Sunday, July 31, 2005

“Can black people tan?”

— a white college student at Fordham, back in 1983, asking me whether I could turn browner in the sun, as we sat outside in the late spring.

My answer to that question, by the way (after I picked my jaw up off of the floor) was to calmly say “yes,” and I took off my watch so she could see the contrast between my tan and what was underneath my timepiece. I then held my arm up next to her olive-skinned Italian forearm to show her that my non-tan color was lighter than her skin tone.

Gina was quite friendly and earnest when she asked the question. The fact that she felt comfortable enough with me to ask it, made me feel that she deserved a response that would not humiliate or embarrass her by pointing out her ignorance. I was, however, quite perplexed by the blunt question for several reasons. It made me curious about what she exactly thought “black” meant in physical terms (educating her on the fact that race is a social construct probably would have been too much for her to handle). In her world, though, were we that different? Did she have no concept that all humans just have varying amounts of the same chemical, melanin, that affects the complexion they have? Was she just racist? That last word is loaded. Gina was not outwardly hostile toward someone of another race. To narrowly define that word here — she is a victim of growing up in a world of cultural, institutionalized racism and lack of exposure to people of another color.

That lack of exposure perpetuates the problem on both sides. It must be hard if you’re white, asking a question about skin tone, hair texture or any physical characteristics commonly associated with being “black.” You’ve got to take the leap of faith that the person you’re asking isn’t going to react badly. If you’re black, the insult of the question can cut psychologically deep. Are they judging my whole value by my color? Are they saying I’m subhuman? Am I, yet again, the inferior “other”? The fear of negative reaction on both sides in this politically correct world often ensures much-needed conversations on race will never occur. It doesn’t stop the ignorance, the stereotypes, or promote healing on either side when you remove the ability to ask and answer simple questions about difference.

Shakespeare’s Sister and I often have open conversations (on and offline) about race and difference. I cherish these conversations because they are free of defensiveness. [An early exchange between us is in the comments of my post, Notorious unsolved civil rights murder case resurfaces.] We have confidence that asking and answering questions about difference leads to more understanding, and ultimately a more coherent view of the politics of division on all sides (and the country’s political parties) when it comes to race. When we post items on these topics on either of our blogs they usually garner few comments. We both find this amusing and frustrating — the PC wall is hard to break down even in the progressive blogosphere.

The Melanin Thing, and the Brown Paper Bag Test

“They said, if you was white, you’d be alright, If you was brown, stick around, But as you is black, oh brother, Get back, get back, get back.”

— A 1947 blues song, “Black, Brown, and White,” written by Big Bill Broonzy.

By the way, Broonzy couldn’t get the song recorded in America (labels turned him down); he had to do it in Europe.

This whole melanin thing is quite complicated, and cultures around the world are obsessed with it, as human beings follow natural inclinations to categorize and organize things, including people. The assignment of other humans into easy visual cubbyholes by those in dominant cultures makes it infinitely easier to give political and economic power to (or withhold from) whole classes of people. It all spirals down into a pitiful morass of bigotry and insane systems of repression that are also accepted and perpetuated within those populations deemed racially “inferior.”

Here at home it’s still a taboo in much of the black community to talk about the internecine wars that can be started up over skin tone. It’s called Colorism. As Bill Maxwell in a 2003 article in the St. Petersburg Times noted quite nicely…

Colorism has a long and ugly history among American blacks, dating back to slavery, when light-skinned blacks were automatically given preferential treatment by plantation owners and their henchmen.

Colorism’s history is fascinating: Fair-skinned slaves automatically enjoyed plum jobs in the master’s house, if they had to work at all. Many traveled throughout the nation and abroad with their masters and their families. They were exposed to the finer things, and many became educated as a result. Their darker-tone peers toiled in the fields. They were the ones who were beaten, burned and hanged, the ones permanently condemned to be the lowest of the low in U.S. society. For them, even learning – reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic – was illegal.

When slavery ended, light-skinned blacks established social organizations that barred darker ex-slaves. Elite blacks of the early 20th century were fair-skinned almost to the person. Even today, most blacks in high positions have fair skin tones, and most blacks who do menial jobs or are in prison are dark.

Maxwell describes a phenomenon that I am well-aware of because my mom, who was fair, experienced it and shared the tale with me — the brown paper bag test. [She was of American black, West Indian andNative American descent, among many other “spices.”] Her exposure to the “test” occurred in the 1950s, while living in Brooklyn, NY, she was dating a young gentleman, who was brown-skinned. She was invited to a party in the neighborhood and brought her friend to the dance. At the door, the host leaned in to my mother and said that he could not be admitted with her. She was upset and asked to step inside to discuss the matter. The host was uncomfortable that my mom didn’t get the “secret signal”, but brought her in (while he waited outside), and was told point blank “He doesn’t pass the brown paper bag test.” He was too dark, and there was to be none of that going on at this party.

