What Is Colorism? Why Did Amazon Pull Some Skin-Lightening Products?
Dark skin can be heavy to walk around in. It is not widely represented in movies or television. Black Americans with darker complexions are more likely to say they experience frequent racism. And dark-skinned women around the world are flooded with advertising telling them that white is beautiful.
That weight can be so immense that it pushes some people to take radical steps to change their complexions.
“People don’t feel happy about their skin color,” said Amira Adawe, the founder of the nonprofit The Beautywell Project, who for the last eight years has been working to root out biases against dark-skinned people and lift the self-esteem of those who have internalized the discrimination.
Her efforts to confront the extreme and unhealthy methods that people turn to for lighter skin brought her to the Amazon offices in Shakopee, Minn., where she hand-delivered a petition with 23,000 signatures in late November.
The petition asked Amazon to remove skin-bleaching products containing mercury from its online platform. The items — which violated the site’s guidelines — were pulled a week after the delivery.
While Amazon still offers skin-lightening creams without mercury, the move was a victory in Ms. Adawe’s fight against a mentality that has persisted in communities for generations.
“A large retail company selling skin-lightening products sends the message to people that they should change their skin color,” Ms. Adawe, said, adding, “We are dealing with years and years of trauma that these people are living with.”
That trauma is caused by colorism — prejudice that favors people with lighter skin over those with darker skin, especially within a racial or ethnic group. The term was coined by Alice Walker in 1982.
Colorism has serious mental and emotional effects that can be passed on through generations. It is not the same as racism, but the two are inherently connected.
“It is not just that people within the same race are treating each other differently based on their skin color,” said Ellis Monk, an assistant professor of sociology at Harvard who researches colorism. “It is that people in other racial groups are treating people differently based on their skin color.”
In the Americas, the importance of a person’s skin tone originated in slavery, Professor Monk said. Black people with lighter skin received more privileges from white people, and were thought to be more aesthetically appealing and intellectually superior compared with darker-skinned black people.
As the years passed, these ideas persisted. “Having lighter skin is associated with higher earnings, more education, and sometimes better physical health,” Professor Monk said.
One 2017 study found that people with darker skin are more prone to arrests, and struggle more in the marriage market. Another study, from 2015, noted that colorism is often gendered. “Because of its unique relationship to who and what is beautiful, it has a tendency, although not exclusively, to affect and infect women more than men,” the study said.
In an effort to avoid the perceived pitfalls that come with being darker, people around the world — in Asia, Africa and the Americas — bleach their skin, sometimes by coating it in toxic chemicals that are usually illegal but still widely available.
Skin-bleaching products, like high-dose hydroquinone, creams high in mercury and steroids, are usually mixed and applied to the skin, Ms. Adawe said.
“The person becomes discolored; they get skin conditions over time,” Ms. Adawe said. “They are not even happy with the result, but there is that notion that they want to be white.”
People who use hydroquinone and creams that are high in mercury “tend to become very red,” Ms. Adawe said. “Some of the women say that it’s hard for them to be in the kitchen and cook because of the heat. Their skin becomes very sensitive.”
Dermatologists widely prescribe hydroquinone for patients dealing with scars, hyper-pigmentation and melasma, a condition that causes irregular brown patches on the skin, according to Dr. Michele S. Green, a New York-based dermatologist who has been practicing for 25 years.
“Bleaching creams are really efficient and really useful, and I prescribe them all the time,” Dr. Green said. But, she said, some people misuse them.
“They should go under a doctor’s care,” she said, adding, “Not everyone can afford to go to a doctor, and that is the problem.”
Dr. Green said that she gets many patients looking for skin-lightening injections and other treatments. “Generally speaking, I don’t treat those patients,” she said. “That is a psychological issue and I’m not going to treat someone, for that it is a dangerous slope.”
Some who want to lighten their skin turn to whatever is available on the internet. The Beautywell Project partnered with the Sierra Club’s Gender, Equity & Environment Program to make sure that the harmful products that people find online are not readily available.
Last year, the organizations asked Amazon in a letter to stop selling skin-lightening creams that contain mercury. It was ignored, Ms. Adawe said. This year’s campaign was more successful.
An Amazon spokeswoman confirmed in an email last week that the products were no longer available.
“All marketplace sellers must follow our selling guidelines and those who don’t will be subject to action, including potential removal of their account,” she said. Among other requirements, the marketplace guidelines do not allow skin creams containing mercury.
The move was a major accomplishment for Ms. Adawe and her nonprofit group. After years of research, she believes that places that have experienced colonization and widespread racism are susceptible to exhibiting colorism.
Ms. Adawe hosts a one-hour radio show several times a week during which women call in and anonymously share why they lighten their skin.
“Some women have shared with me that they don’t feel like they are attractive enough to men,” Ms. Adawe said.
“There have been some communities that told me that the reason that they lighten their skin is that they are not accepted,” she said, adding that in many places around the world “your likelihood of getting a job depends on your skin color.”
For many people, the discrimination starts at home. Some family members may call only lighter-skinned relatives beautiful, or treat them better than darker-skinned relatives.
In a recent interview, the actress Lupita Nyong’o shared with BBC that the discomfort she felt with her complexion began at an early age.
“I definitely grew up feeling,” she says, before pausing and cringing, “uncomfortable with my skin color because I felt like the world around me awarded lighter skin.”
Ms. Nyong’o, an Oscar-winning actress, wrote a children’s book this year titled “Sulwe,” about colorism and self-esteem. She said she wrote the book so that children with darker skin could see themselves reflected in stories.
Colorism is not hidden — it parades itself on magazine covers, in big-budget films, on television and on social media.
In March, as Chris Rock presented an N.A.A.C.P. award, he made a joke about the actor Jussie Smollett, who at the time was embroiled in a controversy with the Chicago Police Department.
“What a waste of light skin, you know?” Mr. Rock said to the audience. “You know what I could do with that light skin? That curly hair? My career would be out of here.”
Mr. Rock, who is dark-skinned, delivered the lines to an audience that burst into laughter.
So how does the narrative change?
“The biggest thing is to redefine what beauty is,” Ms. Adawe said. “It is so much embedded in cultures that we need to retrain the colonized mind to make sure that even in the education system we create, it promotes all skin colors,” she added.
Proper representation of people with dark skin in the mainstream media is also important, Ms. Adawe said.
“If you don’t have a role model, that can be hard,” she said. “If all you see are people that are succeeding are a different color than you, that they are all white, that impacts a lot of young people.”
Another way to move forward is to be more aware of colorism — when creating, hiring or teaching.
“The beauty standard,” Ms. Adawe said, “cannot be one skin color.”
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