25/01/2017 17:59 SAST | Updated 26/01/2017 11:57 SAST

Skin Lightening Isn't Just A 'Personal Choice', It's Highly Problematic. Here's Why.

Study after study shows that dark-skinned people are routinely passed over in favour of light-skinned people from the same racial group.

When South African actress and celebrity Khanyi Mbau started turning up at social events and photo shoots looking noticeably paler before, it didn't take long for questions to start pouring in. There was no need for the rumour mill to go into overdrive however — Mbau has been remarkably upfront about her use of skin whiteners.

When one twitter user compared her changing skin tone to Michael Jackson's, Mbau famously fired back saying her bank account was "just as white". And therein, lies the rub.

Berkeley sociologist Professor Evelyn Nakano Glenn writes that that skin lightening is far from being outdated and is in fact growing fastest among "young, urban, educated women in the global South".

"Light skin operates as a form of symbolic capital, one that is especially critical for women because of the connection between skin tone and attractiveness and desirability," she writes.

The tendency to prefer light-skinned partners, particularly women, over dark-skinned ones is no secret. In many communities, dark-skinned women face put-downs and discrimination seemingly as a matter of course. The expectation is that if you are to be beautiful, you must be light skinned.

The technical term for this discrimination on the basis of skin tone, within racial groups, is "colourism".

But it's not just a question of being discriminated against on the dating scene. Colourism goes far beyond this.

Study after study shows that dark-skinned people are routinely passed over in favour of light-skinned people from the same racial group, whether it is in school, university entrance, getting jobs or a promotion.

According to U.S. sociologist Margaret Hunter even within racial groups, light-skinned people have clear advantages over dark-skinned people.

"In fact, light-skinned people earn more money, complete more years of schooling, live in better neighbourhoods, and marry higher-status people than darker-skinned people of the same race or ethnicity," Hunter writes.

These disparities remain, even after researchers have accounted for variables such as parental education or socio-economic status.

Professor Melissa Steyn, who holds a national research chair in critical diversity studies at Wits University, is unsurprised by the rise of skin lightening in the global South. "You have to understand that this happens," she told HuffPost SA. "What's seen to be the ideal has very real material benefits."

The ideal, in case you missed the inference, is being white.

The material benefits of proximity to whiteness exist.Melissa Steyn

"The material benefits of proximity to whiteness exist," Steyn says.

Trying to understand skin lightening as either a cosmetic choice or a moral failing doesn't help, because there's an immediate personal benefit for the person who lightens their skin.

"It's quite difficult to say to someone 'You shouldn't be doing that', when, quite clearly, colourism is operating in society and you're able to manipulate the dynamics so you're able to get the material benefits," says Steyn.

"It's difficult to be judgmental about it but [at the same time] you are feeding into the broader dynamic, perpetuating it."

The problem though is that what may be right for individuals on a personal level, may be very wrong on a broad societal level.

"For you in your own life, it might be a perfectly rational choice because it can get you what you're wanting. But if you're looking at the broader societal impact, you're reinforcing the very negative thing that creates that aspiration in the first place."

Elise Knutsen / Reuters
Models prepare for a show backstage during Dakar Fashion Week, June 20, 2013. Senegal's marquee fashion event, took a stand that year against the damaging practice of skin bleaching by banning any models using skin depigmentation cream from participating in the six-day event.

Much of the social sanctioning against skin lightening is geared at raising awareness of how damaging it can be to the skin. Permanent skin damage in the form of exogenous ochronosis, which results in dark speckled pigmentation of the skin, is common. But there are also other, scarier side effects like impaired wound healing, wound dehiscence (when a wound ruptures along a surgical incision), kidney damage and steroid addiction to worry about.

But skin lighteners sold by large corporations, who are wary of litigation, don't rely on the usual suspects like hydroquinone and mercury. Their ingredient lists may feature vitamin derivatives and fruit or tea extracts. And the latest treatments for the well-heeled, and something Mbau has acknowledged using, involve IV infusions of vitamins and the naturally occurring antioxidant glutathione.

So if the product isn't damaging, and it's not being explicitly advertised as a way to lighten your complexion, is there actually anything wrong with it?

Tansy Hoskins, author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, thinks so. Writing in the Guardian, Hoskins argues that "corporations are capitalising on racial inequality and deepening a sense of self-hate in people while peddling products that are either ineffectual or dangerous".

Corporations are capitalising on racial inequality and deepening a sense of self-hate in people while peddling products that are either ineffectual or dangerous.Tansy Hoskins

Unisa philosophy lecturer Ndumiso Dladla agrees. In Dladla's view, companies that benefit from the sale of skin-lightening products and treatments are profiting from an unjust situation. "By some theories, one could suggest they are benefiting from a racist situation quite explicitly," he says.

Colourism, in his view, is a sub-expression of racism. "It's simply the same ordering mechanism of white supremacy reproducing itself within the ranks of the oppressed," he says.

Dladla says colourism is more than simply a moral phenomenon; it is an ethical and political phenomenon.

"The moral judgment against the person who has been defeated — but leaving the blame from the system that allows this to happen in the first place — is problematic," he says.

"If you have any outrage, you should reserve it for the order of things. The system is unlikely to be changed by writing articles telling people to love themselves."

The package on colourism that Huffington Post South Africa is publishing today came from a conversation in the office as we were getting ready to launch: "Guys, we should do a video on all the ridiculous things dark-skinned women hear all the time." The choruses of "Yes!" and the stream of anecdotes – funny and awful – showed that this was an untapped well of stories waiting to be told in South Africa. We are aware that colourism exists but we're still likely to joke about "yellow bones" with the rest of our friends. Conversations about why every aspect of this culture is problematic is silenced with: "But skin lightening is a personal choice". Except that it isn't. In our series of stories we show the harmful effects of this obsession in our society – from a personal, social and economic point of view. We look at how illegal creams are still sold and how upmarket legal alternatives are still questionable. We look into small communities, like Indians in South Africa, where colourism still thrives, and talk to celebrities about why they lightened their skin. Because as a dark-skinned woman myself, I'm ready for change, and so is our society. — Verashni Pillay, Editor-in-Chief