Needless to say, my mom — and her date — left that party, embarrassed and hurt.

Maxwell shares Henry Louis Gates’s experience with the “test.”

In his 1996 book The Future of the Race, Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard, described his encounter with the brown paper bag when he came to Yale in the late 1960s, when skin-tone bias was brazenly practiced: “Some of the brothers who came from New Orleans held a “bag party.’ As a classmate explained it to me, a bag party was a New Orleans custom wherein a brown paper bag was stuck on the door.

“Anyone darker than the bag was denied entrance. That was one cultural legacy that would be put to rest in a hurry – we all made sure of that. But in a manner of speaking, it was replaced by an opposite test whereby those who were deemed “not black enough’ ideologically were to be shunned. I was not sure this was an improvement.”…We separate ourselves by skin tone almost as much as we ever did. If, say, you check out the “desired” female beauties in rap videos, you will find redbones galore.

To further confuse the issue, you have the fairly recent phenomenon (within the last century) of white people desiring darker, tanned skin. It was once perceived that a white person with a tan was a outdoor, lower-class laborer, and that pale beauty was prized. Later the luxurious, coveted, golden tan came into favor as a symbol of health and indicated affluence and the ability to take leisure at the beach (and later the tanning bed).

Acheiving a tan, however, was definitely not desired because whites wanted to be mistaken as “black”, of course, given the negative social status that came with that racial identification. Besides, with European features and non-kinky hair, there was still a level of “protection” from that misidentification. In the present day, the pendulum in enlightened circles has swung back to the other side regarding tanning, again for health reasons, because too much sun is linked to skin cancer. Brown is now bad again.

Given this mixed-up cultural mess, is it any wonder why there is a multi-million-dollar industry that profits from the sale of skin-lightening products?

Not comfortable in your own skin? Lighten up.

If you can’t beat the system, try to join it. It’s a worldwide phenomenon, affecting Asians, Africans, Indians, and other non-European peoples. Women, of course bear the brunt of the pain in this racist syndrome, as the cultures attach light skin tone to the highest standards of feminine beauty. Amina Mire, a university professor in Toronto publishing part of a doctoral dissertation in a special report forCounterpunchPigmentation and Empire: The Emerging Skin-Whitening Industry, does an excellent exposé of the health risks posed by products created and distributed by multinational corporations that profit handsomely from this sickness.

At least in the United States, racially white eastern and southern European women have used skin-whitening in order to appear as ‘white’ as their ‘Anglo-Saxon’ “native” white sisters. In the United States, women of colour also have practiced skin-whitening. Many of the early skin-bleaching commodities such as Nodinalina skin bleaching cream, a product which has been in the US market since 1889, contained 10 per cent ammoniated mercury. Mercury is a highly toxic agent with serious health implications. According to Kathy Peiss, in 1930, a single survey found advertising for 232 different brand names of skin-bleaching creams promoted in mainstream magazines to mainly white women consumers in the United States.

…For example, almost all the medical literature published by western medical and dermatology journals offer us women of colour as victims of the dubious desire for unattainable corporeal whiteness. This same unattainable desire is often reinforced with horrifying images of the damaged faces and bodies of women of color after using cheap skin-whitening creams containing toxic chemical agents such as ammoniated mercury, corticosteroids, and hydroquinone.

The faces of Black South Africans permanently damaged by long-term use of Over-the-Counter (OTC) 2 per cent hydroquinone based skin-whitening cream.

The emphasis on such ‘health risks’has facilitated the production, and marketing around the world, of new and, conceivably, ‘safer’ but highly expensive skin-whitening commodities and combatant technologies. The emerging ‘high-end’ skin-whitening commodities are marketed mainly to affluent Asian women to modify skin tone, also to white women as anti-aging therapy.

The multinational “beauty machine”

Mire notes that these large companies operate in a covert manner when marketing their product, always trying to steer clear of the political (and thus financial) impact of marketing campaigns in third world countries of color, where the message is “white is right.” With the ability to market and sell in the decentralized, amorphous world of the Internet, these companies remain stealthy, while profiting from fostering Colorism.

