When I was a child, the phrases “Black is Beautiful” and “Say it Loud! I’m Black and I’m Proud!” were constants in my household. Though these phrases originated well before I was born, my parents did all they could to convince me that my black skin was beautiful. As a result of their efforts, I came to view my chocolate skin as a prized possession.
Because of the way I was raised, I was shocked to learn that the rest of the world did not view black skin in the same way that I did. I was appalled to learn that many colleges, clubs, and even churches used to employ the “paper bag test” to ensure that those admitted would have the “right” color and background. I also learned that many Black people “passed” for white for white to better their lives.
But even after learning about this history, I was convinced that it was just that — history. After all, millions of Americans looked up to strong, brown and dark-skinned women like Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Jordan, and Maya Angelou. Dark, beautiful women like Beverly Johnson, Iman, and Naomi Campbell graced the covers of fashion magazines like Vogue. When people of all colors proclaimed the grace and beauty of women like Michelle Obama and Lupita Nyong’o, I was certain that a new day had dawned because it seemed to me that Black women of all shades were declaring themselves beautiful.
As it turns out, I was only partially right. While skin bleaching did wane in popularity after the early 20th century, it has never completely faded away.
In recent history, a number of celebrities – most notably Michael Jackson, Sammy Sosa, and Lil’ Kim – have appeared in public with visibly lighter skin. Though some of Michael Jackson’s melanin loss may have been due to vitiligo, it appears that other celebrities have whitened their skin for purely cosmetic reasons.
While it is easy to dismiss the actions of celebrities as the whims of eccentric wealthy people, regular people bleach their skin as well. New treatments and products are continually showing up. My initial reaction to the news of the new drug was the same as it always is whenever skin bleaching is involved: “Why would anyone want to bleach their beautiful black skin?”
But then I remembered the words of an old blues song that describes the dilemma perfectly:
If you’re White, you’re all right
If you’re Brown, stick around
But if you’re Black get back!
Although those words were written decades ago during the Jim Crow era, sadly, the racist reality they capture has vestiges in our time. Now, as in the 1930s, being white is a good thing. On nearly every economic measure, whites fare better than Blacks or Latinos. Due to the huge racial wealth gap, even educated Black families have less wealth than similar white families. Whites are less likely to be unemployed. With these additional funds, white people can afford homes in nicer neighborhoods.
The benefits of whiteness extend beyond bank accounts. White skin is less likely to produce fear in police officers. White people are more likely to have their pain taken seriously by doctors. White people do not get followed around while shopping.
Clearly, the color of one’s skin can influence many factors about one’s life. But while being white in this country has very real advantages, the problem is not skin color. The problem is that our society, one founded on racism, continues to grant privileges based on skin color. Those that engage in bleaching are trying to gain some of those privileges for themselves.
Obviously, bleaching one’s skin is not enough to make a person “white;” these people will still not be considered white under our normal definition. However, many studies have shown that white people have a clear preference for lighter-skinned Blacks. In one study, whites were more likely to accord higher intelligence to lighter-skinned Blacks. Whites are more likely to hire lighter-skinned Blacks and pay them more money.
In short, it is better to be white, and whites, through their own colorism, work to maintain this hierarchy within nonwhite groups by preferring some over others. While this reality remains unchanged, some Black people will bleach their skin in hopes of gaining some of that privilege for themselves. So, skin bleaching will not end until white privilege and racism do. Thus, we must continue our long fight against racism. If the social hierarchy that places darker-skinned people at the bottom is removed, the reasons people have to hate their skin will likely be removed as well.
However, because racism will not be eradicated tomorrow, we must work today against the forces that cause people to look at their beautiful Blackness with disgust. Until racism is no more, we must give our children uplifting messages about Blackness. We must tell them that they are beautiful (or handsome) no matter their skin tone. We must tell them that they are worthy just the way they are. We must teach them about all the beautiful Black people in history who fought for them. We must buy them toys and books that affirm them. We must tell them that they are worthy and amazing just the way they are. We must love our children, so that they might love themselves. Self-love, and the true confidence that comes with it, is a more effective agent against racism than any bleaching cream could ever hope to be.
Nareissa L. Smith is a summa cum laude graduate of Spelman College and a magna cum laude graduate of Howard University School of Law. Over the course of her academic career, Professor Smith has taught Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure, Legal Writing, and seminars examining the role of race and gender in our legal system. She can be followed on twitter at @NareissasNotes