When Life isn’t Fair…

I don’t think I’ve passed by a single pharmacy or beauty supply section in any corner store or hypermarket without encountering some skin lightening creams, soaps, powders, lotions, or treatments. It makes me acutely aware of one thing in the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa—Black is NOT beautiful for many of these communities. There are skin lightening creams in the states, for sure. I remember on my way back from abroad, I stopped by a Queens shop to get my eyebrows threaded and henna. The lady next to me stopped in to get some brightening. She went in the back of the salon and underwent the uncomfortable chemical process. She happily walked out the salon a hint of a shade lighter. Several times I’ve seen flyers featuring skin brightening/whitening treatments at halal stores in the Bay Area. During the year I took a summer class in Berkeley, I discovered an Indian owned spa/salon right on the halfway mark between my dorms and Cal. I grew up with sistas who used to slather on Black and White creame everyday. My family never thought there was anything wrong with being brown. In fact, my mother used to put my sister in the sun when she was a little in hopes that her porcelein white skin would pick up a little tan. It took years before my sister tanned, as opposed to just burn and freckle. Now she has a peachy complexion of a southern California girl. The other day, she said her friend told her she was still to pale. It was funny to have that conversation considering the recent controversy over a skin bleaching product. Normally skin lightening creams have been marketed to women. But it took a campaign designed to appeal to men that finally drew controversy. Shahrukh Khan endorsed “Fair and Handsome,” a bleaching creme designed for men. The BBC reported on the criticism he received in an article titled, Beyond the Pale?

But there are many in blogistan who have written insightful posts about colorism and skin bleaching. Two of my favorite entries are “Ultra Brown” and The Right Shade. In addition to recent coverage of the controversy, I pulled up a few articles about the health risks of skin bleaching. I was suprised to see the prevalence of bleaching creams in Africa’s most populous nation. The article, Whitening Skin Can Be Deadlyreveals:

So, the prevalent medical evidence of high levels of mercury poisoning among women of Saudi, African, Asian and Mexican backgrounds reflects a common and prevailing belief that whiter skin has greater currency and appeal.

The article, African women risk all in quest for lighter skin colour, reports:

In Nigeria, where the use of skin-lightening creams is widespread, an estimated 77 per cent of women use them. In Senegal, the figure is 52 per cent, in South Africa 35 percent and in Mali 25 per cent.

Researchers in South Africa have pointed out that, “Society has a significant impact on the misuse of skin-lightening agents. It is known that during slavery years, light-skinned people were often given preferable treatment…and in modern times, studies have indicated that the majority of black men prefer light-skinned women as partners, girlfriends or wives.”

I walk past those pale women in black abayas who look like they never stepped outside in the sun a day in their lives. They add to their achievement by caking on the finest, whitest face powder.I wonder how they see me. And sometimes I see the disdain in their eyes. Even in societies where you see all sorts of shades, milky moon white to rich mohaganey browns, I find those bleaching creams offend me. They send a not so subtle message, that life is so much better when you’re fair. But you cannot be fair enough. Each time I see those creams, I feel like it is taking a jab at me and the beautiful brown people that I love so much.

25 thoughts on “When Life isn’t Fair…

  1. I had to reply. I live in Neew Jersy but I am originally from NYC. I have the reverse problem, I am a mocha latte color my duaghters are light bright and yes I put them in the sun when they were babies, they needed color. The youngest was transparent at birth, you could see every vein in her ace YUCK, I put her in the sun on day 2 of her life yes, I did. Well here in Newark the call my babies (8 and 14) white, half breeds, masa’s children and crackers. My little 8 year old said she wanted coco butter this summer so she could darken up. That was it. I told her that people pay good money to look like her look at Michael Jackson and 2 much sun can give you cancer. I told her love the skin your in baby, because Allah made it only for you. She now tells her friends Don’t hate me because I am beautiful, your just jealous of the skin I’m in. This skin thing is hard to explain to children.


  2. assalamu alikeum

    I was at the masjid a few days ago and I was walking up the stairs and saw a family friend I havent seen in a few years. I said my salams and whats the first thing she says to me? :

    “OMG, i havent seen you in a while. You’ve become so dark!”

    @_@ ——–> my facial reaction.

    I was shocked. No salams, nothing, just mention of my skin tone. I didnt really know what to say because it was so random and unexpected i just laughed, but as i was walking up to the prayer room, i thought to myself, whats wrong with being dark? I mean she was a dark skinned woman herself.

