Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Skin bleaching - whose problem is it?*

In a short piece written a couple of months ago for http://www.rollingout.com/ , Amir Shaw argued that reggae artist, Vybz Kartel’s horrific bleaching was proof that self-hate permeates the black community. While I agree that Vybz Kartel must suffer from psychological problems which allow him to put his health at such an obvious risk for the sake of looking like a member of the living-dead, I reject the idea that it somehow reflects a problem that is facing our entire community.

Skin-bleaching is revolting; we can certainly argue that it’s a form of self-hate because of the shocking effects that it has on the person’s skin. Those who bleach their skin expose themselves to serious damage from the sun, having killed off the melanin-making cells which act as a natural barrier. Bleached skin becomes thinner, sometimes almost transparent and always has a redness/soreness which makes it obvious that the person is bleaching. Some of the bleaching creams that contain mercury can cause poisoning that leads to a damaged liver or kidney failure. Hydroquinone which can be found in a lot of these creams was banned in Europe because studies showed it can cause cancer. There is no doubt that the effects of bleaching can be horrendous and deadly, which makes you wonder what kind of person would go through such serious health risks just so they can come out looking like a zombie (Vybz Kartel) or a ghost (Latoya Jackson)?

I think it’s possible to argue that at the outset people who bleach their skin may simply want to achieve a different look, one they consider more appealing in a similar way that people lie in the sun or under a sun bed continuously simply want what they consider to be a more attractive skin tone. However when you consider the effects of bleaching and when you see the end results, I think any sane person in their right-mind would reason that it’s simply not worth it. I think that it’s valid to say that as a general rule, people crave the ‘exotic’- something that stands out from the norm; for English people who naturally have pale skin, ‘exotic’ is looking more like the southern Europeans with their olive skins that tan easily. For some black people, it’s achieving the look of someone who is lighter and therefore more ‘exotic’.

To suggest that black people bleach their skin because they want to be white would be the same as arguing that white people tan their skin because they want to be black. If that suggestion sounds absurd then why are we so quick to label the entire black community as ‘dying to be white’? Does that not perpetuate a racist notion that we all harbour a secret desire to be like our former colonial masters?

In the same way, the proposition that we often hear that women who wear hair extensions or weave-on do so because they want to be like their white counterparts is equally nonsensical especially when you have white women today wearing hair pieces because either their hair is too thin or they want to achieve a different look. Why is it easier for us to accept a simple and trivial reason for various beauty choices on the part of white people but not for our own community? Are we not giving credence to slavery for having broken us by suggesting nearly 200 years after its abolition that everything we do is informed by slavery?

Personally, I reject the idea that our community is in any more of a crisis than the white community. Why do the same theorists who tell us that black people do x y or z because they want to be white not also suggest that white men prefer blonde and blue eyed women because they harbour a secret desire to be part of an Aryan race similar to the ideals of Nazi Germany? Likewise we never ever hear stories of white societies being under threat because white women are marrying or having children with black men. Surely if we’re suffering from these so-called threats, they must on the other hand also be experiencing the effects of them as well.

I think we should be aware of our past, but there is clearly a danger that we are allowing it to dictate who we are today. We have much to celebrate in terms of our achievements. When people like Vybz Kartel behave in such a shocking manner, we should be quick to condemn them without somehow tarring our entire community with the same brush.

I can attest to the fact that the people I know and admire do not bleach their skins. They are educated and exposed enough to appreciate their beauty and to not run such unnecessary risks. I’d be lying however if I said they were all happy with their skin complexion or texture; but I think that a desire to have smoother or more even-toned skin doesn’t translate to hating one’s race. The women I know do wear make up in a bid to achieve a flawless look…and nothing more. Some of the strongest and self-conscious women I know may wear a weave on a given day and on another would undergo a complete transformation with braids or a short cut.

I believe we do our community a disservice by letting the minority, especially an uninspiring, unexposed, ignorant minority like Vybz Kartel and those who practice skin-bleaching, speak for the rest of us. We have achieved a great deal and I’m pretty certain that there are far more people in the black community who do not bleach their skins than who do. Skin bleaching is not an epidemic that affects us all. In its extreme, it is a shameful reality for some that we need to condemn without making it ‘our’ problem.

Kartel is a troubled man but he looks nothing like my brother or my father or my husband and for that reason I’m happy to identify his bleaching as his problem not mine, certainly not my community’s.

*Article first published in Rethink Caribbean

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