Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Ethnic cleansing by L’Oreal: “Because you’re worth less?”

At some point last year, I was introduced to Amina Mire’s work on skin bleaching. I was reminded of Amina’s essay Pigmentation and Empire when coming upon two of these vids flogging skin-lightening creams by way of Graeme’s blog, and I’ve borrowed two of the puns from Graeme’s readers who share my disdain for this phenomenon of companies such as L’Oreal and Unilever Hindustan (who own the ‘Fair and Lovely’ brand) helping to make women feel as if they don’t measure up and need to lighten their skin to somehow be beautiful.

Is this blamecasting companies for a culture that has existed for thousands of years in some places? India’s caste systems were well entrenched long before colonialism set in, but it is also true that these cosmetics corporations are exploiting and sustaining it. Both the culture and the companies are part of a system that needs deeper examination — this post is merely a brief introduction in which I do not assign singular culpability as much as invite you to consider the history and politics further and to decide for yourself.

bi-white.jpgThe practise of skin-whitening can be found everywhere but is particularly common in India, Asia, Africa and the United States. Going by two of the advertisements below, it looks like a similar market is being created in the Middle East.

Living in a country such as Australia where tanned skin is viewed as healthy and beautiful and Caucasians are often at a natural disadvantage to their Mediterranean (olive) and Aboriginal (black and brown-skinned) fellow citizens, the beauty ideal is the opposite. This is a problem for Caucasians particularly and all Australians generally as we have the biggest rates of skin cancer in the world.

I can only hope each of us values our natural beauty and diversity. Brown skin is gorgeous; olive is awesome; black is beautiful, white too is beautiful. I can’t say I buy into the argument that these products simply cater for a preexisting market, though the literature on India in particular seems to examine the line that internalised racism is ingrained in the culture. I think these companies help create and perpetuate that market by making women (and men) feel less than adequate with the beauty they already possess, as illustrated in the advertisement’s story-lines of brown skin=rejected for job; lighter skin=happy and successful. (See appended article links)

Each of the advertisements is less than a minute in duration. The three skin lightening advertisements are followed by a related and heart-breaking 7 minute video entitled ‘A Girl Like Me‘ produced by Kiri Davis who does a superlative job. It shows how socialising young girls starts even before they encounter the cosmetics counter and the burgeoning industry that manufactures, exploits and inflates ethnic insecurities.

Addendum: some off-blog discussion has explored how a preference for lighter skin may also have been cultivated with one’s class and station in life (ie working in the fields–thanks Print), with the lighter skin of the indoorsy aristocracy being imitated by labouring folk. While this is a racially charged topic and race is a most important and key plank; class, culture, health, psychology and other variables certainly come into play.

‘Fair and Lovely’ Middle East

‘Fair and Lovely’ II

‘Fair and Lovely’ India (double click on this one to view at YouTube site)

A Girl Like Me

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53 comments on “Ethnic cleansing by L’Oreal: “Because you’re worth less?”

  1. Helena Cobban
    15 July, 2007

    Don’t forget China and Japan.

  2. Khalisa
    15 July, 2007

    This has taken epidemic proportions in Africa, where people are routinely discriminated against and excluded from social functions for not having the right skin color. I heard of one story where a woman in Mali who refused to bleach her skin was always ridiculed, and when attending a relative’s wedding, she was asked not to appear in the photo! Africans buy very strong, caustic skin-lightening formulas, and even go as far as using real household bleach, often causing scarring, all in the pursuit of being fairer! In the U.S., African-Americans have this thing we call ‘the paper bag test.’ If a Black woman has skin darker than a brown paper bag, she is often not seen as beautiful and is often passed up (to a lesser extent than in Africa, but all the same) from social functions and careers in which she would be in the spotlight, i.e. acting, modeling. It’s truly sad when we can’t see that all shades are beautiful.

  3. rationalpsychic
    15 July, 2007

    I’m glad someone is blogging on this topic. I adopted a little girl from China who is now four. I’m hoping she will always find her skin to be beautifully-colored, too.

  4. Mari
    15 July, 2007

    I am sorry to say I was not aware of this issue and I thank you for sharing it. In the last video, the kids choosing the dolls broke my heart.

  5. marie
    15 July, 2007

    great article :D i see it a whole lot here in the middle east where i currently work and live (Doha, Qatar) women are brain washed to believe that lighter is better, they go as far as buying makeup that is 3x lighter than their skin complexion not realizing that hands still show their true color which is beautiful.

    again thank you for the post.

    love and light

  6. anita
    15 July, 2007

    My Mom is Filipina and my dad is white so my skin isn’t as dark as my Mom’s but has that light brown cast to it.

    When I was in my early twenties I started to wear makeup and because I was new to the stuff I went to Nordstroms- which is this high-end yuppie store.

    The girl at the makeup counter was my age and she was very, very blond and very, very fair skinned. She took one look at me, called her manager over and said, ” Her skin is has this yellow cast to it, it’s so odd, how do I FIX IT?”

    Then they tried to talk me into buying and mixing three seperate foundations to ” correct your PROBLEM SKIN ”

    No I didn’t fall for that, but I did complain to the company about their racist staff- and I never went back.