    I thought about it for a while and it crossed my mind that actually that wasnt the 1st time someone had said that to me (or mentioned it to my mother!) over the last few years (they’re all black women). Usually they say their salams first, have genereal chat and mention how big i’ve grown and then drop in the change in skin tone.

    I was relatively light skinned as a child (enough for people to assume my daddy was a white skinned guy) and through some of my teenage years and now i’ve gotten darker. I don’t understand why my skin tone has become an issue for others, its my skin. The only thing i hate about my skin are the blemishes and little spots i break out in (i got oily t-zone area). In a way it kinda makes me feel a little self concious. Deep down i know theres nothing wrong, but the way its been said, you’d think it was a tragedy i got darker, its almost like they’re horrified. It makes you feel like theres something wrong, when you know there isnt. I hate that, i really do.


  3. Lavonne,

    I understand cruel jokes and teasing that light skinned children experience. But I don’t think that your problem is a direct opposite of the global system of racism that still priveleges whiter skin over darker skin. I would rather say that is a cruel way that children and others exclude and dehumanize other children. Part of their attitudes stem from a backlash against the legacy of slavery and the discrimination of darker skin blacks. In Black popular culture, light skinned women and women who are not phenotypically African are still the beauty standard (i.e. Halle Berry and Beyonce). This is why there still is a prevalence of bleaching treatments and Black women who avoid outdoor acivities.

    I personally am concerned that you would jeopardize your baby’s delicate skin by putting them in the sun without protection at a young age. My sister was much older and the effects of sun burn were still damaging. Besides my sister, I grew up with other light skinned female relatives. I am very much aware of the favored treatment my mother received over her sisters and the resentment she received by her peers. Even with the resentment, street fights, and family tensions, my mother did have many priveleges due to her ambiguous status. I previously had an entry about the colorism I experienced from both ends of the spectrum, but took it down because it revealed too much personal information.

    I think it is important to recognize our experience, but not have such a myopic focus that we overlook the effects of colorism in the Black community. In truth, your children will be priveleged both in the Black community and in America due to their fairer complexion. They will likely will receive better pay, less likely to receive harsh prison sentences if arrested, and will be considered more desirable mates than their darker counterparts. While your children may be teased now by their classmates, I am sure that people highly value their light complexion. Frequently, fair complexioned children receive better treatment by family members. “Mixed” “Light-skinned” “Red-boned” and “Yellow” are often synonomous with beautiful in our community. It is still common to say, “Dark but Pretty” and I have often been told “You’re pretty for a dark girl.” Rarely is that the case for light skinned females. There is also a historical legacy of colorism in our community where dark skinned men and women were barred from joining clubs and social organizations.

    Just two examples, the first a study on colorism and one a crass club flyer:
    Black Students Still Favor Lighter Skin
    Light Skinned women Get Free Passes
    Don’t get me wrong Lavonna, I am not trying to dismiss your daughter’s experiences. But I feel like your engagement with this issue does, in fact, belittle the devastating emotional and health consequences of the desire for lighter skin. I think that we should celebrate the diversity of skin colors and shades that exist in the black community. We should be happy with who we are. I think it is troubling that so many reduce people’s worth to their pigmentation.


  4. last summer when i was in jordan, a family friend made a point of complimenting my “bronze” skin (i have no idea how a woman who knows almost no english learned the word “bronze”)…not a regular compliment, but the kind that comes as a reassurance about something i was supposed to be ashamed of.

    i’m arab, and half white even, but i’m still darker skinned AND i had spent a day at the beach in italy prior to traveling to amman so i was tan on top of that. my tata, and others who don’t know much english, describe my complexion as “black,” lol, but what they mean is “dark.”

    i was also disturbed by the prevalence of skin whitening cremes in the drugstores and advertisements on tv and billboards. it did make little brown skin me feel really self-conscious, like i was under constant scrutiny, especially compared to my light skinned circassian cousin.


  5. Salaams Margari,

    I hope you’re well, insha Allah.

    I have often seen these kinds of creams and lotions in UK shops. Members of my wife’s family have used them in the past (and maybe still do). Personally, I hate such things and will not have them brought into my home.

    Ma’as salama,

    Abdur Rahman


  6. Margari,

    Spot on post and follow on comment. I think we need to move beyond the idea that skin colour, whether light or dark, means anything. I dont think those who value dark skin over light skin are any different.

    Personally, I like dark skin. That is nothing more than a personal preference when it comes to the women I find attrative.

