Skin Bleaching and Global White Supremacy:
By Way of Introduction
Yaba Amgborale Blay, PhD
Co-editor of this Special Issue of the Journal of Pan African Studies, Yaba Amgborale Blay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Lafayette College where she also teaches courses in Women's & Gender Studies. Her research interests include African cultural aesthetics and aesthetic practices, the politics of embodiment and Black identities, transnational skin bleaching, African feminist theory, and critical media literacy. Dr. Blay is the recipient of a 2010 Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grant through which she will publish The Other Side of Blackness, a portrait documentary exploring the intersection of skin color politics and negotiations of Black identity.
The cosmetic use of chemical agents to lighten the complexion of one’s skin, also referred to as skin whitening, skin lightening, and/or skin bleaching, is currently a widespread global phenomenon. While the history of skin bleaching can be traced to the Elizabethan age of powder and paint, in its current manifestations, skin bleaching is practiced disproportionately within communities “of color” and exceedingly among people of African descent. While it is true that skin bleaching represents a multifaceted phenomenon, with a complexity of historical, cultural, sociopolitical, and psychological forces motivating the practice, the large majority of scholars who examine skin bleaching at the very least acknowledge the institutions of colonialism and enslavement historically, and global White supremacy contemporarily, as dominant and culpable instigators of the penchant for skin bleaching. As an introduction to this Special Issue of the Journal of Pan African Studies focusing on skin bleaching and global White supremacy, the purpose of this paper is to critically examine the symbolic significance of whiteness, particularly for and among African people, by outlining the history of global White supremacy, both politically and ideologically, discussing its subsequent promulgation, and further investigating its relationship to the historical and contemporary skin bleaching phenomenon.
Keywords: skin bleaching, White Supremacy, White nationalism, colonialism, commodity racism
The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 4, no. 4, June 2011
If you do not understand White Supremacy
-- what it is, and how it works –
everything else that you understand, will only confuse you.
The cosmetic use of chemical agents to lighten the complexion of one’s skin, also referred to as skin whitening, skin lightening, and/or skin bleaching, is currently a widespread global phenomenon. While the history of skin bleaching can be traced to the Elizabethan age of powder and paint (Blay, 2009a; Peiss, 1998; Williams, 1957), in its current manifestations, skin bleaching is practiced disproportionately within communities “of color.” Among these populations, colorism1 constructs a spectrum upon which individuals attempt to circumnavigate the parameters of the white/non-white binary racial hierarchy by instead assigning and assuming color privilege based upon proximity to Whiteness. In this context, the White ideal (Kardiner & Ovesey, 1951) – pale skin, long, straight hair, and aquiline features – exacts prevailing and enduring influences on societal assessments of human value. Skin bleaching then represents one attempt to approximate the White ideal and consequently gain access to both the humanity and social status historically reserved for Whites. Beyond impacting communities “of color,” in general, the skin bleaching phenomenon has long affected African communities in particular (Blay, 2009a). Paradoxically situated within the first wave of the African independence movements, skin bleaching surfaced as an increasingly popular cosmetic practice as early as the late 1950s (Blay, 2009b; de Souza,...
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