The Color of Money

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Aug 12, 2005
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By David Morse, President and CEO, New American Dimensions

www.newamericandimensions.com


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
up.


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

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12 Comments on "The Color of Money"


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David Morse
Guest
David Morse
14 years 11 days ago

James, I’m neither African American nor Asian but I think you nailed this one. Colorism among African Americans has deeply rooted causes in African American history: Slavery, “Passing” as White, one drop rule, etc.

And it’s not just limited to those two groups. Though I’ve been told by many Latin
Americans that discrimination in those countries is based on socioeconomics and not race, white skin is clearly a marker of status. Mexican American writer Richard Rodriguez tells a story about being told as-a-matter-of-factly by an upper class Mexican that he looked like a gardener.

The good news is that thanks to our FDA, skin lightening remedies in this country are relatively harmless. A paper that I found online called “Pigmentation and Empire: The Emerging Skin Whitening Industry” documents some horrendous skin whitening formulas in other countries containing toxins like ammoniated mercury, corticosteroids and hydroquinone that can lead to terrible disfigurement.

Rick Moss
Guest
14 years 11 days ago

I think it’s unwise to ascribe racist overtones to the marketing of skin-lightening products. Obviously, it’s a sensitive issue, but the ideals of beauty that motivate consumers are formed by such a complexity of influences, I don’t believe it can be attributed to some feeling of insecurity about their race. I believe it’s more about fashion….and fashion has no logic. Black women use hair-straightening products while white women have their hair braided in the fashion of African traditions. Asians lighten their skin and Europeans use tanning products. It shouldn’t be up to marketers to decide if their motivation is misplaced. That should be up to the individual and their conscience.

Warren Thayer
Guest
14 years 11 days ago

If people want to be silly enough to lighten or darken their skin, dye their hair purple, add tattoos, get a nose job or pierce their tongues and eyebrows, why should it matter to me? If it makes the person feel better, why not? And if there’s a market for it, why not fill the “need?” I simply can’t fathom this one. Can you imagine if you banned these products? How “politically correct” would that be? I can hear the outcries now. Hey, live and let live. There will always be jerks and racists out there, and we cannot, alas, legislate them out of existence.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
14 years 11 days ago

In the scheme of things, marketing these “brightening” products isn’t any worse than marketing the “fountain of youth” skin creams that are everywhere, or any number of consumer products that are deemed by someone to be bad for you. The unfortunate part of all of this is if ethnic groups are using these products to look more European. I had thought/hoped we were long past that. At some point in the U.S., as minority groups grow, this may switch around and Caucasians may be using products to look more “ethnic.”

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
14 years 11 days ago

Since skin darkening products (tanning) have enjoyed decades of popularity, I suppose it’s only natural that skin lightening should make an appearance on the marketing scene. Certainly tooth whitening has become a booming business…what next, tooth darkening? We are living in a world of image distortion. People are not comfortable in their own skin and there are too many “quick fixes” tempting consumers as they go through the trials of exploring their own self-esteem. As someone who has been among the pigment-challenged (meaning pale skinned) all my life, I must say…it’s nothing to aspire to. Sunburns are no fun. Never the less, if someone wants to adjust their image, who am I to stand in their way?

Mark Lilien
Guest
14 years 11 days ago

I believe that before WW I, for white people, pale white skin was considered the “best”. A tan was a sign that a person worked outdoors at manual labor. Pale skin indicated that the person worked indoors at a “higher level” job or did not work at all.

After Florida started to become developed in the 1920’s, the idea of a tan as a fashion statement took hold, partially because it proclaimed to others that the person had enough money to pay for the luxury of going to a sunny resort during the winter.

