Proof We’re Not Post-Racial: People Are Paying $10 Billion a Year to Be Lighter
Everything about the 2013 launch of Whitenicious, a skin-bleaching cream by Cameroonian pop star Dencia, was over-the-top: the eye-catching before-and-after pictures showing the singer’s formerly mahogany skin lightened to creamy, white perfection; the claim that the “dark spot remover” would produce dramatic results in just seven days; and, of course, the ridiculous name, which told buyers exactly what they would get if they could plunk down $100 for a tube. Dencia ignited a fierce global debate about colorism and skin bleaching that has yet to die down.
Earlier this week, filmmaker Bill Duke weighed in on the conversation with the premiere of Light Girls, a documentary exploring the effects of colorism on lighter-skinned black women. The film was a follow-up to his critically acclaimed project Dark Girls, which explored the subject from the opposite end of the spectrum. As expected, commentary about Light Girls lit up social media, with many viewers sharing their experiences and wondering why communities of color continue to struggle with skin color.
“When you don’t contextualize colorism within white supremacy, you pathologize black women. You make it seem like we’re silly and we fight,” says Yaba Blay, assistant professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University. Blay has researched the politics of skin color extensively and is the author of Yellow Fever: Skin Bleaching and the Politics of Skin Color in Ghana.
Skin beaching can be a dangerous undertaking. Burns, permanent damage, scars, infections, and cancer are just some of the risks of lightening. The products often contain dangerous chemicals, which have been banned in several countries. Despite this, American and European skin care companies are set to earn $10 billion by 2015 from sales of the products, according to a recent report by Global Industry Analysts.
“Most of the ingredients in the skin-bleaching products are banned in the United States and European countries because they recognize the harm it does to skin,” says Blay. “But these products are banned for use, not manufacture. A lot of these products are made in the U.K., Italy, and in European spaces specifically for export, and they dump them in Africa, the Caribbean, and in Latin America.”
The hypocrisy is stunning: Here in the U.S., Unilever, the parent company of the brand Dove, sells products to women by promoting “real beauty.” But in other parts of the world, Unilever sells the skin lightener Fair & Lovely.
Though she appreciated Duke’s attempt at addressing colorism, Blay was disappointed that the role of white supremacy in skin color–based divisions was not discussed.
“White supremacy is insidious,” she says. “If you don’t recognize all of the entry points and all of the ways it remixes itself to attack us, we’re always going to be on the receiving end of an attack.”
That “attack” extends far beyond America. Communities of color around the world struggle with colorism, which manifests itself in caste systems, discrimination, and unequal access to social and economic mobility based on skin color.
“This is why you have bleaching in every single community where there are people of color,” says Blay.
The World Health Organization backs up her assertion. According to WHO, upwards of 77 percent of women in Nigeria bleach their skin, while 40 percent of women in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and the Republic of Korea have admitted to using lightening products. In India, the Advertising Standards Council recently released new guidelines on skin care ads; the guidelines suggest companies should no longer depict darker-skinned people as unattractive, depressed, or concerned. Despite this positive step, however, nearly two-thirds of the skin care products in India contain whitening agents, and lighter-skinned actors dominate the country’s booming Bollywood industry.
“The world’s power is concentrated with people who are white,” Blay says, explaining that Queen Elizabeth I was the first to go to drastic measures to whiten her skin. The storied monarch allegedly took arsenic pills to make herself appear paler, distinguishing herself even further from her subjects, who often toiled on farms or outside in other menial jobs. “People are bleaching their skin because there’s value in light skin,” says Blay.
Nigerian American rapper Kingsley “Rukus” Okafor echoes her sentiments. “There’s a different treatment and desirability factor in Africa for lighter-skinned women,” he told me in a conversation about Whitenicious last year. “The possible benefits—more respect, increased desirability to men—outweigh the consequences, especially in a male-dominated society where women’s ‘independence’ is frowned upon.”
It’s hard for average people to resist changing their skin tone when they see celebrities looking lighter. Former Major League Baseball player Sammy Sosa’s complexion has undergone a drastic change since he retired, but he claims he did not bleach his once-dark skin. When asked what happened, a rep for Sosa said he’d had “skin rejuvenation” and was “surprised he came out looking so white.” Pop stars Beyoncé and Rihanna have both been accused of altering their complexion in an attempt to appear whiter. Neither woman has admitted to changing her skin tone.
If skin bleaching is so unhealthy, why do people risk their health to do it? According to Blay, it’s simple: proximity to whiteness.
“For [people who bleach their skin], whiteness equates [with] everything: beauty, power, and value. Again, that’s how white supremacy functions. All of those colors close to whiteness reap some of the benefits,” she says. “And they’re trying to get close enough to reap the benefits.”
For women like Dencia, the risks seem to be worth the reward. But for those who have irrevocably damaged their skin and health, the benefits of becoming a few shades lighter may not outweigh the real dangers.
“Pain has no color, but there’s a separation socially,” Duke told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s assumed that light-skinned women have no problems or issues, but they are judged before you know who they are. The thing is, one group thinks it’s going through more pain than the other. The fact of the matter is that when you’re in pain emotionally about your life, the color of your skin does not matter.”