Your Blues Ain't Like Mine: Bleaching vs Tanning
by Yaba Blay
Without fail, every time there’s a public discussion about skin bleaching, at least one person attempts to liken Black women (or women of color) bleaching their skin to White women tanning theirs. More often than not, that person is White. But as I watched the recent media frenzy surrounding Cameroonian pop artist, Dencia and her new skin care line Whitenicious, I was struck by just how common responses like these are among Black people:
“The irony is that there are white people that want to be more tan and we seem to want the opposite. SMH.”
“…always found it interesting that no one really protests skin tanning or contribute it to self-hate but skin lightening is.”
“White people tan, does it mean they are not proud of their whiteness and want to be black? So why the gist that chicks that bleach are accused of wanting to be white by bleaching? It’s the quest for supposed perfection and wanting to meet up to society’s standard of what is beautiful.”
Understandably, I’m accustomed to these types of rhetorical attempts to evade White privilege when coming from White people. But when Black people can’t recognize White supremacy when it’s staring them in the face, I feel inclined to give a proper introduction. After all, it’s why I do the work I do. So let’s set the record straight, shall we?
The cosmetic practice of using chemical agents to whiten the skin began with European women. The history of skin bleaching can be traced back to the Elizabethan era of “powder and paint” – a time when a large majority of European and American women ingested arsenic wafers and coated their skins with whitening products (powders, paints, whitening lotions/cream) containing ceruse, lye, and ammonia, which by virtue of their toxicity produced the desired pale and extreme white appearance. Yes, European women literally poisoned themselves to look as white as possible.
In addition to ingesting arsenic to achieve a pale white appearance, Queen Elizabeth I reportedly painted artificial veins on her forehead to further simulate a youthfully translucent complexion.
When considered within the historical context of European (White) nationalism, physical whiteness marked those who embodied it as those who had access to power. A person’s skin color was a clear indicator of their social and economic status. To be “fair” indicated that one was of aristocracy; that one did not have to toil under the hot sun like farm laborers or others of the working class. (Herein lie the historical roots of “redneck” as a reference to poor Whites). Covered from neck to toe, donning hats and parasols, people of class and refinement protected themselves from the sun, lest they be associated with common folk.
For European women, the literal “bearers of whiteness” whose wombs would birth future generations, whiteness further communicated their ability to maintain the so-called purity of the race. Those women who exhibited the whitest of skins represented the most desirable mates and as such, they stood to benefit from the display of an exceedingly white appearance. At the time, a woman without a husband was a woman without a future. Her task was to attract a man who would take care of her. And so began cosmetic efforts to whiten the skin.
American women later “inherited” this European tradition of whitening. In fact, skin whiteners remained the most popular cosmetic among White American women throughout the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries. The “ideal face,” one achieved with the use of products generally known as “lily white, white wash and white cosmetic,” suggested bourgeois refinement, and in the American context, it also signified racial privilege.
That is, until the Industrial Revolution. The shift to factories, machines, and mass production ushered lower class laborers indoors, transforming their once ‘dark’ skin a paler shade of white. The elite class once again distinguished themselves from the working classes vis a vis skin color – ‘darker’ skin indicated that you could afford to go on “holiday” to warmer environments (tan skin has long been referred to as ‘holiday skin’) and that you could afford a leisurely lifestyle. There was a difference between the weathered look of working outdoors and an “exotic” tan. The latter was a mark of privilege. Fashion icon Coco Chanel is often credited with making tanning chic after she reportedly returned from a Mediterranean vacation sporting a new golden brown look, setting a new standard of (White) beauty that has been a mainstay ever since.
Among Whites, tan skin remains a symbol of attractiveness, one that continues to communicate one’s ability to partake in leisure (e.g. laying out by a pool or on a beach).
To be clear, a White person who tans is not seeking a darker complexion in order to reap any of the presumed benefits that come with actually being Black. The “darkness” they seek is one that is reflective of wealth and privilege, not real dark people. A White person with a tan is just that – a White person with tan. White people, on account of their Whiteness, have the luxury of dabbling in whatever cosmetic and aesthetic practices they so choose without ever losing their racial status or privilege as White. They won’t be paid less because they are tan nor will they suddenly become the victims of hate crimes or racial profiling. At the end of the day and at the top of the morning, they are still White and intend to stay that way.
Furthermore, whether they tan their skin, fill her lips with collagen, or get butt injections, White women are not engaging in racialized aesthetic practices in the same ways that women of color are. In fact, in so doing, White women are actually reinforcing racial stereotypes about Black women’s presumed (hyper)sexuality. To them, big lips and big asses are “sexy,” but their notions of “sexy” are birthed from the historical legacy of hypersexualizing Black women’s big lips and big assess. (Heard of Sarah Baartman?) Skin tanning does not threaten White supremacy – it upholds it.
A Black person who lightens his/her skin, on the other hand, is attempting to gain access to the social status reserved for Whites. In the context of White supremacy – the ideology that legitimizes the power and privilege of Whites over any and all other racial/cultural groups -Whiteness is invaluable. It has been promoted as the essence of being human, civilized, beautiful and superior—the norm against which all other bodies are compared—while Blackness has been associated with being bestial, barbaric, ugly and inferior. These binary characteristics have been inscribed onto actual bodies to create the systems of racism and colorism we know today; and it is both racism and colorism that fuel the practice of skin bleaching.
In the context of White supremacy, for many people of African descent, it is “logical” that White/light skin color provides more social advantages than Black/dark skin color, and therefore skin bleaching presents itself as a “logical” opportunity to not only change one’s skin color, but to change one’s social condition(s). The reality is, however, that no matter how light a Black person gets from bleaching, s/he is still Black. A Black person with bleached skin is just that – a Black person with bleached skin. However, given the very real and lived impact of colorism, a Black person with bleached skin might expect to be treated more favorably within his/her community. Research and lived experience confirm that colorism plays a strong role in shaping the life chances of people of African descent. In fact, light skin provides greater opportunities and resources in almost all of the major categories of life chances including but not limited to, educational attainment, occupational choices, earning potential, housing options, and marriageability. Skin bleaching does not threaten White supremacy – it upholds it.
So enough with the “OMG! We want to be light, and they want to be dark. Everybody just needs to love themselves.” No, everybody just needs to understand White supremacy. Because “if you do not understand White Supremacy — what it is, and how it works – everything else that you understand, will only confuse you.” (Neely Fuller, Jr.)* http://yabablay.com/your-blues-aint-like-mine-bleaching-vs-tanning/