  7. Caitlyn
    15 July, 2007

    It’s strange, as an white American girl I only see the one side of it where girls are spending hours in the sun or in tanning booths to try to darken their skin. I took an African-American literature class last year and was the only white person in the class- the other girls told me about how they’d spent a good portion of their childhoods trying to lighten their skin with products. It surprised me then, and it surprises me now.

  8. Ann El Khoury
    15 July, 2007

    Helena, Thanks for coming by, it gave me a good oportunity to re-visit Just World News. Yes, and China and Japan. I wonder what their advertisements are like?

    Khalisa, thanks for sharing that. I’d not heard of the brown paper bag test. I wonder whether a good education program to raise awareness would have an appeciable effect on this cultural phenomenon?

    rationalpsychic, may your beautiful 4 year daughter grow up with the self-esteem and pride in her heritage and innate beauty it seems she is fortunate to have reinforced by you.

    Mari, my pleasure. That scene really got me as well. Nothing has illustrated so starkly for me the depth of socialisation that occurs from such a young age.

    marie, thanks for sharing that. I was really surprised to hear the extent of this in the Middle East and appreciate your comment. My own heritage is Middle Eastern, and my beautiful aunts inculcated the good healthy doses of pride and sef-esteem I would wish for any and all girls.

    anita, good to hear the sales assistant’s unacceptable, racist remarks backfired! Glad you stood up for yourself and registered a complaint. Part of high-pressure selling supposedly sometimes involves making someone feel inadequate, with the idea that the redress is their product. Uh-uh. Your natural and beautiful skin colour doesn’t need “fixing”.

    Caitlyn, know what you mean, fake tans and solariums are big here as well.

  9. Amina Mire
    15 July, 2007

    Thank you Ann, so very much for opening this topic up for discussion. As Ann did mention I have written a doctoral thesis on skin bleaching/skin-whitening. Many of the things I found out while doing my research including the following: That in the US white women are the primarily consumers of skin-whitening products; that the current skin whitening market in Japan and China alone is close to 15B $US; that there is high end and low end skin-whitening markets; that race, class and gender play critical roles in the practice of skin-whitening market.

    So, let me share with you few quotes some the work I have examined in my research.

    At least in the United States, racially white eastern and southern European women have used skin-whitening in order to appear as ‘white’ as their ‘Anglo-Saxon’ “native” white sisters. In the United States, women of colour also have practiced skin-whitening. Many of the early skin-bleaching commodities such as Nodinalina skin bleaching cream, a product which has been in the US market since 1889, contained 10 per cent ammoniated mercury. Mercury is a highly toxic agent with serious health implications. According to Kathy Peiss, in 1930, a single survey found advertising for 232 different brand names of skin-bleaching creams promoted in mainstream magazines to mainly white women consumers in the United States.

    If dark skinned eastern and southern Europeans can “pass” for white with a little help from skin-bleaching creams, those with sufficiently light skin tones but who are legally categorized as racially black by their invisible “one drop” of “black blood”, could also “pass” for white as well. The “appearance of whiteness” is the key to accessing the exclusive cultural and economic privileges whiteness accrues. The fear of the infiltration of “invisible’ blackness has fuelled both the marketing strategies of industry and the anxieties of white women that they may not appear “white enough”. Peiss writes:

    Dorothy Dignam’s ads for Nadinola skin bleach and Nadine face power, appearing in mass circulation women’s magazine, resurrected the Old South. “This line made in the South was largely sold to the Negro market; the advertising was a planned attempt to capture the white market also. Her paean to “the beauty secret of Southern women,” featuring plantations, magnolia blossoms, and hoop-skirted bells, erased any hint of Nadinola’s black clientele. Although usually rendered obliquely, racial prejudice was an explicit talking point for manufacturers Albert F. Wood: “A white person objects to a swarthy brown-hued or mulatto-like skin, therefore if staying much out of doors use regularly Satin Skin Vanishing Greaseless Cream to keep the skin normally white (Peiss 1998,150).

    In Africa, the practice of skin-whitening is traditionally associated with white colonial oppression. Those who practiced skin-whitening, were and are still condemned as self-hating dupes, suffering from an inferiority complex. Consequently, those engaging in this practice often do so covertly. So it is only when users of skin-whitening seek medical help from the devastating effects of bodily damage caused by the use of toxic skin-whitening creams that news about this practice gets to the public domain. Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions (1988) succinctly captures the contradiction between the colonizing effects of white supremacy and African women’s yearning for respectability and idealized feminine aesthetics of beauty.

    Lucia was my mother’s sister, several years younger than my mother and a wild woman in spite of ­or may be because of her beauty. She was dark like my mother, but unlike my mother her complexion always had a light shining from underneath the skin, so she could afford to scoff at the skin-lightening creams that other girls used.
    “BI-White:The skin Pigmentation ID.”

    L’Oreal calls this marketing strategy ‘Geocosmetics:

    More than half of Korean women experience brown spots and 30 per cent of them have a dull complexion. Over-production of melanin deep in the skin that triggers brown spots and accumulation of melanin loaded dead cells at the skin’s surface create a dull and uneven complexion. Vichy Laboratories has been able to associate the complementary effectiveness of Kojic Acid and pure Vitamin C in an everyday face care: BI-White.

