The Color of Money
By David Morse, President and CEO, New American Dimensions
Spike Lee burst it open in his movie School Daze. Marita Golden wrote about her personal experiences with it in a book called Don’t Play in the Sun. The books The Color Complex and Skin / Deep take a more scholarly approach to a subject that had been taboo in polite conversation for generations. Colorism.
Wikipedia defines colorism as “a form of black-on-black racism, based on skin tone, exemplified in terms such as ‘high yellow’ as well as the ‘brown paper bag test,’ a ritual once practiced by certain African-American sororities and fraternities who discriminated against people who were ‘too black.’ That is, these groups would not let anyone into the sorority or fraternity whose skin tone was darker than a paper bag.”
It’s been widely documented that people ascribe traits like intelligence, wealth and happiness based solely on the shade of someone’s skin. So it’s no wonder that while thousands of Americans spend their summers on a quest for the perfect tan, others go to great lengths to avoid any corporal contact with the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
A Los Angeles Times article last Sunday by Jia-Rui Chong describes how the desire to maintain a light complexion has spawned a multimillion dollar industry in the United States — skin-whitening products that target Asian women.
According to Chong, “at beauty salons, women huddle around cosmetics counters asking about the latest cleansers and lotions that claim to control melanin production in skin cells, often dropping more than $100 for a kit. Beauticians do a brisk business with $65 whitening therapies. Women dab faces with fruit acid, which is supposed to remove the old skin cells that dull the skin, and glop on masks with pearl power or other ingredients that they believe lighten the skin.”
Though skin-lightening concoctions have been around Asia forever, they’ve emerged as hot sellers in the United States within just the last few years. Marketers, aware that their products don’t score well on political correctness, have learned to modify their lexicon to accommodate American sensibilities. For instance, they say their products are not intended for “whitening” but for “brightening.”
Despite the Madison Avenue euphemisms, the explosion of Asian skin lightening products has sparked heated debate about what it all means. For some, the obsession with white skin conjures up images of colonialism and an embracing of European ideals of beauty. For others, like Anna Park, associate editor of Audrey, an Asian American women’s beauty magazine, the penchant for light skin is in line with ancient Asian aesthetics. “If you look at old paintings of what is considered to be beautiful in Korea or Japan, all their faces are really pale,” she said.
Moderator’s Comment: Is there something wrong with marketing skin-lightening products to Asians and other people of color? As America increasingly becomes
a country populated by non-Whites, what other products can we expect to see more of?
In one of his routines, African American comedian Paul Mooney jokes about colorism: “At home where I come from, Louisiana, we have a saying for it: ‘If
you brown, hang around. If you yellow, you mellow. If you white, you all right. If you black, get back.’ “
But things change. In his 1997 book The Future of the Race, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes about the brown paper bag rule being enforced at a party he
attended in Yale in the late 1960’s. He writes: “Anyone darker than the bag was denied entrance. That was one cultural legacy that would be put to rest in a hurry — we all made
sure of that. But in a manner of speaking, it was replaced by an opposite test whereby those who were deemed ‘not black enough’ ideologically were to be shunned. I was not sure
this was an improvement.”
We may not always improve, but we definitely get smarter. I, for instance, am a notorious sun worshipper. I used to love to come to work on a Monday sporting
a tan. These days I do it guiltily. And I’ve noticed the comments have changed from “You look great!” to “Man, you should put something on.” I think maybe it’s old age creeping
Who knows what will be considered fashionable a decade from now, as we continue to morph into what author Leon Wynter calls the “American Race”? One thing
is certain. Whatever the aesthetic du jour may be, there will always be companies that will rise to the occasion and cash in.
– David Morse – Moderator
for ivory-white skin creates cosmetics boom in U.S. Creams, scrubs and medical
procedures draw many Asian American women wanting to enhance a pale complexion
– San Franciso Chronicle