Micropolis: The Color of Skin

Monday, April 07, 2014

Millions of women around the world use skin-lightening creams. Arun Venugopal, WNYC reporter, discusses the different attitudes towards cosmetics and race and his reporting for the new series, Micropolis.


Arun Venugopal

Comments [44]

CY from Manhattan

Growing up with super-white (German, Scottish, Irish) skin in the 80s, I was teased and mocked throughout grade school. Classmates, strangers, and even friends would think nothing of commenting on my complexion and suggesting I "get a tan" as though it was literally offending them to look at me. Classmates would call me "albino." People at public pools did double-takes. It didn't help that my father had skin cancer and I knew I would probably get it too someday (which I did). I desperately longed to be Italian or Puerto Rican! This personal experience is really nothing compared to the global history of colonialism and slavery, but I always think the conversation should be more nuanced to point out how it isn't just "whiteness" that is being strived for but a very specific range of whiteness that combines class privilege with aesthetic judgements.

Apr. 12 2014 12:43 PM
Evan from Brooklyn

This is a hysterical parody about whiteness and South Asia.

Apr. 08 2014 07:50 PM

Hey u mentioned only about gori gori ... What
About " saavli salooni"..... ☺️

Apr. 07 2014 07:35 PM
Yvonne from Park Slope, Brooklyn

I would like to say two things:

THE JOURNEY IS A SLOW ONE. Being a lighter skinned first generation Caribbean American who started high school in 1960 and college in 1965, I was very aware that the "Black Is Beautiful" was more rhetoric than heart-felt as I watched those spouting it act in opposite ways and the painful reality is that, even now, the feelings have not really caught up to the rhetoric. It is definitely not that African Americans felt better about themselves then and that something has happened since ... it has been a slow journey. In the middle of "Black is Beautiful", friends would go away for the weekend to a frat or sorority party at some out of state Black college and come back with stories about how everything was segregated by color meaning that everyone at the party was the same shade. The first prejudice I experienced was not from White Americans but from dark skinned African Americans who assumed that I would not like them and attacked first with terms like "high yella (yellow) nigger" and "monkey chaser" (because I am West Indian and because of the image of being up in the trees picking whatever) ... White people in NYC where I grew up never called me these things even if they thought them. One of the reasons African Americans wanted to like Obama is because his wife is dark-skinned ... or as one person put it "REAL brown". A dark skinned co-worker about 1980, confided in me that she would never go out with a guy my color because she found they acted as if they were doing her a favor. I could fill pages with variations on this. After I separated from my ex-husband in 1982 and got curious about personal ads, I saw one that I will never forget as it was written by a Black male looking for a light skinned Black woman because "the light skinned Black woman is the Black man's blonde" ... a bit more than a decade ago, a study was repeated which had originally shown that Black children prefer White dolls ... and they concluded that they still do.

SKIN LIGHTENING IS NOT ALWAYS ABOUT SELF-HATRED. The darker the skin, the more pigmentation can "bruise" and discolor and this happens not just from acne but, also, on parts of the body like elbows, knees and buttocks (if not adequately cushioned) where life has an unfriendly impact.

Apr. 07 2014 02:16 PM
Fornay from Harlem (Manhattan)

