© Copyright 2017 Marceleen Ehrig, Ryerson University
A lighter skin complexion sits within a space of privilege (Robinson iii). While this notion yields global significance, it is particularly true for the former British colony of Jamaica. While the majority of Jamaicans are of African descent and possess a darker skin complexion, there is a continued elevation of Eurocentric values and a denigration of Afrocentric values (Robinson iii). This imbalance of values is most prominent in the continued devaluing of dark skin, and overvaluing of light skin. Within Jamaica, light skin is perceived to be an indicator of beauty, higher social status, and wealth. Recently, the cultural phenomenon of “skin bleaching” within Jamaican has gained popularity as more individuals have chosen to resort to drastic measures to achieve a lighter skin tone. In an analysis of the various driving factors behind the emergence of skin bleaching in Jamaica, this study questions whether or not the phenomenon conceals a social reality. The purpose of this paper is to answer the following research question: what are the driving factors behind skin bleaching, and do they act as a perpetuation of White supremacy? To investigate this, the paper will outline the practice of skin bleaching, draw on pro-skin bleaching messages conveyed in both formal and informal social institutions, and analyze the counter-perspective of skin bleachers, in the hopes of determining the extent to which white supremacy and Eurocentrism has impacted Jamaica.
In order to investigate, and thoroughly comprehend the driving factors behind skin bleaching, a contextualization of the practice, and its implications are required. When Jamaica was a British colony, Jamaicans were enslaved, abused, murdered, and taught their race was inferior to the “White race”. Although Jamaica was successful in gaining independence from Britain in 1962, the country never fully recovered from colonialism and the psychological harm it inflicted on slaves, and the proceeding generations to come (Charles 153). Shortly after their independence in 1962, a young Jamaican woman was seen tearing up a photograph of herself because she appeared “too Black in the picture” (Charles 153). Some forty-five years later, a similar incident occurred when a high school student declared that he bleached the melanin from his skin because he believed “nothing too Black nuh good”; nothing too Black is of any value (Charles 153). It was instances like these that gave rise to the phenomenon of skin bleaching. The process of skin bleaching involves using harmful and potentially lethal chemicals, such as dermatological creams, cosmetic creams, and homemade products on the skin to lighten its tone, often resulting in significant damage and anomalies to the skin’s complexion (James 243). To exhibit, look at the image captured by photographer Marlon James in Figure #1. Here it can be seen that the photograph’s subject suffered skin discolouration and damage from using skin bleaching agents to achieve a lighter complexion. Although the practice of skin bleaching has been carried out for decades resulting in many skin anomalies [such as the one depicted in Figure #1] the practice continues to become mainstream (James 243). Ultimately, this practice reveals the elevation of Eurocentric values is so entrenched in Jamaican culture, that individuals are willing to bleach their skin in order to mask their “inferior” skin tone.
History of the Social Reality in Formal Institutions:
The hegemonic representation that elevates light skin over dark skin, and guides the practice of skin bleaching, has its roots in both formal and informal socializing institutions (Charles 153). From the colonial period to the independence period, the Jamaican population has received repeated messages that light skin supersedes dark skin in all aspects of society. The interactions of the formal institutions [such as the government and the church] and informal institutions [the media and popular culture] all relay this inferiority message (Charles 153-4).
The Jamaican government has demonstrated acts of institutional racism in their neglect to rectify the underrepresentation of Afro-Jamaican leaders. While being a colonial colony, the White-Black racial hierarchy of slavery, which evolved into a White-Black class structure, prevented Black leaders from assuming leadership roles in the nationalist movement (Charles 157). Fast forward to the post-independence government, the racial hierarchy is still prevalent. In 1960 the Shearer regime banned books dealing with Blackness, and prevented Black power activists, such as Walter Rodney, from returning to Jamaican after their time abroad (Charles 157). Although Jamaica was classified as a sovereign country and Blacks obtained political power, their ability to wield this power was diminished as the greater percentage of ethnic minorities — “Brownies”, Whites, Jews, and light-coloured Chinese and Lebanese — dominated the economy (Hope 167). In this sense, “Brown” individuals refer to biracial Jamaicans who share roots in both the White, and Black race. These ethic minorities either own property, or are situated at the highest levels of class hierarchy in a society comprised of 97% Afro-Jamaicans and Blacks (Hope 167). As a further testament to social institutions conveying the message white skin is superior to dark skin, the Patterson regime of 1990’s attempt to economically empower the Black managerial elite was stalled by the government’s “push to globalization” (Charles 158).
The message of light skin being superior to dark skin was not only prevalent within the government, but in the country’s Church system as well. When colonialism and slavery were legal, slave laws required slavers to teach their “captive Africans” Christianity (Charles 158). Although this teaching does not explicitly imply slavers attempted to entrench White supremacy, the fact that God was depicted as White does. Eurocentric hermeneutics meant that African religions were of the devil, and as a result, slaves were forced to practice religious dualism. Meaning that captive Africans would practice the “accepted” religion of Christianity in the public sphere, and their “devil” African religion in the private sphere to avoid punishment (Charles 158).