My understanding of the cosmetic industry is that it has 3 goals:

1. Emphasize that “fashion is pain”

2. Help make people unhappy about their appearance (no matter WHAT it is) and then help solve the “problem”

3. Make as much money as possible

So there are instant tan products for pale people and the opposite for people who are naturally not pale. There are products to straighten hair and products that do the opposite.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
14 years 11 days ago

In an odd way Rick’s comment, particularly amongst those who hit the keyboard before me today, has made me think that this type of marketing is an antidote to racism. Just maybe some people are recognising that others’ “looks” are attractive and desirable. In fashion and appearance there has always been an element of wanting to look like other people rather than yourself. As Mark says, the cosmetic industry feeds on that lack of self confidence and self esteem. So changing your appearance to that of another ethnic group could be seen as acceptance and merging of characteristics which are, obviously, no more than outward signs of culture and origin. If that goes some way towards integrating people, or increasing acceptance by one group of another, then it can only be a good thing no matter how superficial.

David Livingston
Guest
14 years 11 days ago

I think this is a sad reminder of how insensitive we can be. I don’t wish for anyone to feel they must lighten their skin or straighten their hair in order to be accepted. Unfortunately, we are a society that puts great emphasis on attractiveness and eye appeal. Rick Moss has pointed out above how one group tries to copy the look of another. Obviously, people feel they get positive results or they wouldn’t do it.

James Tenser
Guest
14 years 11 days ago
I believe it would be a mistake for us Western Caucasians to ascribe some Asian women’s desire for pale skin to racial envy. A Taiwanese friend once described a Chinese saying similar to the one cited in the Chronicle article. Paraphrasing her: “A woman may have homely features, but at least she has white skin.” As my friend explained, pale skin tone has traditionally been viewed in Chinese culture as an indicator of privilege and high status (i.e., not a peasant field-worker). So the recent wave of cosmetic treatments to lighten Asians’ skin, may not be the result of a recent, sinister plot by Western cosmetics companies, but rather a reflection of a deeper cultural ideal. Colorism among African Americans may seem like a similar topic “on the surface,” but in fact, I believe it stems from different cultural issues related specifically to the history of Black America. Do Africans in Africa also ascribe status or relative intellect to other Africans with lighter skin? Sometimes in this country, I suspect we have become so race-conscious… Read more »
Stephan Kouzomis
Guest
Stephan Kouzomis
14 years 8 days ago

Open minded people wouldn’t think twice about selling a product to any person to better their health or appearance!!! So what is the question? Hmmmmmmmm

Rupa Ranganathan
Guest
Rupa Ranganathan
14 years 8 days ago
Rick, is right, it is about fashion. And also about aspiring for something that you do not have. Speaking in the context of Asian Indians, this attribute of beauty, i.e, “fair skin” has been an ongoing theme. Lever’s (Hindustan Lever) “Fair & Lovely”, which boasts of being No. 1, has been a consistently top performing brand. Its competitor is named “Fairever,” zooming directly into one of the top attributes for beauty in India. A glance at Indian matrimonial advertisements (visit matrimonials.com), will reiterate this truth. A majority of the classified advertisements ask for “fair beautiful bride” and then go on to state the virtues of the prospective groom. Fairness is perceived as an essential ingredient in beauty to this segment. There is a deep-rooted emotional connection that links up fair/good/beautiful skin with almonds, milk, honey; India’s version of “peaches and cream” complexion. With the advances in anti-aging creams and technologies, and the global interest in Indian consumers both in India and overseas, “fairness” is still a blockbuster proposition when marketing cosmetics and related products to… Read more »
Cicely Parada
Guest
Cicely Parada
14 years 7 days ago
I am pleased to find that their are people of various backgrounds who try to view life in a balance. I would like to say that, for many older people, associating skin lightening or darkening with racism, has a much deeper meaning because of the era they have passed through. As for younger people, we might make similar associations, leaving us with a bitter aftertaste, mainly because we are constantly reminded of it. For many skin toning (lighter or darker) is a fad and, yes, that may have evolved from a sad history of racism or classism within the various societies, but it is not to say they are denying or disowning in any way their race or class or shunning another race or class. The issues of race are always and I think will always be as big as we make them (that is a statement to blacks, Asians and whites). Sometimes, if we examine rationale out of the simple squares of racism, we might discover reasons that we might be able to agree… Read more »
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