It seems that people bleach their skins to circumvent social constructs that value people depending on their skin tones. Let’s go no further without stopping to recognize that skin color has nothing to do with one’s intelligence or with one’s moral worth. If only this simple truth could eradicate discriminatory practices, then maybe skin bleaching would not be so epidemic.
Some people use cerasee (asewosi) tea or “wari” tea to pre-emptively change the color of their babies while still in the womb so that their children may never face the social problems that dark-skinned people must surmount. Others choose light-skinned partners to help ensure that their children are of lighter skin tone. Often, they are complimented for taking appropriate measures to improve their family traits. Others wait until they are adults and it is then that they attack their skins to change their body’s envelop.
It seems that many Haitian people want light skin because of the high social status bestowed on the country’s mulattoes. Such behavior would suggest that it is only dark-skinned people who bleach their skins. However, in other countries, light-skinned people also bleach their skins so that they may become even lighter. Considering social discrimination and the chemical assaults on dark skin starting in the womb, one must respect those with dark skin who are at ease in their bodies. They know that dark skin is just as beautiful and just as good.
In general, when people bleach, they use various products to erase the pigment that naturally colors their skins. As the color is on the superficial layer of their bodies, they do not have to dig deep to change their skin tone. Often, people change skin tone without consideration of the health risks that can result from depriving their bodies of protection from ultraviolet radiation. For some, perceived social fitness reigns above health fitness.
The social color problem is not limited to Haiti. For a plurality of reasons, light skin is apparently the most desirable skin tone worldwide giving skin bleaching a global market. In the United States, the skin bleaching industry generates 5 billion dollars annually from selling their products. Approximately 25 to 70% of women in China, Philippines, India and Nigeria use lightening products. Increasingly, more men are using them too.
Although we do not have data to tell us what percentage of Haitian women use these products, their use appears to be so common that users have learned to modify them. They add permanent to the bleaching creams believing that this mixture is more potent. We also lack studies to tell us why Haitian women use these products. In one study, Chinese women reported that after lightening their skins, they become more suitable for desk jobs and for marriage. Perhaps Haitian women also believe that economic and social opportunities become more abundant after bleaching their skins.
If so, that perception is well rooted in the history of the territory. The country of Haiti was born from a trade that took advantage of differences in skin color between people of different latitudes to create a visible cast system in the Americas. In this pigmentocracy, the least pigmented people had the most privilege. Moderately pigmented people, often those with both African and European ancestry, occupied the middle class. Africans, as the most pigmented people, were the lowest class. Whereas legal slavery has stopped, the pigmentocracy continues. In Trinidad, the higher social status of moderately pigmented people has earned them the name high yellow. In the Caribbean where there were comparatively fewer whites, the skin tone of mulattoes became the symbol of being born right with access to the more desirable things in life. Fewer mulattoes were enslaved in comparison to the more pigmented population imported to the Caribbean. The pigmentocracy is no different in the US where today, dark-skinned people have 5 dollars of wealth for every 100 dollars in the possession of light-skinned people.
Since the European powers conquered much of the globe, it is not surprising that skin like theirs became a symbol of high social status globally. Nonetheless, not all the preference for light skin is attributable to European conquest. Hong Kong, the Philippines, and India are places reported to have preferred light-skinned people even before European colonization. One possible reason for this is that light skin was associated with privileged people who worked indoors and thereby avoided getting tanned. Poorer people did manual labor outdoors and were tanned. Some Chinese people avoided being mistaken for the underclass by using umbrellas whenever possible to shield them from the sun. Even in Europe where people are already light skinned, there was a social preference for even lighter skinned individuals.
The situation may have been different in West Africa. Although we do not have reports on this issue, the historical documents do not suggest that the Dahomean Kings selected lighter skinned mates even though they had the wealth and political power to triage who they fathered children with. In the Kongo and is many other parts of Africa, albinos were discriminated against and often treated as outcasts. Perhaps because of their shorter lifespans, Albinos were viewed as belonging to the afterlife. Wyatt MacGaffey, a researcher of European descent who worked in the Congo, was often referred to as dead man walking. Following European conquest, today in the Congo, people with light skin are often presumed to be those with greater social privilege and greater wealth.
In general, around the world, lighter skin people are favored, and darker skinned people are disfavored. Rather than spending time fighting against discrimination, many people just rather change their skin to join the more favored group. At present, skin bleaching offers a practical way to reap the social benefits that come with having a lighter skin tone in our pigmentocracy. In some ways, the Black is Beautiful Movement has yet to succeed. Around the world, the selling of skin bleaching products is a 48-billion-dollar enterprise and growing.
People may have different reasons for wanting to change their skin tone. One reason may be to satisfy common perceptions of beauty. Another reason may be to avoid the racism that leads people to say: pito nou lèd nou la (better we be ugly but still exist). Some dark-skinned people want more than mere existence. They want to feel valued. Rather then fight a society well anchored in a long history of racism, they turn on themselves to lighten their skin. Unfortunately, that approach has adverse health consequences for the user and for the general public
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