    Many , many thanks, Ann for opening up this pertinent dicussion on the practice of skin-whitening.
    Amina Mire

  10. Dave On Fire
    15 July, 2007

    Wow Amina, I had no idea this was so widespread, though I was well aware of it in India. My fiancee’s skin, apparently, is “wheatish” – when she challenges the fair and lovely salesgirls, asking if they’re saying she’s too dark, the answer is always “no, we just want to bring out your natural [white] colour”. There’s an equivalent product for blokes called fair and handsome.
    We watched this year’s big Bollywood film, Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, in which Priety Zinter’s character promises God that she will marry a white boy and not a “brownie” (she ultimately breaks the promise). Cue uncomfortable cringing from the audience, and many reviewers seem to have found it inappropriate, but if it goes outside the comfort zone it’s probably going to get people talking about the issue a bit.

  11. Amina Mire
    15 July, 2007

    Dave On Fire,

    you have got it! May I suggest the two of you too you to see the Bollywood film, thr Manoon wedding! if you do, you will note that the lighter as well as younger sister gets the chance to mary the Sicon Valley IT guy and the older as well as darker sister has to fall back to her brains, go to Oxford and write the next booker, to redeem her sorry life of darkness!

  12. Dave On Fire
    15 July, 2007

    You’re right! I hadn’t noticed the colour thing at all, sheltered naive babe that I am. But then, the older sister had a few other things going against her.

  13. Amina Mire
    15 July, 2007

    Such as ?

  14. Dave On Fire
    15 July, 2007

    Never mind, I just checked on wikipedia and saw i’ve been getting the sister mixed up with the cousin. It’s been a few years since I saw this film.

  15. 99
    15 July, 2007

    One possible HUGE benefit of globalization might be that humans get over this shit at live long last.

    It started out being used to bleach age spots off white skin, and progressed into being used to even out the hormone-induced discolorations on white women’s faces. And now, thank you, I see it’s being used to perpetuate the stinking ENDLESS lighter-is-better attitudes in so many cultures. It is not simply that whites have traumatized non-whites by saturating the media with images of white beauty and goodness and dark ugliness and evil. It was rampant in China and Japan and India millennia ago.

    Such superficiality is the deadliness of the human ego. I wanted to smack that young AMERICAN beauty for insisting that she’s African and has no heritage to claim. I want to smack everybody on this heritage bit! WE ARE ALL EARTHLINGS! This flippin’ MURDEROUS distinguishing oneself by heritage and religion and education and socio-economic status, placing EVERYTHING on a goddam hierarchy of lesser and greater, better and best — the DESPERATION to look at oneself as superior in even the smallest way — DRIVES ME ‘ROUND THE BEND!

    There is no resolution to the harming without the erasure of this fiendish mistake in the ego formation. We have to stop identifying ourselves by our differences! People say Americans don’t care how many Iraqis we kill because we’re racist. That is not strictly the truth. It’s easier to dismiss them because it is so difficult to identify with them that most people cease trying before they even begin. We dismiss EACH OTHER just as thoroughly, if not quite as easily. And this is true anywhere you go on this planet.

    I submit that pride in heritage and culture and nation and skin color does more to harm each other than it does to ease one’s own existential misery. But, of course, I was left here by a space pod from Planet X, so pay me no mind.

  16. Amina Mire
    15 July, 2007

    -Dear 99,

    but globalization affects in totally new ways these nonwhite cultural practices.
    -Dave On Fire,

    I do still want to know what were these addtional few thing against the darker woman in Mansoon wedding.

    if whitening is close 50 B dollars, we really need to know why.
    Ann, Sara Ahmed’s work on tanning, race, class and gender is a must read!

  17. 99
    15 July, 2007

    A Zen student I once met posited that one needed a healthy ego to be able to successfully kill it, and I’ve always thought there was merit to that point. Those with sick[er] egos do appear to be unable to transcend them, but perhaps teaching kids that their personal attributes are unimportant and their selflessness is vital and worthy of others’ attention would be a better start against this pernicious stuff.

    Plus, I think that just leaving those little kids in the room with the two dolls and watching how they played with them would have said more about where their heads were really at. They are not stupid. They’re all little Einsteins, with bijillions more brain cells than we have. They are uneducated, not hip to what we are (or ought to be) driving at with those questions, but already completely aware of the dynamics of lighter being better. They see, and feel, and intuit — know — who’s got it easier, who plays the heroes on tv, who carries themselves more confidently starting as soon as they can see well enough to distinguish faces. They’re going to equate all that with “good”. They’re also afraid of the dark, and will equate that with “bad”, irrespective of their own skin color or what anybody tries to tell them about these distinctions at that age.

    We have to think more deeply, rethink quite a lot we are so conditioned in advance to think is right we don’t even think to bring it up for scrutiny. We have to do a better job. Top to bottom. Bottom to top. And across the globe, if not the cosmos.

    I’ve already moved the Israelis to the South Pole. If I have to move the rest of the world there too, what good is it going to do?

  18. Amina Mire
    15 July, 2007

    P/S Israel is a leader in R&D in cutting edge skin-whitening biotechnology. I am not sure about the Bibilical references, though

  19. 99
    15 July, 2007

    Israel is a leader in R&D in cutting edge skin-whitening

    If I run screaming naked off enough cliffs in a row, perhaps complete, perfect enlightenment will dawn more quickly. :-P

  20. Brian
    15 July, 2007

    I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my first “fairness” commercial. I was working in Malaysia, and I literally laughed my ass off in disbelief. There’s no chance something like this would go over in the U.S. at least not in places I’ve been.

