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Ideas | Kovie Biakolo

Bleaching blackness is about more than racism

Joanna Szachowska for the Boston Globe

Rapper Azealia Banks seems as comfortable at the center of a controversy as she is in the studio. Just this year alone, Sarah Palin threatened to sue her over some tweets. She endorsed Donald Trump, via Twitter: “I think Donald trump is evil like America.” A series of homophobic tweets in May finally got her suspended from the platform altogether. Banks was back in the mix this month on Facebook, with a 21-minute live video in which she defended her use of skin-bleaching. It was, she said, no different from wearing hair extensions or a weave.

It was quite a reveal for a performer who relentlessly puts pride in black womanhood at the center of her celebrity. Her fans and much of Black Twitter — the social community concerned mainly with political, social, and cultural issues that affect black people — were not amused. “Never would’ve guessed that Azealia Banks hated Azealia Banks more than we do,” one commenter wrote.

Skin-lightening, using chemical products to achieve a lighter skin tone, is far too nuanced an issue for explanations like racism or sexism, commercialism or self-loathing to suffice. It is a global phenomenon currently worth about $10 billion and is expected soon to reach $23 billion. The practice of whitening is prevalent in places where slavery and racism have deep roots, like Africa and the Caribbean. And it also thrives in places bedeviled by other troubling melanin legacies, including Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America

Everywhere it is marketed, the proposition is the same: Darker skin is a problem and fairer skin the solution. Yet the uncomfortable truth across the world is that darker skin is a problem — not in and of itself, but as a matter of the legacy of racism and our collective ideas of what is considered beautiful and even good. In order to understand why some people bleach, why lighter is considered preferable and more desirable, we need to understand why so many humans are uncomfortable in the skin they’re in.


The chemical hydroquinone, or benzene-1, is used as a central component in the development and printing of black and white film. But when used in a cream, it can also have the effect of lightening the color of human skin. The chemical has been banned in many countries, including the United States and the European Union, because of its potential as a carcinogen, but its manufacture is still legal. Thus, some Western companies produce skin-bleaching products for markets where demand is high and there are no limits on human applications: Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean. A prime example is Unilever, which owns the popular “real beauty” brand Dove but also owns Fair & Lovely, a popular skin-bleaching cream in Southeast Asia that “treats skin fairness problems.”


The market for hydroquinone and other agents of whitening is strongest where colorism thrives. Colorism is an extension of racism in which people of color are discriminated against (by other people of color, as well as white people) based on their proximity to whiteness. The closer to white a person is, the more social advantages he or she experiences. Two of the most visible aspects of colorism include beauty and desirability, which tend to dominate the conversation with regards to skin-bleaching and women. But there are a whole host of documented ways in which colorism negatively affects the political, social, and cultural experiences of dark-skinned people.

Economic research, for example, has shown that there is a wage gap between darker-skinned and lighter-skinned African-Americans in favor of the latter. A 2010 study on sentencing revealed that lighter-skinned black women convicted of crimes receive shorter sentences in comparison to their dark-skinned counterparts. Then there’s the media, where the majority of people of color that tend to be represented are also people who benefit from light skin privilege. Hardly a month goes by without a magazine coming under fire time and again for lightening the skin of people of color.


In 2010, then Senate majority leader Harry Reid was criticized for suggesting that President Obama’s proximity to whiteness gave him an advantage over darker-skinned African-Americans. Despite his lack of tact, Reid was not incorrect. In one compelling 2009 study, self-described liberals viewed an artificially lightened picture of Obama as more representative, while self-described conservatives viewed an artificially darkened picture of the president the same way. While researchers said that there were a limited number of black people in the study and that the findings should not be viewed through a dichotomous good/bad lens, it does show that depending on one’s politics, Obama can be viewed favorably or unfavorably, and such perception is tied to colorist ideology.

The urge to lighten is a global phenomenon, but it should not be taken for granted that any and all cultures’ manifestations of colorism have parallel histories. For instance, during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, there was a common myth that dark-skinned black people were stronger and more suitable for manual labor and thus were put in the fields, as opposed to light-skinned people who did more domestic work. This form of discrimination, which became known as the Brown Paper Bag Test, whereby if you were lighter than a brown paper bag you obtained light-skin privileges, and if you were darker, bore the social disadvantages of being darker-skinned, has left behind a cultural legacy that is specific to black Americans and how they interact with colorism and racism.


One complicated but insightful example of the interaction of colorism and racism was the reaction to the movie “Nina,” a biographical film about the multitalented Nina Simone. Simone, whose dark skin was central to her identity both personally and publicly, was played by the much lighter-skinned Zoe Saldana, whose color had to be darkened for the role. Some people termed this darkening “blacker face.” The backlash to Saldana playing Simone was widespread. It demonstrated an act of privilege in which a lighter-skinned black woman (among other criticisms) was given a role that ought to have gone to a dark-skinned black actress. In his criticism of the casting, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, “No one on the team seems to understand the absurdity at hand — making a movie about Nina Simone while operating within the very same machinery that caused Simone so much agony in the first place.”

There are other parts of the world, however, where colorism exists not as a consequence of Eurocentric imperialism but as a class and/or status marker. This is particularly true of East Asia in countries such as China and Japan, the latter of which leads the global market for skin-lightening products. In these cultures, whiter skin is historically associated with a high social status as it indicates that one did not work in the fields. “As the Chinese saying goes, ‘a white complexion is powerful enough to hide three faults,’ ” one young Chinese woman recently told a reporter.


For whatever the origins, the reason to favor fairness is universal: to experience greater social desirability in societies that afford greater privileges to people with light skin. Even at the risk of some of the negative consequences of skin-bleaching, which include cancer at worst and itchy, flaky skin at best, some dark-skinned people believe lightening is worth it.