Currently, transnational biotechnology, pharmaceutical and cosmetics corporations are engaged in the research and development and the mass marketing of a plethora of new forms of skin-whitening products which can “bleach-out” the “dark skin tones” of women of colour and can remove corporeal evidence of the aging processes, ‘unhealthy life-style’ and overall pollution from the skin of white women. In North America and Europe, the emerging high-end skin-whitening products have been promoted as new ‘therapeutic’ regimes which can ‘cleanse,’ ‘purify’ and ‘regenerate’ aging skin. Consequently, in North America and Europe, skin-whitening commodities aimed at white women are often sold under the banner of ‘anti-aging skincare.’In other parts of the world skin-whitening commodities are promoted to ‘whiten’ and ‘brighten’ the ‘dark skin tones’ of women of colour.

This growing industry is a lucrative one whose reach is greatly facilitated by systematic use of the internet as the main medium for the dissemination of advertising messages for skin-whitening products and related technologies. Some of the leading transnational corporations engaged in the ‘trafficking’ of skin-whitening products have extensive e-business domains. Often these companies set up internet domains and e-shops in specific countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, just to name a few. In addition to such e-business sales drives, extensive use of the internet allows these corporations to avoid both the negative political implications and legal regulatory restrictions they could face if they were to openly promote skin-whitening commodities in North America and European markets.

“BI-White: The skin Pigmentation ID.” (Source:

You’ve heard of L’Oreal, right? It is the world’s largest cosmetics company, with sales in 2003 topping $14 billion. But did you know that it is a leading promoter of skin-whitening cosmetics? This is shameless, and brilliant as a business plan, since the market for such products, while distasteful, is booming.

The influence of the pharmaceutical industry is evidenced by much of L’Oreal’s promotional rhetoric for skin-whitening cosmetics and related technologies. L’Oreal’s ads for skin-whitening cosmetics increasingly blur the line between cosmetic and pharmaceutical claims. Such close integration between the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries has serious social, medical, and political implications. In fact, L’Oreal has already designated some of its subsidiaries, such as Vichy Laboratories and LA Roche-Posay Laboratoire Pharmaceutique, as quasi-pharmaceutical outlets through which the company can successfully promote skin-whitening and other cosmetics under the rubric of skincare biomedicine.

The Asian markets are targeted just as hard as African ones; in fact L’Oreal tailors its message so expertly and craft its ads so well, you’d think the product should a must-have in your beauty arsenal.

L’Oreal calls this marketing strategy ‘Geocosmetics:

More than half of Korean women experience brown spots and 30 per cent of them have a dull complexion. Over-production of melanin deep in the skin that triggers brown spots and accumulation of melanin loaded dead cells at the skin’s surface create a dull and uneven complexion. Vichy Laboratories has been able to associate the complementary effectiveness of Kojic Acid and pure Vitamin C in an everyday face care: BI-White.

Another L’Oreal advertisement for skin-whitening brand is called “White Perfect.” This particular skin-whitening brand is sold in L’Oreal’s Asian markets and online e-shops. In that way, those who live outside Asia can purchase this and other L’Oreal skin-whitening brands over the internet.

…L’Oreal’s advertising for skin-whitening commodities reinforces and consolidates the globalized ideology of white supremacy and the sexist practice of the biomedicialization of women’s bodies. It is in this specific context of the continuum of the western practice of global racism and the economic practice of commodity racism that the social, political and cultural implications of skin-whitening must be located and resisted. Consequently, feminist/antiracist and anti-colonial responses must confront this social phenomenon as part and parcel of our old enemy, the “civilising mission” ; the violent moral prerogative to cleanse and purify the mind and bodies of the “dark/dirt/savage”.

Amina Mire also notes that L’Oreal has 12 major subsidiaries: Lancôme Paris, Vichy Laboratories, La Roche-Posay Laboratoire Pharmacaceutique, Biotherm, L’Oreal Paris, Garnier, L’Oreal professional Paris, Giorgio Armani Perfumes, Maybelline New York, Ralph Lauren, Helena Rubinstein skincare, Shu Uemura, Maxtrix, Redken, SoftSheen-Carlson™. Not all of the above listed L’Oreal subsidiaries deal with the manufacture, marketing, and distribution of skin-whitening products, but it illustrates the reach of the company.

Mire’s lengthy, thought-provoking article at Counterpunch is certainly worth the click and your time. It might also be useful to ask a few questions of L’Oreal; after all, these executives, scientists and marketing people do quite well (and I’m sure sleep like babies at night) fostering institutionalized racism, colorism and sexism for a buck.

Lindsay Owen-Jones,
Chairman & CEO of L’Oréal
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Email the article’s author, Amina Mire: amina.mire at utoronto dot ca.


For a look at the issue of effects of racism through the prism of hair texture, read these earlier Blend posts:

The effects of slavery permeate our society to this day
The politics of hair (again): school bans white girl with braids
Good hair day

Thanks to House Blender Impeach Bush for the pointer.