    My wife, who’s a shade or two (or three) darker than myself, and I have a number of inside jokes regarding this… One of the best (or most appropriate for public discussion) is where I hold my hand up next to hers and and say “captivating fairness” (a phrase from one of the commercials)… Of course I have the corner on the market in terms of fairness, I’m a pasty white I.T. Professional! :)

  21. Amanda Beattie
    15 July, 2007

    Perceptions of beauty have always been a key issue for me. I’m a fair-skinned person, and the pressure in any area I’ve lived in is to be tan. I have several friends who routinely complain about how pale they are. It’s very eye-opening to see the opposite at work in other cultures.

    I would love for all current beauty standards to be discarded and revised to care less about figure, height, skin tone, hair color, etc. etc. etc. We have in our minds this imaginary perfect women, built out of all these characteristics that we have no control over, and then put ourselves through all kinds of torment to try and live up to this goddess of beauty who doesn’t actually exist.

    We need a big priority shift. For real.

  22. Mrs. Flipphead
    15 July, 2007

    This whole issue breaks my heart. I do know that my grandma used bleaching cream, but it was to bleach her age spots. It wasn’t about getting her skin lighter all over–she only used it on the spots, not her whole face. It was about trying to hide her real age.

    I find it very disturbing that children that young are equating the “bad” doll as the African American doll, etc.

    My four year old is already talking about why his skin is “brown” and told me the other day that he wishes his skin was “white” like mine. I do not know where this is coming from because I have never talked with him about the difference in the color of our skin, until he brought it up. I have also never referred to myself as white (not during his lifetime at least). I use the term caucasian when I do reference race at all.

    I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach when I went to pick my child up from preschool the other day and a caucasian boy in his class went to the only other African American child in his class and tried to tell him his mom was there by saying, “Hey, black guy! Your mom’s here.” He was only three or four, so I simply said, “He’s not my son, my little boy is over there in the red shirt.” And called out to my son to get his attention before the little boy had the chance to yell, “Hey, black guy!” at him. I had hoped that this kind of thing wouldn’t start until he was in regular school, if at all. What a fool I am. Incidentally, the other little African American boy looks nothing like my son, they aren’t even built the same or the same height, don’t have the same hair cut–nothing, except the relative color of their skin.

    I had hoped to keep him innocent of the racism that still exists in our society as long as possible. Alas, I see that beautiful time is at an end…and so young–it breaks my heart.

  23. Dave Bath
    15 July, 2007

    At least in Oz, and to my eyes, the cutest kids are those from interracial marriages.

    Gareth Evans (now with International Crisis Group, former law prof and foreign minister) once famously said in the 60’s:

    (The only way to stop racial conflict) is for everybody to f*** everybody else until we’re all khaki.


  24. attendingtheworld
    15 July, 2007

    Nice Blog.. incredible posts! :-)

  25. homeyra
    15 July, 2007

    Thanks Ann and Amina to bring this issue to our attention.
    I am not aware of this phenomenon in Iran. I know that l’Oreal is represented.
    Dying your hair blond is very popular over here, since a long time.
    I think of skin color as an extension of hair taints.

  26. homeyra
    15 July, 2007

    A note for “attendingtheworld”
    Great quote of the day :)

    Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.

  27. Ann El Khoury
    15 July, 2007

    Amina, my pleasure and I will look forward to reading Sara Ahmad’s work. I read yours and Dave’s exchange on Bollywood with interest, and wonder whether it has ever occured to Bollywood producers to explicitly refer to this issue and/ or to produce educational documentaries to raise awareness — and healthy self-esteem.

    Dave, that’s a very good succint summary you’ve posted there over at your blog, and thanks for the link.

    99, thanks for your always thought-provoking comments. I don’t know that the prospect for ceasing to define our identity based on differences is great, though. Is it conceivable that valuing these differences and one’s heritage can be done on a respectful basis? The other side of the coin of ethnic chauvinism is the more positive othering, marked attraction to an ethnicity other than one’s own that some mixed couples often profess. But please, no metaphorical jumping off cliffs. I’ll tell you all about my mother(ship) if you tell me all about yours ;)

    Brian, thanks for coming by. Disbelief was exactly my first reaction, too, and if as you surmise this would never go down in the US, that at least is a small positive.

    Amanda, appreciate your thoughts. Torment is the right word, from the Chinese harmful binding of little girls feet to keep them small centuries ago to the use of poisonous powders in Elizabethan England half a millenia ago to the present day. One of the few instances of celluloid self-acceptance I saw was in the first Shrek movie, and I’ve only seen that first one.

    Mrs Flipphead, I agree its heartbreaking, particularly when we see it play out in children so young. I think we would do well to think more deeply about our cultural transmission of these subconscious values and how to remedy and redress the situation.

    Dave, that might be one of the more memorable things Gareth Evans has said! :D I don’t know that it addresses the issue of ethnic chauvinism and superiority/ inferiority based on skin colour though, but I’m still thinking it through.

    attendingtheworld, thanks for coming by and for your kind comments. As Homeyra says, that’s an apt quote you’ve got featured there.

