White Sells, and It’s Toxic

Why racism lingers in the cosmetics aisle.

Many females of Asian, African, Latin American, and Arab descent learn early on that the more European you look, the better. Many cosmetic companies have worked hard to profit from this, providing women of color with toxic “solutions” for having the shade of skin they were born with.

Take skin lightening. Some might compare its harmful effects to tanning and say this is simply a case of people wanting what they don’t have. But the desire to have fair skin is deeper than that and has a much more damaging history stemming from internalized racism, a nasty place that rarely seems to be understood or even acknowledged.

On a recent trip to India, I was impressed by the way the country has sustained its culture despite Westernization and standards imposed upon it by British colonialists. Most local women I came across regularly wore traditional attire and as I rode through the countryside, I saw virtually every male wearing a khadi, homespun garb promoted by Gandhi as a way for people to boycott British products and return to using domestic-made goods. Ever since British rule ended in India in the late 1940s, the country has been renaming its cities to bring them back to their original Indian pronunciations and spellings.

But despite all of the preservation of culture in modern day India, the notion that fair skin is superior – which can largely be attributed to a history of lighter skinned people invading and ruling India – has been feverishly sustained and even expanded to encompass men. Ruthless advertising has further promoted the idea that lighter skin will get you the job you want, a significant other, and generally make all your dreams come true. While some of the most vomit-inducing commercials have been banned from Indian airwaves, there is still an abundance of advertising that needs no translation to show that companies that sell skin lightening products are capitalizing on a popular idea in India that a light complexion leads to a better life. These companies know: white sells.

While India’s issues with skin lightening are fresh examples, this is certainly not the only culture where people have held onto the idea that white is right. Amongst the youth of color I work with, it is not uncommon to hear the word “dark” being used as an insult or to hear a young black male include “light-skinned” on a list of the most desirable attributes of a female he’s interested in.

The acceptance and lack of questioning of this mentality regularly perplexes me. Beyond the obvious – that lingering racism gives an advantage to those in the United States who have white skin – it seems that many have forgotten, are unaware of, or choose to ignore the origins of color discrimination within black American communities: white slave owners forcing themselves upon black female slaves. The “light-skinned” offspring that resulted from this exploitation often had an advantage over their more African-looking counterparts, especially as slavery waned in the United States. Almost 150 years after the end of slavery, an archaic “lighter is better” mindset is still widely accepted, whether it is articulated or not.

In addition to matters of skin tone, black females with tightly curled tresses are likely to be inculcated with the notion that their hair in its natural state is unmanageable – and bad. Many black girls are taught this at a young age, and before they can get to know their hair, many of them have had it straightened with a toxic chemical relaxer. These chemicals sink into the scalp; these harmful ideas sink into impressionable minds. It can take years to undo the physical, psychological, and let’s not forget environmental damage, that is, if it is reversed at all.

If a black woman decides to present herself as she is, she will still have to learn how to explain herself when she inevitably comes across an ethnophobe; she may be informed that her appearance is an outdated relic of the failed “black is beautiful” movement in the sixties.

This mentality is deeply harmful in communities with a history of racism and oppression, but the idea that there’s a singular beauty standard for all women to achieve is rife in our world, regardless of a culture’s history. The solutions to such invented problems are, quite literally, toxic – not just emotionally but environmentally, as well. For women, there is always something to “fix.”

Images: Greg Westfall, Dainis Matisons, Spiralsheep