Talking Her Out of Skin Bleaching Won’t Work

Race Manners: This choice is one symptom of a society obsessed with whiteness. Being judgmental misses the point.

I have a cousin who’s lived here in the United States for a few years, although, like me, she is Nigerian. (My family moved here when I was younger.) She is becoming well adjusted to American life in my opinion, with the exception of one practice from home that she still clings to. She lightens her skin with harsh creams, and when I tell her it’s harmful, not just physically but psychologically, it falls on deaf ears.

“She is beautiful, and she responds as though I’m crazy or overanalyzing when I tell her all the problems there are with this besides physical harm. She cites tanning, makeup, etc., as common things many do to improve their appearance and says she just wants to look her best and plans to have a treatment done in a doctor’s office the next time she visits home. How can I get through to her that this is a bad habit and that she must stop and love herself as she is? Please help.” –Bothered by Bleaching

I don’t think you’re crazy, and I don’t think there’s any such thing as overanalyzing when it comes to someone you care about doing themselves harm. But I want to make the case that your focus on your cousin’s individual choices and your campaign to badger her into a brand of self-love that ignores her environment might be misguided.

First, some background: Your letter is timely. A recent World Health Organization report revealed that Nigerian women are the biggest users of skin-lightening products, with a full 77 percent of women in that country bleaching their skin. And your home country is certainly not alone when it comes to what’s actually a global practice. It happens all across the African Diaspora, in Asia and, yes, here in the United States.

It’s not new, either, not by a long shot. (Check out these old newspaper ads as evidence.) But lightening beauty parlors like the ones your cousin plans to visit are apparently doing a booming business in cities like Lagos. (Cue international scrutiny, accompanied by somber trend pieces with decidedly noncolorblind, jarring quotes like “Being lighter is more attractive.”)

What the coverage of this issue gets right is that skin bleaching is associated with really scary health consequences, from eczema to kidney failure and even cancer.

It’s easy to pair those risks with quotes touching on superficial “expert” explanations for the practice (“Every woman believes that when your skin is beautiful, people admire you,” “I think it’s because a lot of men want fair ladies, and the darker ones actually have an inferiority complex”) to conclude, “For those who bleach, staying black is not beautiful at all.” Add the often high price into the mix, and the hand-wringing coverage makes the women who whiten their skin seem as if they have misplaced priorities at best, but probably something more like deep-seated emotional or psychological issues.

But when a full 77 percent of women are doing something — when it’s been going on for decades, propped up by a lucrative industry and plenty of advertising — doesn’t it make sense to look at the bigger picture rather than individual, seemingly irrational choices?

Many cultures, lighter skin is still deemed more attractive and desirable.

In many societies, lighter skin is still deemed more attractive and desirable.

Common reactions like scorn, disbelief and the singling out of women who engage in this practice as examples of self-hate or a “colonial mentality” miss the point, says Drexel University’s Yaba Blay, a researcher and ethnographer who co-directs the school’s Africana-studies program. “Skin bleaching is but one consequence of global white supremacy,” she writes in one piece pushing back on popular go-to explanations for lightening.

Frustrated with the treatment of skin bleachers “as if they exist within an ahistoric, apolitical vacuum,” she points out that while African women are often ridiculed as “naive” or “irrational”  (in much the way you’re approaching your cousin’s choices) for thinking that lighter skin is more appealing, “we ignore the fact that you can’t walk through the streets of Accra [Ghana] without being bombarded with 60-foot billboards” with that exact theme.

And it’s not as if the United States is a safe harbor from all that, either. To make up for the absence of those giant advertisements, we get messaging including, but certainly not limited to, the quotes highlighted in this “Say No to Colorism and Misogyny From Black Men in the Entertainment Industry” Facebook post (including this one from Lil Wayne: “Beautiful black woman, I bet that bitch look better red” — and plenty more where that came from).

So the problem has countless perpetrators and participants. The only real news here is that a person you care about happens to be showing evidence of it all over her face.

Contact dermatitis exposure to hydroquinone, a popular component used in skin bleach products

Contact dermatitis exposure to hydroquinone, a popular component used in skin bleach products

That’s why Blay tends not to dissuade women from bleaching on a one-on-one basis. Why? It’s not effective. “They are impacted by so many societal cues simultaneously to the extent that it’s hard to pinpoint what impacts their consciousness most,” she says. Blay is designing an anti-bleaching campaign in Ghana over the next year. Rather than shouting, “Don’t bleach,” the campaign will sing the praises of dark skin — “normalizing the beauty of brown skin,” she explains.

I know you have an individual in front of you, and you feel that you have to do something. So, sure, you can appeal to her vanity, if not her concern for her health, with a reminder that her skin will suffer irreparable damage from this practice. Use this “Get Light or Die Trying” post to illustrate that point. But save the judging, which Blay warns “will only serve to push her practice further underground.”

Given all the forces that conspire to keep up skin bleaching, it’s almost remarkable that anyone escapes the “Wonderful things happen when your skin is … light” messaging. The good news: You’ve done it. Simple as it seems, maybe your job is just to be there, liking yourself and your natural complexion, acting as a counterpoint to those women on those ubiquitous billboards. This way, over time, Blay says, “you may be able to show her the many ways in which browner or darker skin is itself beautiful.”

Success here will mean gently serving as an example of a white-supremacy-defying self-love that you want for your cousin — just without the judgment, the criticism and the message that there is something flawed about the way she is right now. Clearly, the world has provided enough of that to last a lifetime.

By Jenée Desmond-Harris | Published in The Root on Sept. 25, 2013

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