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Practical Politics

The Politics of Skin Bleaching

David L. Horne, Ph.D ow contributor | 10/11/2018, midnight

In the age of Black Lives Matter, Black is Beautiful and Play It Ahead, Blackly (Black Panther-Afrofuturism), it is rather jarring to be reminded that life moves on in spots and sections, not in a collected whole. Thus, there still remains the phenomenon of skin bleaching among Black folk all over the Black African world.

The age of Ebony Magazine and Jet pushing Nadinola Bleaching Cream, Black and White Cream, Dr. Fred Palmer’s Skin Whitener, Posner’s Skintona for Lighter, Brighter Skin, and Instant Brown Skin Whitener Cream, were supposedly over in the 1970’s. But no, their hydroquinone and mercury product glory days just shape-shifted into Meladerm, Amaira Skin Lightening Serum, Zeta White, Skin Bright, Ambi Fade Cream, Beverly Hills Skin Pigmentation Rejuvenation Crème, Revitol Skin Lightening Crème, and dozens of others. Skin bleaching is a multi-billion dollar business in todays world, and there is no safe Black space that it does not touch.

If you can’t be White, get as close as you can to it to taste the good life of good looks, increased job opportunities and life in general, says some of the advertising. “If you look white, that makes you all right; if you’re brown, they want you around; but if you’re Black, get back, way back!” too many global African girls are still taught.

This is not to say that only Black girls are too often seduced into this thinking and behavior. China, Pakistan, India and many other countries around the world also face this issue. This is indeed a continuing legacy of White Christian colonialism of much of the planet.

For many of those traveling back to West Africa to investigate their African roots—particularly to Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Senegal, etc.-- the bountiful numbers of posters and street signs promoting light brown skinned and high-yellow females as the essence of Black beauty can be particularly shocking.  But that is currently the way it is even in the midst of the 21st century Pan African movement.

One of the recent trio of African female-authored plays presented by the Ahmanson Theater Group in Los Angeles, “School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play,” by  Jocelyn Bioh, explored this topic in Ghana. The protagonist, heavily involved in trying to achieve acknowledgement as a young, up-and-coming African girl in the world of beauty pageants, spent much of her early life secretly trying to bleach her skin into what she thought was a more pleasing and beautifully lightened skin tone. One of the characters, a former Miss Ghana, even rejected the young protagonist because the girl wasn’t light enough to compete with Miss Sweden, Miss England and other contestants for the title of Ms. Universe. That character instead chose a mixed race, very light skinned  Ghanaian who, it turns out, wasn’t light enough either to be chosen as one of the pageant finalists.

When Black beauty is not good enough even among Black people, how can we succeed in the future? This is the lingering question.

Traveling to Jamaica, Trinidad-Tobago and other Caribbean countries, one finds the same issue bubbling up unabated. Jamaicans have a whole vocabulary dedicated to the pursuit of lighter, brighter skin. Said one beauty shop operator, “In Jamaica, unless you’re brown or light complected, you can’t get noticed. Being Black means nobody looks your way. No job. No education. No nothing without a light skin.”  Skin lightening cremes, as dangerous as they are, are very big business in Jamaica and other islands. Annually such products sell over 100 million dollars and thus aid island economies.

But long-term use of such products has been shown to lead to serious liver damage and irreversible skin damage, including fungal infections, permanent scarring and facial pock-marking. Knowledge of that potential, however, has not slowed down the skin lightening market anywhere in the African world. Rapper L’il Kim recently put photos of herself from 1985 and now on social media. The current photos make her skin look White, and with the long weave, she looks like a born-again Caucasian. Her 1985 pictures show a deep brown-skinned Kim, as if she is not the same person.

Wake up, Black people!

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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