    Homie-banoo, well thank goodness its not a known phenomenon in Iran! I see lighter hair tints and bottle blondes seems pretty universal, though!

  28. Amina Mire
    15 July, 2007

    –Dear homeyra, all the thanks must go to Ann, she made post and thus brought all together.

    Brian and significant other, you look happy and lovey!
    However, “fairness” is an American obsession. I do admit it does not have the same power in progressive America[blue states,] in the south though, fear of black/white mixing is ever present. Finally, capitalist a commodity, based on my research, industrial production of skin-bleaching has its origins in the US of A. White womanhood of glowing skin and purity were used by industry to target white female consumers. marketing of skin-bleaching to white women in the US worked with the racial theory of One Drop of Black Blood. Litle mark on the face of white woman [may suggest that is passing not really white. Passing the fear of bearing that invisible blackness were linked to skin bleaching practices in the US [see Hollywood film Imitation of Life]
    At present white women in America and Europe are being encourage to white their skin as a mode of purification [think global warming], so rather invisible blood, now the fear is about invsible pollution, free radicals, atc.

    –Dave Bath
    Good idea. That is already human reality. There is no race or racial purity.

    —Mrs. Flipphead,

    your story is inspiring and heartbreaking at ones. I am familiar with your story. I am black woman [Somali] and a mother of black daughter [Somali]. My daughter was born in Winnipeg [unilke Toronto, Montreal, etc] Winnipeg is very white.
    Almost all my daughter’s friends were white and almost all my friends were white. Yet, we have discussed skin colour and history of colonialism and racial politics of the colour line.
    My daughter did not need anybody to tell here in Canada, great people were white and great ideas were by white people . I have countered that by reading to here children stories about colonialism and struggle for identitiy and difference.
    [see, if can get hold of My Name is Not Agelica by Soctt O’dell, and Thurder Rolling Mountains by the same author].
    One of the weakness of liberal notion of do not see do not tell, is that people will tell and people can see the working oppression and racism.

  29. ferrarienzo973
    15 July, 2007

    I understand what you are tryin to say; however, India has a very different culture compared to others. You stated that tan is thought to be healthy in australia and elsewhere with caucasians, but in India it is just a cultural note to be fair and light skinned. For example, usually the americans think slim is gorgeous, fashionable etc. That is their culture, it will take some time to change it before you see angelina jolie being subsituted by some obese woman. Same as in india, we for ages have been thinking of fair as better than to dark skinned, perhaps dark offered laborious middle class or peasant, and light noble. India is still in the midst of its ancient cultural settings, but it is rising and you will probably see some changes. As far it is towards India, i dont think color gives a problem to differentiate among groups.

  30. Amina Mire
    16 July, 2007

    Yet Indian populated most by are dark skinned people! Here is a link to a South Asian US take on Indian women contradictort obsession with white skin.

  31. Amina Mire
    16 July, 2007

    I would like people to read these images and post what they think. All the skin bleaching soaps and creams featured in this report contain mercury; they are manfuctured primarily in France and the UK and are markted to African women [ the Continent and other in parts of the world to “medically cure” the blackness of the blac women’s skin.

  32. ferrarienzo973
    16 July, 2007

    I would not like to say they are dark as indian is not a race but a nationality. Please search the following: apatani women, kalasha people, dravidian etc and you can see the vast variety just by those without going to the deep. Yes, india does have dark-skinned girls but mostly in the South, and the South really doesn’t differentiate that much as and most of their actresses are dark-skinned unlike the north which is mostly lighter.

  33. 99
    16 July, 2007

    I can assert with authority that in the United States, bleaching creams started out being mass-marketed specifically to remove age spots. They were called “age spot removers”. Then it extended to removing the blotches on women’s faces from hormonal activity, primarily from pregnancy. It was in no wise about being whiter, fairer. It was completely about removing what are considered unsightly blemishes. In past centuries, fair skin was the mark of the lady and tans were considered unladylike, of the peasantry. Again, nothing to do with race. All about vanity and class distinctions. For at least fifty years, tans have been considered the most attractive by most whites.

    It may well have grown into — certainly stemmed from — racist feelings within non-white populations, but this skin bleaching thing is still not having to do with racism at all with whites in the United States, even in red states. I would not be the least surprised to find that whites are taking advantage of the market arising out of the delusory sense of shame for darker skin in many people, particularly women. Capitalism is merciless. But that is completely different from whites trying to look whiter to erase doubts of their bloodlines.

    This is not to say that many whites are not racist. They are. So are people of many other races, and as cruelly.

    I advocate the deëmphasis on differences, not because I do not see the value in feeling good about them, but because it is the feeling good about them that feeds the use of them to oppress others, to oppress ourselves. (For instance, it seems to be becoming okay with blacks in America to be black, as long as one is lighter black. “High yellow.” That obviously sets up misery for those with darker skin.) There was the one perfectly darling young black woman in that last video who was so clear about her suffering from stuff that is in actuality immaterial — the advancement ever further off down the garden path of strictly delusory abstractions when there are so many concrete emergencies to attend. When selflessness is prized, societies rise.

