By Gbadebo Fuad Olanrewaju
This article focuses on skin bleaching with a specific discourse on the global African diaspora and how white supremacy, inferiority complex and ethnic politics play a role in it. This article examines the history of skin bleaching and trace the timeline with a focus on the African continent, the Caribbean and the United States.
An overview of Skin-bleaching in the global African Diaspora (History and context)
To examine the history and reason why skin bleaching/lightening has become such a sensationalized behaviour across the globe; it is integral to understand white supremacy and the way a “colonial mentality” works. Colonial mentality is a colloquial term in the pan-African paradigm as C. Duodo (2010) puts it in context, “After the slave trade was abolished, the slavers came to Africa to enslave Africans in the African’s own countries, they called it colonization” (p.23). The colonial mentality is a derivate of this colonization that often followed the Willie lynch model on how to control African slaves; “Don’t forget you must pitch the old black versus the young black and the young black male against the old black male. You must use the dark skin slaves versus the light skin slaves and the light skin slaves versus the dark skin slaves. You must also have the white servants and overseers distrust all blacks, but it is necessary that your slaves trust and depend on us. They must love, respect and trust only us” As transcribed and documented by New crisis publication (1999, p.32).
Scholars in contemporary times have doubted the validity of the “willie lynch letter” which was supposedly delivered as a speech by Willie lynch himself in 1712 according to New Crisis publication. While the authenticity of the letter might be in question the Eugenics/white supremacy ideology that it exudes is akin to the “colonial mentality” and definitely in practice till this day. My definition of a “colonial mentality” drawing from the works of Duodo (2010) & Amgborale (2011), (David & Okazaki, 2010) is that it is an automated societal detriment that promotes a colourism hierarchy as well as White supremacy and seeks to effect chaos among people of African descent. For the sake of verbosity and remaining focused, this article will shift discourse to the issue of skin bleaching and follow the historical timeline from the inception chemicals and cosmetics that were made for lightening the skin.
The use chemicals/ chemical agents for the purpose of skin bleaching/lightening can be traced back to the use of powders and paint during the Elizabethan era (y. 1558-1603) according to Amgborale (2011) via (; Blay, 2009a; Peiss, 1998; Williams, 1957). It is impossible to understand the spread of skin bleaching as a global pathology without centralizing the discussion in the Trans-African construct as this phenomenon affects people from Africa, the Caribbean as well the United States. It is important to note that the skin bleaching is prevalent among all people of African or Melanoid descent and is not limited in its scope to Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. These places however make for an excellent case study because of the trans-Atlantic slave trade as well the colonial settlement and invasion of Africa by Europeans.
It is of no coincidence that the use of lightening agents attributed to the 16th century rule of Elizabeth of England coincides with the Maafa (Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade). It would be important to institute the color hierarchy during this time to break the spirit of the potential slaves as explained in the Willie Lynch letter about “putting the dark skin against light skin and white skin against the Black” (New crisis Publication, 1999). The current ideals of skin bleaching became widespread throughout Africa 3 to 4 years ago and the use of lightening agents go back to around the time of the African Independence movements around the early 1950s (;Amgborale, 2011; De Souza, 2008). In the United States, skin bleaching products and procedures started gaining leverage within Black community in the late 19th and early 20th century (Lindsey, 2011). The timelines are very interesting to examine because many of the Black independence movements in the United States as well as in Africa coincide with the availability and widespread use of Skin Bleaching agents. To understand the reason why these products caught on so quickly, first it is paramount that one is knowledge on the effects of self-hate and also of the white/Eurocentric standard of beauty and the psychosis behind colourism. Lindsey (2011) expounds on the mentality of colourism and the white standard of beauty speaking in the context of 40-50 year ago, she states;
“Memories of historical overtones of colonization, slavery, discrimination, mistreatment, and color rating in social class—against dark skin—and better job opportunities, executive positions, and chances in beauty pageants favoring those with less skin pigmentation are factors that upheld the supremacy of white skin” (p.27).