While revulsion to whitening is common enough — as the Banks episode illustrates — that’s not universal. In Lagos, Nigeria, one survey found that more than 75 percent of residents use skin-lightening creams. India used 258 tons of skin-bleaching cream in 2012, and up to 65 percent of women and an increasing number of men use skin-lightening creams, according to a report in 2013. The report also found that men buy some 10 percent of skin-lightening creams. Companies have introduced products like L’Oreal’s Garnier PowerLight for men due to their confidence in this market. The combination of India as a former colonial space that had Eurocentric beliefs imposed on it and a cultural belief of fairer skin’s association with a higher caste feeds into the rampant demand for skin-bleaching.

Another curious case of a nation where skin-bleaching is rampant is Jamaica. In 2012, Vice took its cameras to the Caribbean country for Fashion Week and demonstrated bleaching’s popularity. In the film, while bleaching is still considered mostly a woman’s affair, a young boy whose age wasn’t stated but could not have been older than 12 or 13, confesses to having bleached for the previous two years. Prior to his life sentence for murder in 2014, the famous dance hall musician Adidja Azim Palmer, better known by his stage name Vybz Kartel, advocated for skin-bleaching and openly discussed his use in his 2010 song, “Cake Soap,” “Cool, like mi wash mi face wit di cake soap.” Kartel even started a business venture for a soap under his brand and had planned to release it both in local and international markets.

For all of the broadening of the market though, it is significant how the pressure to be lighter-skinned has historically fallen on women. Way ahead of its time, Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel, “The Blacker the Berry,” exposed the effects of colorism in the most personal aspect of a woman’s life — family. In the novel, Emma Lou Morgan is a dark-skinned African-American girl whose mother believes her skin tone will negatively affect her marriageability. Her mother aptly comments, “A black boy could get along but a black girl would never know anything but sorrow and disappointment.” While this is no longer completely accurate as skin-lightening definitely has a growing men’s market, it is telling of how beauty as a concept is always part of the prism through which women are viewed.

So, is Banks right in claiming that bleaching is simply another kind of body modification like weaves? While hair and skin are political and oftentimes for the same reasons, they must be considered separately and within the historical context of each. Some argue against weaves (and perms) for the reason that, much like lighter skin, they represent a nonblack standard of beauty. Indeed, there is ample evidence that corporate America, for example, views natural black hair as unprofessional. Non-natural hair attachments, therefore, are just a means of survival. Then again, Africans have long decorated hair with temporary attachments or decorations, but the same cannot be said for skin-bleaching products.

What separates skin-bleaching is the permanence. You can always remove a weave or take out a piercing. A more fitting analogy is breasts. In order to enhance how a woman looks in a particular outfit, she may choose to wear a push-up bra. But in order to alter the appearance of her body entirely, a woman may get breast implants. While it is an imperfect analogy, think of the weave as the push-up bra, while skin-bleaching is like breast implants.

All of this gets even more complicated — particularly for some white people to understand — by the fact that the darkening of white skin has been in vogue for decades. But context matters. As mentioned earlier, in some East Asian countries and communities, lighter white skin historically represented being in the upper class. Similarly, tanned white skin represents financial resources to vacation in a sunny latitude — or at least regularly visit a salon.

The issue hits close to home for me as a dark-skinned black woman. My childhood memories, among many good things, also involve being made fun of, made to feel ugly, and made to feel less than because of my skin. I have never flirted with skin-lightening products. Yet despite my general comfort with my skin these days, like many other dark-skinned women anywhere in the world, the thought of how easier, perhaps less disadvantaged my life would be if I had lighter skin crossed my mind from time to time.

Telling dark-skinned people in the world that they are good enough, that their skin is not a problem will not stop the booming market. But there’s active resistance: Ghana, for example, will ban hydroquinone starting next month. Elsewhere, a backlash is brewing against particularly egregious marketing campaigns. Many more countries — especially those from former colonized areas — may soon consider doing so not only for cultural reasons but for the health risk posed by hydroquinone. Long-term, whitening may find itself delegitimized, as dark-skinned people are presented more often as socially desirable and internationally visible.

Technology has done its part in furthering colorism, but it has also played a role in combating it. Alesha Randolph, who works as a senior designer at Vox Media, just introduced the photo-editing desktop app tonr.co to battle photography’s long history of racism in producing quality images of black people. Despite its popularity, even Instagram is not free from catering to lighter skin. (Instagram filters tend to whitewash the images of darker-skinned people.) Randolph’s app should help with this problem.

Consider, too, the popular 2011 documentary “Dark Girls,” which presented the reality of the experience of being a dark-skinned black woman in the United States. In 2009, Women of Worth, a women’s activist group in India, launched the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign to draw attention to the negative effects of the color-struck culture. It is worth noting, too, that even without these recent policy decisions or media advocacy work, colorism has historically faced resistance in the arts. Just as literature can be used to teach colorism, it can also be used to show beauty of all colors, as Langston Hughes did wonderfully in his famous poem “Harlem Sweetie,” in which he colorfully describes all the different shades of black women one might encounter. Of course, we cannot forget Tupac’s insistence that “the darker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” in his 1993 track “Keep Ya Head Up.”

We all live in skin. It is the body’s largest organ and one of the first things we notice about another person. That we as human beings evolved to harbor such vicious notions about the color of particular skin is testament to our species’ capacity for cruelty. But we are not prisoners of our many colors — and, gradually, we may be coming to accept what we cannot easily change.

Kovie Biakolo is a culture writer and editor, and a multiculturalism scholar. She is grateful to live in New York City during the time of Google Maps.