    The horror of this is about how much pain and suffering arise from something as trivial as skin color. When each realizes deeply HOW trivial that is, it arcs toward freedom, transcendence, the cessation of great suffering. When many realize it, that is the wellspring of great things. We need such greatness on a global scale. Our planet is burning down, and there are a lot of powerful people trying to bring about WWIII.

  34. Amina Mire
    16 July, 2007


    Good news. There are no races either.
    As for skin whitening by Indian women did read Prof. Sarita Mailaki’s piece on the Guardian I did post.

    The literature on colourism in Indian culture is rich, meaning of skn colour is not static but dyamic.. Thus, meaning of darkness or lightness does change. In today’s indian, one cannot speak just about historry of caste system; one must consider the impact of globization, consumerism, Bollywood etc. in traditional values.

    Here is Prof. Mailik’s piece in question.

  35. 99
    16 July, 2007

    Oh, good. My knowledge of the skin color thing in India comes primarily from the seriously depressing, but none the less transcendental, novels of Rohinton Mistry… and some others. I’ve been pretty well convince it all stems from the caste system, that darker skin signifies lower caste… “untouchable” caste. If at least it is budging from that, that is a plus… even if it still appalls the living snot out of me.

  36. Amina Mire
    16 July, 2007

    But all can purchase fair and lovely!

  37. Dave On Fire
    16 July, 2007

    Indeed, it’s consumer democracy in action. Skin colour holding you back? Then buy a new one!

    A lot of it is about class, of course. The old English fashion for paleness came at a time when being outdoors was associated with peasant labour, and staying indoors with privelege. Today the serfs are in the factories and offices while the priveleged jetset around in the sun, so a tan is fashionable.

    India has spent much of its history under the rule of the fairer skinned – the Mughals, then the Europeans – but the subtext of the fair and lovely ads does seem to be more about looking “modern” than implying imperial lineage.

  38. Ann El Khoury
    16 July, 2007

    Good news. There are no races either.

    Amina is right, there is no biological basis to race. Genetically, no race gene exists. Racial distinctions are skin deep.

    See also: Race — The Power of an Illusion

  39. Bluebear2
    17 July, 2007

    As a child I lived in the suburbs of Milwaukee Wisconsin. Milwaukee was a very segregated town. There were Germans, Italians, Polish and African Amaericans in large numbers, but each had there own areas of town.
    The suburbs where I lived were exclusively white – no blacks allowed.
    Therefore my only experience with people of color was non-existent beyond seeing them out the car window when we went downtown.
    At about the age of 12 I went to summer camp and met a black boy who became my camp buddy. Neither of us could figure out what all the descrimination was about – heck we were just people.
    I must admit though, that I thought it was the strangest thing when I saw him putting on suntan lotion. It had never occurred to me that he could get sunburned too.

    While in High school they came out with self-tanning lotion and suddenly all the girls were coming in to school with the strangest orange hues.

  40. Amina Mire
    17 July, 2007

    I want to share with the readers quotes from emails I have received from people afer reading my work on skin whitening/skin bleaching.
    Here are just few and they will as delightful and also different as Bluebear2.

    “I was researching this product that I had purchas from a online drug store and came across read your newsletter and I am very glad that I did. I recently purchase an skin whitening product to lighting my knees which is very darker then the rest of my body. As I read on about this whitening cream effectiveness “”Hydroquinone”” now I know is dangerous and ban at that moment I was feeling distress and disbelief that you have when something bad happens accidentally. I thought to myself everytime I read on and on about this whitening agent”, things come to mine, what have I done”. I then look down at my skin as my mouth became dry and my eyes started to water up. I just don’t understand why would people promote something like this. It’s wrong and down right evil. Thank you for sharing your information, I rather live with my dark knees then to put my body, skin and health at risk. So this whitening cream I’ve purchase is now meeting the trash can. PS.. How can we help put an stop to whitening cream?.”[Black , female, UK]

    “Hi Amina,

    I read your article online today. I found it very interesting, informativeand thorough. Thank you so much. I have a wheatish complexion and wanted to try some whitening creams but Iam so worried about side effects. any suggessions? I would highly apprecaite your time and help about your views on the following product. I am 31 years old and going to get married in two months and wanted to improve my skin tone and looks.

    Thank You, [Gender, unknown, place and ethncity , unknown]

    “Dear Ms. Mire,

    I encountered an article you wrote for Counterpunch in 2005 — “Pigmentation
    and Empire” — and thought I would contact you about some research I am
    doing in that hope that you might have some guidance for me.

    Currently, US Sen. Barack Obama is being criticized based on his
    recollection of a magazine article he read as a child about a black man who
    suffered substantial scarring after attempting to whiten his skin. This
    article would have appeared sometime in the late 1960s or possibly 1970-1.
    The criticism stems from his recollection that the article appeared in Life
    magazine, though it now appears that no such article ran there.

    Sen. Obama now says he doesn’t recall in which magazine the article
    appeared. It shouldn’t be a big deal, but this being American politics, it
    is becoming one. If the original article could be located, it would behelpful to his candidacy, of which I am a supporter.