This excerpt is speaking of a social-psychological malady that is centred in Africa and the “colonial mentality” that upholds the supremacy of white skin. To put this in context it is important to have a parameter for the definition of “white supremacy” and this can be described as a an “historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and people classified as non-white by virtue of skin pigmentation or ancestral origin from Europe” (Amgborale, 2011). This idea cuts across all history of people of African descent all around the world whether it is in Africa, the Caribbean or the United States. Lindsey (2011) explains that in the United States, prior to emancipation, African-Americans associated lighter skin with greater freedom and subsequently African American women of mixed European and African ancestry with certain phenotypes and lighter skin experienced some social and economic freedom albeit that the dominant white culture didn’t accept them. In Africa, during the colonial era, there was billboards that portrayed white-skinned individuals as icons of beauty in the print and also electronic media and the cosmetic industry is complacent in this because it would not promote or cultivate any products to suit dark skin (de Souza, 2008). Deriving from research and the historical context of skin bleaching, the psychological aspect of the true cause of the skin bleaching in contemporary Trans-African diaspora is a result of the white supremacy indoctrination and hundreds of years of cultural assimilation. It is now time to shift the discussion from the history and context that allows this pathology of skin lightening to thrive and look at some of raw statistics and the damaging effect that skin bleaching agents have on melanin and also how serious ailments can form as a result of use of these skin bleaching/lightening chemicals.
The marketing of skin bleaching products and the industry is very real thing and often it is a complex market to explore because the legality of many of the products is a revolving door of litigation and subject of discussion for many countries. The use of Hydroquinone as an active chemical in the many of the skin bleaching agents used by many people across the trans-African demographic and it is also used in photo/film development products (Ncube, 2013). AlGhamdi (2010) discusses the chemical agents used in these skin bleaching products in a global context stating that “the most common pharmacological compounds used are hydroquinone, corticosteroids and mercurials. Hydroquinone is the most prescribed skin-lightening agent worldwide despite its inconsistent effects and safety concerns” (.1217). AlGhamdi uses empirical and scientific evidence to discuss the effect of the use of Hydroquinone. Hydroquinone can be highly toxic and cause the skin to burn if the skin is exposed to UV light as well and it has been attributed to liver damage and thyroid disorders. Furthermore, experimental use of the hydroquinone on rats “caused mutations in developing fetuses and decreased female fertility” (p.1217). The majority of the people who use bleaching products are not doing it within the confines of a clinic and prescription but rather use crude, over the counter products and therefore they often do not realize the potential dangers that a concoction of chemicals by unlicensed and non-sanctioned parties can cause. An excerpt from Ohioan medical practitioner, “Dr. Helen Torok”, in the Cosmetic surgery times journal (2009) states that bleaching agents such as hydroquinone work by “bleaching or lightening skin pigment by preventing melanin production (the substance in the body responsible for pigment or color of our skin).”If no melanin is produced, a lightening of the skin results”. This is important because the destruction of melanin is a symbol for the acceptance of a colonial mentality and the white supremacy induced psychosis within people of Melanoid origin across the global spectrum.
This topic is a very important topic to me because I often pondered the history and the inception of skin bleaching as an acceptable behaviour especially among women of African and Caribbean origin. The historical context shows that the issue of skin bleaching is a part of a deeper problem of self-hatred and inferiority complex that is all a part of a bigger problem, which is white supremacy. The themes of the “west is the best” and “white is right” represent a psychopathological stream of consciousness and a Euro-centered perspective, skin bleaching/lightening is a by-product of this. (Ajani, 2011). Once the knowledge about the history of skin bleaching has been established and the reason behind its prevalence is white supremacy as the denoted culprit. The next question to ask is the reason why skin bleaching continues to thrive to today and a widespread practice all over world? The reason for this is simply that white supremacy is still the dominant rule around the world and the ideas of white skin being the right skin and colourism hierarchy still permeates the society today. Without the elimination of white supremacy and people regaining their identity and racial self-esteem, then skin bleaching will continue to thrive as a behaviour and a psychosis.