Gotta Go Inward
My story of colorism, bleaching creams, and facing past trauma
The title of this piece comes from a Pharrell Williams song called “Freq,” which goes “[y]ou gotta go inward | To experience the outer space | That was built for you | You gotta go inward.” In going inward, I realized that I would need to write about topics related to lifestyle and race that I struggle with or am working on, otherwise I’d be doing readers and myself a disservice. With that in mind, one of my most persistent, though subconscious, struggles has been with colorism. Colorism is a prominent racialized topic within many ethnic groups including Asians, Native Americans, Latinx, and more. However, it is most insidious within African & Black communities, primarily due to its legacy with slavery in the Americas. Colorism is a surreptitious byproduct of slavery, miscegenation or rape of slaves, and much more. I think now is the time to address colorism — as a whole and for myself — once and for all.
First, we must unpack the complex history of colorism in order to understand its longstanding dynamic within the Black psyche. According to the National Conference for Community & Justice, colorism is defined as “a practice of discrimination by which those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin.” It has been a cudgel used to uphold white supremacy, white privilege, and benefits institutions of oppression. Colorism, like all things in the Americas, is rooted in racism and was exacerbated by the rape of enslaved Africans, who had no agency to consent, by white slaveowners. The byproduct of this miscegenation were mixed-race children (then called “mulattos”), which effectively ushered in the differences between lighter complexioned and darker complexioned Blacks along with the politics and privilege that comes with it.
Miscegenation between the enslaved African and white slaveowners and traders who captured and raped them en route to the Americas occurred from the very beginning; and, thus, it required laws to address it. There were anti-miscegenation laws throughout the country, that remained on the book for centuries, that harshly penalized Blacks — typically with death — and not whites while also stipulating that Black female parentage determined the offspring’s status, which is similar to how many other countries determine citizenship. That particularly benefited white male slaveowners who largely raped Black enslaved women and the light complexioned, mulatto offspring would be consequently born enslaved and adding to their father’s property holdings. Many of the mixed-race enslaved offspring would be given more favorable, though still objectifying and oppressive, tasks as a domestic worker or valet for their parent in the plantation house as opposed to field work. This created a psychological schism between Blacks in terms of treatment, access, privilege, and potential for manumission upon the slaveowner’s death between light complexioned and dark complexioned Blacks. That bore itself out in the divisive concepts of “house” vs “field,” and elite mulatto social class in New Orleans that defied the accepted norms of Black socioeconomic and political standing of the time, differing perceptions of beauty and attractiveness between light complexioned and dark complexioned Blacks, and much more which has transcended time.
Colorism, in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras, transformed into vindictive forms like “the Paper Bag Test,” where if you were the same shade or lighter than a brown paper bag then you would be permitted into Black or white spaces or considered for employment and entry into social organizations. There were stigmas around colorism in social norms as lighter complexioned people were considered non-threatening. Thus, those lighter complexioned Black who were able to “pass,” or assimilate into society as white without (much) resistance, sometimes chose that option in order to secure better socioeconomic and political opportunities. Not all mulattos took that chance, but enough did despite it often requiring separating ties with their Black families altogether to avoid being caught and facing criminal penalty or mob justice.
Colorism persists today, despite the “Black Power” messaging of the Black Panther Party in the 70s beginning to chip at it with messages of pan-Africanist and “I’m Black and I’m Proud!” Colorism continues to disproportionately affect society’s view of Black people and what is acceptable and what is not through beauty, entertainment, hiring, finance, politics, education, and more.
Colorism is, arguably, the primary and dominant branch to offshoot from racism. Colorism is particularly troublesome as it is pervasive in whites and Blacks, with Black colorism being an outgrowth of self-hatred that we’ve seen notably in alleged cases of skin bleaching with Michael Jackson, Sammy Sosa, and Lil’ Kim. But, I want to discuss my experiences with colorism, both received and self-perpetuated.
From a young age, I have been predominantly shaped and molded by my mother and late grandmother. They have supported, encouraged, and developed me in many positive ways which has led to my successes. But, I also picked up a few of their bad habits along the way — notably their colorism. My grandmother was a very fair complexioned Black woman with fine hair and green hazel eyes. My mother is a light complexioned woman who has fine to medium hair and brown eyes. Growing up, my mother and grandmother were substantially lighter in complexion compared to their siblings. And, with being around them the most and what my established view of beauty was, I internalized their physical appearance as my accepted standard of beauty. In addition, I subconsciously felt shame as I did not have the same physical appearance as my mother and grandmother; and, subsequently, at a young age I began to dislike — no hate — my physical appearance. This considering that I was huskier, taller, and smarter than most of my peers causing me to stick out like a sore thumb.I began to take to heart the common summer refrain of not staying out in the Sun for too long in order to avoid getting “too Black;” or, how I had wanted to grow my hair into an Afro once and but my mother and grandmother objected because they did not want my hair “wild and nappy” and how keeping it in a low Caesar with waves would be more respectable to the others (read: white public). It took me awhile to learn that their beliefs on colorism and physical appearance were steeped in respectability politics rooted in racial discrimination and colorist advantage that they experienced compared to their own siblings. They transferred their personal experiences and wants for improvement onto me by trying to mitigate those issues as much as possible, despite being browner than them. They, themselves, received innocent teasing for their light complexion — from family and others — which I am sure had seeped through into their conscious and subconscious mind over decades. As I grew, I sought to be more like my mother and grandmother by avoiding the Sun for extensive periods of time, in high school I wore colored contacts (the true sunken place), and I kept my hair in a low Caesar as to not make waves (except the ones on my head). But, one thing that I did is something that has taken a long time for me to cope with and address internally — my use of bleaching creams.