    In your research, I’m wondering if you might have encountered any articles
    that match this description, or if you might be able to direct me toward any
    resources that could be helpful in finding it. Any guidance would be very
    much appreciated.
    Thanks and best wishes,”
    [ supporter of Sen. Obama]

    “Hi Amina ,

    Read your article about “The Emerging Skin-Whitening Industry”. I really
    agree to what u have put in the article . I am an Indian …and here the
    market is flooded with the fairness cream , coz everybody wants to be fair as
    it is a general thinking that a fair girl or a women is most admired by
    men. The advertisements only focus on dark women who are rejected at work or
    laughed at ..and when she turns fair ( using the cream ) is most admired or
    gets a promotion . These advertisements take u away from the main spot light
    of working towards looking good . So a dark women is bad or can’t get a
    promotion . Well these things need a Lot of attention as they are hazardous to skin ,
    Appreciate your research ” [From Indian gender, not said],

    Dear Ms Amina,
    I have just finished reading your research paper on the whitening
    creams.I have personally found it an eye opener and very informative.
    I am new in the cosmetics line of business and have for sometime been
    looking for safe products to add to my line of skin care creams.I have
    recently introduced a new ayuverdic natural skin care product from
    India. It is made up of a top most layer of Diatomaceous earth found
    naturally in Udaipur India. The active ingrediant it contains is
    Palygorskite with Aloevera and Glycerine added as skin softeners.

    The cream has so far proven very popular for man and women of all skin
    complexions; particulalry evective on skin rashes, blemishes, pimples
    and scars.It has been found to be very effective on skin exfoliation as
    well, leaving the skin smoother and soft.
    I am still converned about the long term effect of the cream and will
    very much like to know more about this and other products in the
    personal products line.

    If at all possible I would appreciate very much if you let me have your
    views on the product including any information you might have on the
    products toxocological analysis and reports.

    I have attached herewith a copy of the accompanying leaflet as well as
    the test report for your information.
    Thanking you in anticipation,
    Regards,” [a businessman involved marketinf skin whitening to Indian users]

    “Ms Mire,

    Your excellent observations notwithstanding, it is perhaps worth remembering that – among ethnic Chinese in China – the notion that whiter skin ‘on’ Chinese women is preferable to/more beautiful than darker skin is not a notion imported from Europe, or drummed-up by Madison Avenue (although the later has surely aggravated the situation).

    Tang and Song Dynasty poetry – and this is not to cite the earliest textual examples – routinely praise pale/white-skin ‘beauties’, and insofar as this is the case it would be an error to associate this aesthetic preference with ‘racism’. Tang Dynasty Chinese seeking to be whiter were surely not trying to make themselves less ‘Asian’, and in general we may conclude (although not solely for the reason I just hinted at) that contemporary Chinese women are answering the call of a ‘classical aesthetic’, and not succumbing to a campaign (either waged from within or without) to be not-‘yellow’.

    Regards, and with thanks for your stimulating and well-researched article,” [self identified as a white male and editor of a major fashion magazine based in China]

    Hi Amina,
    My name…[female], I just read your article on skin whitening industry and it really does make one think. The ironic thing is that I came across your article while I was actually trying to browse thru skin whitening products. Some of the facts if not almost everything I read is so shocking. I never had this thing for Skin Whitening…I live in Texas or atleast I grew up here and i was never conscious about my skin color. I moved to India last year to study medicine and oh my god do they have skin color feeling or what!!! I used to feel like shit everyday coz they used to think im dark and for them color means everything. I came across all these products that u talked about as they are very popularly advertised in India. Anyways…I really liked ur article and it is really making myself think
    [female, medical student, USA of East Indian background]

    “Dear Amina,
    That is terrific! I hope you are doing a book around these sorts of
    greatly overlooked themes. I am very hungry for this kind of discourse.
    Most “alternative media” tends to be dominated by white leftist males. I
    am a graduate student and activist doing work around indigenous women’s
    issues. In particular, the question of indigenous women in urban
    environments, and the way historical memories and traditions can shape
    the structure and political life of cities/countries. I will be
    traveling (again) to Bolivia this fall to interview and do more research
    around these dark women who seem to have fallen off the flat earth of
    current political conversation. I speak for myself and don’t represent
    anyone. Your work is dynamic and authentic.
    Cordially,” [activist. female, race, not mentioned]

    ‘Hi Amina Mire,

    I read your article on This is
    fantastic essay on a topic that I had not given much
    thought to. I always took the cosmetic industry as
    serving up expensive accouterments for the mindlessly
    vain and petty (and dumb). Why else would women spend
    so much time and money on all those harsh industrial
    chemicals in an attempt to upsell themselves to future
    mates. Ironically, their use of the toxic hairsprays,
    nail polishes, creams, and purfumes can only serve to
    decrease their chances of having healthy babies.

    My mom is Armenian, and dark. Me too, although I am
    half German. I remember years ago, she would bleach
    the dark hair on her arms blond. Both of us have
    really dark circles under the eyes, and she has always
    been very self-concious, even though she is college
    educated from a prestigious New England univerity.
    After reading this essay, I can easily see where all
    this comes from” [White male, USA].

    “I read your counterpunch article with interest. As a freckled person of
    Northern European descent, skin-tone-lightening is well outside my
    experience. Nonetheless, the mention of it in your article brought to mind
    something which may be useful in your cites for the cultural construct of
    skin tone in your further work.