Despite the development of regional and local ecumenism, Jamaica has failed to achieve spiritual independence (Charles 158). After emancipation, the education of Afro-Jamaicans was conducted by churches, meaning that there was a continued teaching of Eurocentric views. To be considered educated, students had to demonstrate reading and writing skills in English. Students with a dark complexion suffered discrimination and abuse from White and “mulatto” or “biracial” teachers for being inferior because of religious practices and skin tone (Charles 159). The assumption that God is White is still prevalent within Jamaican society as a result of historical teachings of Christianity. For instance, Jamaican churches still represent Jesus with a lighter complexion in religious spaces and on calendars (Charles 158). This embedded perception of Christianity continues to be reserved for “Whites”, and if God must be White, then that means Blacks, in particular Jamaicans, are the only people who “have a human image of God that is at variance with their Black physicality” (Charles 158). This variance enforces self-hatred towards the “African-self” who was portrayed by colonizers to be in opposition to the Christian God.
History of the Social Reality in Informal Institutions:
Popular Jamaican culture, specifically mainstream music, has been linked to the perpetuation and glorification of skin bleaching. The first clearly recorded instance Jamaica’s native music genre of dancehall entered into the discourse of idealizing “browning” one’s skin was seen in 1990, in Buju Banton’s song entitled Love Mi Browning (Hope 168). Including the lyrics “Mi love mi money an ting/ But most of all mi love mi Browning”, the song gained attention for its linkage to the historical and problematic specificities of racial identity that have plagued Jamaica since colonialism and slavery (Hope 168). In viewing these lyrics, the song exhibits a form of affirmation and glorification of skin bleaching to achieve brown skin — lighter skin. Further, the theme of skin bleaching being a positive practice that is “loved” by fellow Jamaicans is centralized in the songs Cake Soap and Straight Jeans and Fitted, by Vybz Kartel (Hope 178). Within these two songs, the dancehall artist repeats the phrase “Cool like mi wash mi face wit di cake soap” which can be translated to “[I am] cool as if I use cake soap to wash my face” (Hope 181). In particular, Kartel’s song Straight Jeans and Fitted, highlights himself as being desirable to the opposite sex because women “love off [his] bleach out face” (Hope 186). Here the artist implies that cake soap — a soap often used to lighten one’s skin complexion — is directly linked with the notion of being “cool”. This flaunting of participating in the practice of skin bleaching is further cemented in the song’s music video. In the video, the artist is seen making “rubbing motions” as if he were applying a skin-bleaching cream while singing the lyrics pertaining to the use of cake soap (Hope 183). Although the artist has credited his obvious epidermal transformation to avoiding sunlight, his lyrics and accompanying music video convey a message that states otherwise (Hope 183). It is evident informal institutions relay the message of skin inferiority to Afro-Jamaicans in a more explicit manner than formal institutions. However, that is not to say the message is mitigated; in all avenues of social institutions, Afro-Jamaicans and Blacks are reminded their skin colour renders them inferior.
In the 2013 photographic project, “Blackout: Kingston 12, Jamaica”, photographer Marlon James presents the counter claim that skin bleaching is “a certain kind of beauty” from the perspective of the skin bleacher (James 243). While photographing a select few skin bleachers, James questioned the driving factors which led to their participation in the practice. The project uncovered that while some skin bleachers “didn’t [really] know” why they bleached their skin, and that it was “just for style”, others cited their skin bleaching to an increase in confidence, claiming “they felt that they looked better with lighter skin” (James 243). Consider Figure #2 which exhibits how the skin bleaching process can exude confidence. Here, the photograph conveys the message that the female skin bleacher appears happy and content with the results of her skin bleaching, thus reinforcing James’s argument that there is “beauty” in the practice (James 252). Rather than readily denounce skin bleaching, James argues that the “words and motivations” of skin bleachers should be taken at “face value” (James 342). Although this notion possesses merit, there is a blind spot in James’s attempt to understand the psyche of skin bleachers, in that James fails to see the link between skin bleaching and the impact of white supremacy.
Analyzing the motivations of the skin bleachers reveals that they not only lack the understanding behind their own actions, but testify to the pervasive bias in Jamaica for light skin over dark skin (Robinson iv). The reality is that this bias has been, and continues to be reinforced in both informal and formal social institutions in Jamaica. This message of bias, otherwise referred to as skin inferiority, hinges upon the notion that skin bleachers suffer from “mental slippage” (Hope 165). Those who partake in the practice suffer from low self-esteem “generated by white supremacist ideals [exhibited in the notion of white supremacy] that negate the black, African self” (Hope 165). Afro-Jamaicans who participate in this practice testify that colonialism and slavery have left Jamaicans traumatized and psychologically damaged in terms of possessing the ability to celebrate, let alone tolerate their African-self. Debunking this practice as a mere beauty regime belittles the notion that white supremacy is a reality in Jamaica. The underlying rationale for skin bleaching is not an attempt to be stylish, but an attempt to conform to flawed Eurocentric beauty ideals embedded in Jamaican culture. Thus, in order to bring an end to this harmful practice it must be seen for what it is — a continued perpetuation of white supremacy that significantly denigrates Afrocentric values.
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Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.