Few topics arouse more passionate arguments, initiate more irrational fear and hatred or are as difficult to discuss in a calm, thoughtful manner as skin color. Over the centuries it has been used to divide people, to stigmatize them, to elevate them and to enslave them. In many parts of the world, even today discrimination is still openly practiced against those possessing a different skin color than that of the majority population.
The Two Ends of the Spectrum
Those of European descent spend vast amounts of time and money trying to achieve the perfect tan. It’s almost a kind of sport where friends often compete to see who can get the darkest, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of overexposure. But while the obsession some light-skinned people have with obtaining a darker hue is almost always ill-advised for health reasons the tendency among people of color to lighten their complexion has much broader implications. Which we’ll get into in a moment. But first a bit of background on skin color.
Why Are There Different Skin Colors?
After many centuries of study and many, often painfully ignorant explanations regarding the origins of skin color, scientists finally came to the unmistakable and simple conclusion that your color is a function of how close you or your ancestors live(d) to the equator. That’s it. It’s not about the devil marking you as his love child or God providing you with a ghostly white countenance in order to signify your spiritual purity. It’s about where your ancestors are from. If your forebears were equatorial they required more melanin to protect themselves from the increased UV radiation they were subjected to. Conversely the further from the equator people lived the less UV radiation they received and the less melanin they produced.
The Cultural Dangers of Lighteners
The US is a country cobbled together from outcasts, adventurers and religious exiles from around the world who came here seeking a better way. But there are 2 groups within the current US population who did not come here to live the American dream. In one instance (Native Americans) they were already here for many thousands of years and existed just fine without the stars and stripes thank you. In the other case (Africans) they were forcibly taken from their homeland and brought to America to toil as slaves on the plantations of the south. It just so happened that both of those groups were dark skinned which made them easy targets for stigmatization and ostracism. It’s no exaggeration to say that the US had its own apartheid system long before anyone railed against the one in South Africa.
Because having a darker complexion was openly frowned upon and made one the subject of derision and persecution a market began to emerge in lightening agents. Driven to transcend in any way they could the societal bonds that were/are the legacy of the slave system many Africans Americans embraced skin lightening. They were aided in their quest by a society that told them “light was right” and which bombarded them throughout the early and mid-20th century in particular with images of happy, carefree, successful light-skinned people.
By the 1970s whitening products were big movers in mostly minority neighborhoods along with hair straighteners. Embracing the look of the oppressor though, while perhaps understandable on some level, nonetheless created dangerous precedents and gave decidedly mixed or outright negative messages to young people of color that they were born with some kind of handicap they would have to overcome.
Thankfully, the popularity of these products has begun to wane in recent years among the overall African American population although there are still communities where it is very popular and perhaps even trending upward. One of these is the Somali community where skin bleaching is on the rise.
Physical Dangers of Skin Lightening
Beyond the myriad and troubling societal issues raised by the practice of lightening the physical dangers cannot be overlooked. A number of whitening products contain dangerous levels of toxic metals including mercury as well as high powered steroids, both of which can lead to a slew of problems. Symptoms of mercury poisoning include:
- Mood swings
- Loss of concentration
- Short-term memory loss
- Tingling in the extremities
- Tingling in the lips
- Depression and more…
Steroids that are often added to skin whiteners illegally can constrict the flow of blood to the derma making it susceptible to other types of damage and more sensitive to UV light from the sun. This restricting of the blood source can also create the appearance of green veins in the skin and lead to unforeseen pigmentation problems.
Hydroquinone is another popular ingredient in whitening products. But if left on too long this skin bleaching agent can actually cause dark blotches to develop.
Changing Attitudes About Changing Skin Color
The most effective way to dissuade people from changing their skin color is to change long-held perceptions about darker complexions. Advertisements for many skincare products still subtly reinforce the notion that lighter is somehow cleaner and healthier. Which implies of course that black is not beautiful, it’s dirty and unhealthy. Crucially, these changes do not need to happen among white people but among people of color who, through little fault of their own, have been conditioned to accept that white is better.
In the Somali community mentioned earlier, for example, the men openly admit their preference for women with lighter complexions. And in places like Nigeria, where you would think acceptance of dark complexions would be a given, people still believe (and perhaps for good reason) that if a dark-skinned and a light-skinned woman of equal abilities were competing for a job that the light skinned women would prevail every time.
Changing such ingrained attitudes will not happen overnight. It will require concerted effort and a commitment to our children, who should not have to grow up thinking there’s something wrong with the way they look.