    In any case, the story is part of standard children’s literature: the Dr.
    Doolittle books. In one of the Dr. Doolittle books, there’s a prince on a
    remote island who is black who, in the course of the story, is rejected by a
    white princess because of his blackness (as a child, I recall being puzzled
    by this, but ultimately accepting that I wasn’t going to figure it out – it
    was just the way the story went).

    He asks the Doctor to help him become white such that he can be accepted by
    her. The Doctor does so, and gains assistance from the prince in continuing
    his travels, and subsequently confides in his parrot that ultimately it
    won’t work for very long” [White male, USA].
    These are over hundreds of emails have received from readers.

    Thank you Ann so very much for opening this space up for the discussion on colourism. It is a powerful and emotional topic.

  41. Pingback: Balneus Haneef sketches : Herald-Sun racial prejudice? «

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  44. Amina Mire
    18 July, 2007

    This is one of millions of online sites selling whiteness.

  45. Ann El Khoury
    18 July, 2007

    Yowsers! That’s a lot of sites.

    Thanks very much Amina for sharing some of those letters, and for graciously responding in the comments here.

  46. Dave Bath
    18 July, 2007

    While slightly off-topic, there is at least one project that goes for “averaging” ethnic features that I find uplifting – a project called “Face of Tomorrow”, which morphs average faces from samples of cities across the world. New cities coming on-line regularly. I’ve reviewed the site (highlighting a few key pages) here, and give tasters for Sydney Uni and a spot in Sao Paulo. Anyone is welcome to contribute to the project.

  47. Dave
    18 July, 2007

    Banksy, brandilism, because im worthless

    When i saw the little kids choosing the white doll steve bikos words sprung to mind
    “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

  48. Ann El Khoury
    18 July, 2007

    Dave B., agreed, a terrific project and I read your review post with interest. I also only recently posted on it; it will be terrific to see the other cities, especially in countries like Iran.

    Btw, congrats on being featured at Home Page Daily, I’ve only just discovered it through Richard Neville’s site as well.

    Dave, thanks very much for the link and Steve Biko’s powerful words!

  49. Cassandra
    14 October, 2007

    I am multi-racial from America and I have very light skin. I have always wanted my skin to be darker but I will not tan–too scared of skin cancer. It is sad that we are not happy with the skin we have, the hair we have, the size we are; will we ever be happy with ourselves?

  50. Pingback: Only Politics by Anna » Ethnic cleansing by L’Oreal: “Because you’re worth less?”

  51. Bloodmoney
    11 February, 2008

    Interestingly enough, the whole thing started off in Europe. In the early days, womenfolk of the aristocracy used to be hidden in palaces and castles and had little or no exposure to the sun. Hence they had this incredibly white skin, and that became a benchmark to live up to.

    That changed quite a bit in the 20th century, when the commonfolk didn’t have to toil in the fields in the sun all day long.

    Then, a new standard of prosperity emerged – rich people who took leisurely vacations in sunny lands. And the gorgeous women who could afford these vacations started to come back from them tanned. Therefore a new standard for beautiful skin – tan.

    All said and done, the idea is that the rich people have always been the role models, and always will be. Not much a well-meaning dismayed outcry can do about it.

  52. from canada
    1 July, 2008

    gosh… listen to this… I went to shoppers drug mart’s cosmetic section today with my mom.. we are brown but my mom is very lightttttt skin but you can tell she is south asian i guess because of her black hair and black eyes (just so you get the point after) there was this african lady working there in the cosmetic section, my mom went to her to ask something about this lipstick shade and she was about the ask her but then this white blonde lady comes from behind to ask the same cosmetician some question. so following is how that black cosmetician reacted: she completely ignoredddddd my mom by not even listening to what her question could have been and by simply saying “whatever we have is on the shelf” and then looked at the blonde lady saying “how may I help you”. I was at the back looking at same fragrances I got so fuckin pissed off at that black cosmetician but my mom was like “its ok she probably thinks blonde people are more worthy of attention of cosmetician than us so lets go” my mom is very innocent but that black lady was huh. I wonder if she would have reacted the same way if it was blonde and black not blonde vs brown. I hate that black lady and that black lady makes me want to hate alll the black ladies that look like her coz they makes me want to think as if they are going to treat my mom the same way.

  53. A look at tanning as well?
    17 July, 2008

    While you’re at it, what about the harm that tanning can do to the skin? This Western fad/pressure to always have sun-kissed skin is giving young girls photodamaged skin and exposing women to potentially dangerous chemicals, as well as higher rates of skin cancer.

    I’m from Asia and somewhat annoyed that there is a double standard that only skin whitening is going under the microscope and that the beauty practises of the West are not undergoing scrutiny. Among the cosmopolitan youth, being mixed-race and of varied cultural background is currently fashionable. I can say being “pasty white” is not. When East Asians bleach their skin, it is -not- to appear Caucasian but rather a throwback to times when white skin meant you were of the upper class, and this was long before white people arrived in Asia. Call the overzealous bleaching of some countries what you will, but I would prefer that you highlight the dangers in beauty practises such as this, and not bring racial politics into it. We could do much the same for the ridiculous lengths to which some white people go to achieve the ideal tan.

    The video I posted summarises everything perfectly IMO.

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"