To be black in the world today is to be stigmatised for having dark skin. To be light-skinned, on the other hand, is to be celebrated in line with western beauty standards.
Black people not only experience this stigma from outside of their “racial” group. The bias against dark skin has also been internalised by black people the world over and manifests as colourism within the black community.
My research suggests that African-Americans consider light skin as the most ideal personal characteristic one can have. And this internalised bias towards whiteness is not only limited to the US. In my 30 years of studying this subject, I have found it to be prevalent in all places where people of African descent live – including Togo, Senegal, South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria.
The stigmatisation of dark skin has led to the popular practice of skin bleaching. After discovering the practice three decades ago, I began to investigate a condition that I have named the “bleaching syndrome”.
There have been attempts by governments to discourage the use of skin bleaches through sales bans, but these have been largely unsuccessful.
For as long as black people continue to idealise light skin, the bleaching syndrome will continue to afflict many dark-skinned populations.
The bleaching syndrome
The bleaching syndrome has three components. In the first place, it’s psychological, involving the adoption of alien ideals and the rejection of native characteristics.
African-American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark conducted a famous “doll study” in the 1940s that showed how black children as young as three come to understand their place in the world as “less than”. They reach this conclusion long before they have the ability to articulate race. It’s a phenomenon black psychologists refer to as a “colour complex”
This idea that dark skin is “less than” gets reinforced daily on television, in advertisements and through other forms of mass media.
The bleaching syndrome is also sociological. This means that it affects group behaviour in line with these ideals. The fact that black rappers systematically select light-skinned women to model in their videos is a good popular example of this.
The final aspect of the bleaching syndrome is physiological. Here, individual psychology and group behaviour eventually lead to the alteration of skin colour.
Demand fuels supply, despite bans
Throughout the African continent there have been attempts to discontinue the use of skin bleaches. These products are banned in The Gambia, Uganda, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. Nigeria has not banned bleaching per say but has banned the toxic additives like mercury contained in bleaching creams. While experts in Senegal have called on the government to take similar steps.
Bleaching soaps and creams have also been banned in the European Union, Australia and Japan.
Despite these efforts it does not appear that the popularity of the practice has slowed significantly. In countries such as Nigeria and Togo over 50% of the women bleach.
The fact is that the continued demand for bleaching creams means that they will continue to be manufactured and sold on the market, even if they are illegal. The bleaching syndrome persists because light skin remains the ideal and the sale of bleaching creams remain profitable.
Treat the problem at its root
The “natural hair movement” offers a good example of how we may be able to combat the bleaching syndrome.
Natural black hair, afros and dreadlocks have been historically stigmatised – much as dark skin is today – and there was a time when Black people applied all sorts of concoctions to straighten their hair. In fact the first African-American millionaire, Madame C.J. Walker, made her fortune selling hair straightening products to black people.
But today, many black people take pride in their natural hair and refuse to straighten it. This was not achieved by banning relaxers and other chemical hair straightening concoctions.
Rather, it was political action that changed black people’s ideas about black hair. Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, Steve Biko and Patrice Lumumba are among those who rallied against self-hate and spread a message of African pride. Natural hair came to be associated with freedom and justice.
The problem with bleaching bans is that they attempt to treat the physiological symptoms of the bleaching syndrome without addressing the sociological causes and the psychological colour complex that is at its root.
The ConversationThe bleaching syndrome will only come to an end when Africans and all black people learn to love their skin, just as they have learned to love their hair. Only then will bleaching creams become obsolete.
Ronald Hall, Professor of Social Work, Michigan State University