    Being married to an Arab lady with very light and very dark family members this issue has come up many times.

    The other day we were shopping and we saw some skin lightening creams, and that is here in the USA.

    I say be happy with the way God made you.


  7. Addendum:

    I found this interesting quote in an article, “Skin Care, White Magic”, “Every Chinese woman wants to have fair skin and so do I. A girl with fair skin looks prettier.” The article stated that one third of China’s 5.5 billion dollar cosmetics industry was dedicated to skin whitening products.

    In a Counterpunch article “Pigmentation and Empire” Amina Mire reports: “in 2001, in Japan alone, the skin-whitening market was estimated to be worth $ 5.6. billion. According to the same report, the fastest growing skin-whitening market in Asia is China. In 2001, China’s skin-whitening market was estimated to be over $ 1.3 billion.”

    The 2002 CNN report, “”Skin Deep: Dying to be white”, features an ancient Chinese saying: “One white covers up three ugliness”

    Commercial for Fair and Lovely “The Obstacle between me and my dream job was my skin”

    Another interesting Fair and Lovely Commercial

    Oil of Olay, “Only UV Whitening”

    Olay Fights the 5 signs of skin darkening in the Gulf

    For intensive whitening treatment while you sleep

    Short Documentary: <a href:”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jthAkrMmV-A”Not Fair, Still Lovely


  8. I sympathize with your frustrations. I actually had a good friend of the family from Nigeria (Allah yarhama) say that if she had to chose between money for skin bleach and money for food, she would pick the cream. It’s sad and it would be nice if we all could love the skin we’re in, but the truth is altering their skin changes the way they are viewed by the wider society. it’s kind of hard to realize how fabulous you are when everyone around you is putting you down. Until that changes, bleaching will continue.

    thanks for articles/links , I will definitely show them to some of my bleaching aunties and buddies as proof that they can really mess themselves up with that stuff.


  9. Joseaf, I don’t have anymore resources than listed here. I suggest you visit your school library and ask the reference desk to point you to good resources. I am sure you can find more information through electronic journals. But they can direct you better than I can.


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  11. Hi there,

    I am writing to you from a television production company based in Leeds, England. We are developing an idea for a documentary about the skin bleaching phenomenon and are in the early stages of research at the moment. I would be very interested in hearing all of your opinions on this topic. As I said, this is just an idea at the moment and so we are interested in things like: the reasons why people bleach their skin, the products, the dangers, the benefits, the after-effects etc. We are hoping to find some individual case studies of people who have bleached their skin for reasons, whether it be to do with discrimination, or just cosmetic reasons. Or people who have not tried but want to. I also need to collect some medical facts and opinions about surgery that can bleach ones skin.

    Any information you can offer would be great and very much appreciated. You can email me back on truenorthproductions.co.uk or if you would prefer to talk, then my number is 0044 113 222 8369.

    Thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you soon,


    Rachel Breckner

    Devlopment Researcher
    True North Productions


  12. I’m smiling a little, as I remember growing up I was always trying to get as much sun as possible so I could be darker so I wouldn’t be classed as white or thought of as European (I’m mediterranean so I’ve got a naturally olive complexion). This was during my ‘black power’ years.

    I guess its no less perverted than trying to whiten one’s skin, they’re all signs of some sort of insecurity within oneself (when I was even younger still, I think I kept wanting to have a non ‘ethnic’ sounding name).

    There’s beauty in all races people! Be content with what you have.


  13. Salaam, I would like input from the posters on the use of such skin creams when people of color actually need to use them because of permanent scarring due to hyperpigmentation and adult acne, these are things that dermatologists do prescribe. Although I do understand the posts presented, I can share some of my observations in a separate post.


  14. good evening ladies, this topic is close to my own heart. growing up as ablack girl in england this is something that i have had to face a lot. and well it should be infantile, but it is about how women are represnted. colonialism from european powers in the 19th century was very forceful in its enforcement of a white aryan ideal. it’s a shame that we have all fallen for it. when i turn on the tv and i want to see the embodiment of what a beautiful black woman is, i will rarely see a black woman, i will see a biracial woman or a latina or a black woman airbrushed within an inch of her lfe. it’s what men want and what women go for. so i satisfy myself with my own god given appearance and too hell with what the world thinks.


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  16. Skin whitening is usually done with lightening acids like kojic acid. in the old days, chemicals like hydroquinone are used but it is now banned today. ,’;`’

    View all of the most recently released piece of writing on our online site


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