In the 90s and early 00s, I was and still am a huge fan of Michael Jackson. I have seen “The Jacksons: An American Dream” more than anything over my 30 years of life. My godbrother could tell you about sleepovers and how we’d play all of his hits in the basement and dance to them, saving “Thriller” for last and seeing who could run back up to the kitchen fastest. I remember how hurt I was when Michael Jackson died the summer going into my freshman year of college. I also poignantly remember seeing his physical appearance — notably his complexion — change over the course of my lifetime. In the Black community, we would collectively talk around it, caring not to acknowledge it and just celebrate his music and what he meant to Black and American cultures. But, there were the whispers — was it really vitiligo? Did he bleach his skin? Did he hate his Black appearance? I have always believed that he did have vitiligo and when it became too much for makeup that he chose to bleach his entire body. Lost in those whispers were what was the internalized racism he experienced that shaped his standard of beauty and appearance that would cause him to want to change his look? What teasing or side comments did he hear from his family, especially his demanding father, and those in the entertainment industry who sought to market him and make him mainstream (read: palatable for white people)?
Then, in later years, we saw Sammy Sosa bleach his skin, despite denying it. He went from dark brown to a pink to a pale white. To look at all 3 stages together is reminiscent of Neapolitan ice cream. We’ve also seen Lil’ Kim change her physical appearance including lightening her complexion. These are just mainstream examples in the U.S., but in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, there are examples of colorism in various societies and there’s a huge market for skin bleaching.
My first experience with bleaching creams were in 6th grade. But then, I had already begun a lifelong battle with acne back in late 4th grade. I took all of the cleansers and regiments like Proactive and others. But, none of them seemed to work over the long haul. I saw dermatologists because battling acne in middle school could be social suicide, especially if you already battle weight and puberty-related issues. The most problematic part of my acne was the dark scarring that would seemingly never heal or go away or would wait a few months to give rise to another pimple. By that time, I heard folks make comments about the scarring and how it was problematic and could be permanent if not addressed in enough time. So, I begged my Mom to find something to heal the scarring, but she was hesitant and asked if I was sure. I said I was sure and needed help. So, a few days later, she come back a tube of Black & White bleaching cream and she was careful to say only to use it on the scars and not my whole face. So, I did as I was told and used it on the spots that night, despite the heavy chemical smell. In a week or so, I saw a noticeable reduction or erasure of the scarring — I was thrilled. So, I kept using it sparingly when acne flare ups would occur; but, I noticed that it created uneven pigmentation and how I was lighter and paler where I did spot treatments. As a result, I tried to “even out” my complexion by using it all over my face. Thus, beginning a 6–7 year habit of using bleaching creams (Black & White and Ambi) all over my face to erase acne and dark spots as well as in the summer to lighten my complexion and keep it from darkening. This continued until the end of my freshman year of college where I learned of the impacts of bleaching creams on the entire body for myself. But, my use of them went beyond a need to address acne, I became dependent on them to uphold this view of beauty, attractiveness, and self-worth that was built on colorism and lies. I thought that I needed to avoid getting “too black” in order to love myself and in turn receive love from my family, friends, and others. I thought I needed to bleach my skin to be more like and look like my mother and grandmother. Subconsciously, I thought I needed to be lighter in order to be treated differently — better — than my darker complexioned family and friends in order to succeed in the white world and be accepted by our Black community. By that time, I was tall for my age, overweight (though thinning out as I grew), and smart (which peers associated with as “acting white”). My self-conscience and self-esteem was at zero or in the negatives and so I clung to anything to boost it — playing sports, working out, colored contacts, ear piercing, lightening my complexion. Unfortunately, this self-esteem thing has been a longstanding battle, but that’s for another day.
Even after I stopped using bleaching creams, I went through a period of having to adjust and become comfortable without them while embracing and loving my skin, my complexion, my appearance, and accepting that I can never be light skinned with light eyes and that’s ok. Accepting one’s beauty is always a journey regardless of your self-confidence, it takes time and hard lessons. I had to learn my lessons the hard way. Today, I love my skin and complexion (acne and all), I love my form of blackness, I love my hair, and I am starting to love myself. I still dislike my body and I am hard on myself due to my weight. I also have noticed the implicit or subconscious bias that I sometimes have towards light complexioned people. I have had to work on my jokes and comments towards my light complexioned friends. These are areas that I have been and continue to work on and where my decades of internalized colorism manifests itself.
Colorism is a very real remnant of the savage mechanism that introduced different complexions and its socialized hierarchy in America. Colorism is a scourge in white society and within the Black community is a tool of divisive rancor and stratification of who’s more deserving and who’s not. Colorism, can be a generations-old mindset perpetuated by respectability politics, personal experiences, or lacking self-love. Colorism fosters harmful and destructive habits and behaviors and mindsets that impact yourself as much as friends and family. Colorism, much like its foreparent racism, is embedded and inherently part of the American story and American DNA — from the very first rape of a slave to the psychological trauma and scarring of Black bodies and minds.