skinned women. In the media, there are very few representations of dark-skinned blacks. Instead, TV screens are filled with white and light-skinned black or racially-ambiguous actors and actresses. In America, colorism has similar effects to racism and both can be materially significant, affecting job acquisition, prison sentencing, and more.

is it worth it?

Whether skin bleaching is a conscious or unconscious response to colorism or simply just a beauty preference, the facts concerning the toxicity of skin bleaching products cannot be ignored or glossed over. While there exist a variety of products and methods to achieve lighter skin, the most common product used is Hydroquinone. This substance has been linked to leukemia and tumors in rodents and has been shown to cause Ochronosis (a skin discoloration and spotting condition) in humans. There currently exist bans in the U.S on any formulations containing over 2% Hydroquinone.

Furthermore, we can’t overlook the affects of these individual choices on the larger black community. A person bleaching his or her skin is buying into and perpetuating the idea that white is better. They are trying to get ahead by assimilation. But even if one can escape colorism through bleaching, one may not escape racism since race is determined by other factors. Nevertheless, seeing the issue through the lens of assimilation, one can see that it is futile to criticize those who bleach their skin. They are merely reacting to social pressures.

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The problem does not lie alone with the act of bleaching, but lies in a society that puts white and light on a pedestal. Instead of expressing disapproval of skin bleaching and outrage in the form of personal attacks, perhaps we should express disapproval of the ideas, images, messages and associations that put blackness in a negative light. Perhaps our efforts are better spent working toward changing the paradigm of black oppression, turning black = bad to black = great.

1 Joni Hersch, “Skin Tone Effects among African Americans: Perceptions and Reality “
Photos: Africleticmagazine and Denicia Facebook Page
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Antonia
Antonia

An entrepreneur at heart, I founded Unruly in 2013 after spending six great years in advertising. I’m über lazy when it comes to doing my hair so I’m always looking for easy and quick ways to care and style my hair.

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