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Skin bleaching and the African American Complexion Crisis

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By Je’Don Holloway Talley

Special to the Times

lil kim

Hip-hop trailblazer Lil’ Kim recently took to Instagram to flaunt her new look in a collage of glamorous selfies, donning Barbie-blonde hair and a new, brightened skin tone—reviving a centuries-old debate about self-hate and skin bleaching among African-Americans.

One local beauty expert says a lot of people are missing the point.

“It’s learned behavior, not self-hatred,” said Brian “Voice Porter” Hawkins, community development consultant and director of the Color Project Ensley. “It would be more accurate to say that, as a result of the oppression heaped upon us for hundreds of years, black people have adopted ideals and behaviors we learned from our oppressors and applied to ourselves.

“We’ve been told forever that we’re not beautiful and that the European standard of beauty is the standard of beauty. We’ve been told forever that our blackness is ugly and we’re not as good as, as smart as, or as important as the prevailing culture.”

This raises several questions: Why is color such a complex issue among people of color? Where did it start? How deep does it go? How early does a black child’s self-esteem start to diminish due to the richness of his or her melanin? How deeply woven can these issues thread themselves into relationships and family orientation?

Joyce Tyus, a Birmingham, Ala.–based educator and administrator, said color stigmas and false beauty ideals affect some children at a very young age.

LilKimInstagram
Lil’ Kim recently took to Instagram to flaunt her new look in a collage of glamorous selfies, donning Barbie-blonde hair and a new, brightened skin tone

 

“It starts early, as early as first and second grade,” she said. “The first time a dark-skinned student realizes or believes a light-skinned student is receiving preferential treatment and they associate it with complexion, the stigma takes root.”

In Lil’ Kim’s case, it is difficult to discern how she achieved her lighter skin.

“There are a number of health-related complications that can slow the reproduction of melanin pigmentation in African-Americans,” said Birmingham dermatologist Norman Walton lll. “If the body is sick or under duress, skin cells are not healthy and therefore do not cycle properly or reproduce melanated pigment as they should.”

So is lighter, better?

“Actually, there are a lot of people with fair complexions who would prefer to have a darker complexion,” said marriage and family counselor Valencia Anderson Carpenter. “Dark-skinned individuals don’t think fair-skinned people have complexion issues, but they do.

“Growing up, I was antagonized greatly by family and community for having a fair complexion,” said Carpenter, who is also a life and relationships coach. “I was called a half breed. I wasn’t fully accepted as black, and my people didn’t show me the same love camaraderie that they did others. I grew up hating my fair complexion probably as much as a dark-skinned person with complexion or identity issues hates theirs. It goes both ways.”