As a former beauty editor at Ebony & Essence magazines, and launching cosmetic lines at Fashion Fair & Revlon (Polished Ambers), included skin lighting products. I was shocked and stunned as a young man whose parents are from the South and having heard all kinds of stories about skin color and bleaching" creams -- to find, when my team had to train beauty advisors in London (African, Asian & West Indian women),Africa and the West Indian islands, did not want to wear the dark makeup colors designed especially for dark skinned toned women. Most wanted lighter shades of makeup foundation to appear lighter in skin tones. At the time, the number one product in the line of cosmetics sold was "bleaching" creams -- I'm sure that interest in these products have increased. In New York City on 125th Street you can see and observe the female vendors who use bleaching creams and believe the sun enhances the process...their skintones appear ghostly. So, to the woman who called in to the Brian Lehrer show from Guyana, suggesting that African American women encouraged her to use skin lighting creams, should tell her brothers and sisters from Africa the true history about the usage of skin lighters. European White women & men who raped Africa culturally taught that we were unattractive in are natural skin color, hair textures and board features -- set out to teach and train most of us to try to look like White people -- setting the standards of beauty to be forced upon Black, Brown, yellow and red people of the world. The 20 billion dollar, plus bleaching, fade, correction, skin lighting industry is alive because some people of color have been brain-washed in believing that light skin tone people are better in their skin and accepted. Women & Men who have been burned, skin discoloration diseases, internal erruptions that cause skin discoloration benefit from skin lighting products, prescribed and over the counter. The House Speaker, who orange-looking skin tone picked up by high definition television was encouraged to stop using "tanning or makeup with heavy pigements" because it looked so ghostly is representative of fair skinned White people who tan for light skin coloring...NOT DARK SKIN TONE. Again, the fair skinned White person can tolorate light, but not DARK -- their is a difference in their perspective have been my experience in making up all skin colored people in the world.

Apr. 07 2014 12:23 PM
KL from NYC

They're looking for more men to call in but the one thing I can add re: this issue is that as a 1st generation Filipino American, I have always been proud of my darker skin colour. My father is part Filipino and Spanish & is very, very light; my mother is Filipino and Malay and dark. I will say that the only time I used a lightening treatment was to lighten up blemishes I had from pimple scars & hyper pigmentation--an issue which afflict many women of colour. I did it to help me get back a clearer complexion not to change my skin colour. Traveling to the Philippines for the first time in my teens, I met my cousins on my father's side and they were very beautiful... and very white. When my parents were growing up, Filipinos who were of mixed Spanish or European blood, were called "mestizo/mestiza" (as my father) and were put on a pedestal. Those with darker skin and were of African or Moorish blood, were called "mulatto." This notion still exists somewhat today in the Philippines. In a strange way, my parents were thought of having a "mixed marriage" back then (in the Philippines). The great thing is that I was raised to love who I am and what I looked like--the funny/interesting thing part of this is that being raised here in multi-culti NYC, I knew I looked different from the "majority" of Caucasians, and unfortunately I was teased mercilessly in primary school, as I was the only "darkie" in school. However, when I go to the Philippines with my family, Filipinos know I am "different" and not "from there." Lightening of skin colour has a lot to do with what most perceive as "beautiful" and of course, has its roots in racism, classism & notions of power. What we need to impart and instill in ourselves and in our children is to be proud & love ourselves for who we are, not based solely on what we look like. Beautiful comes in many shades, sizes and types.

Apr. 07 2014 11:47 AM
Bonn from East Village

I think for Asians (Koreans and Japanese notably) looking white (whitish) by having eye lifts, lightening their skins, changing their noses, getting breast increases, it is the influence of Western culture, but especially Christian missionaries. By converting to Christianity and giving up their traditional religions, they think they will be more white, Western and successful. They are probably told, subtly for sure, that their own traditions are unacceptable. Just like what happened to Africans and Native Americans.

Apr. 07 2014 11:35 AM
Ian from Brooklyn

skin darkeners = spray tan and the multi-million dollar health disaster that are tanning salons.

Apr. 07 2014 11:33 AM

Brian - darkening creams for white people are all the tanning products. It is so insane that pale people darken and darker people lighten.

When I was in Peace Corps - it dawned on me that my grandmothers generation was right - light skin does not do well when you are out in the sun a lot - it just wrinkles. No one there went out in the sun because it was hot and they all carried umbrellas for the sun. Unfortunately, this was after my teen years so I do have some sun damage, but not as much as I would have had had I continued to sizzle in the sun.

At the same time, I saw the absurdity of designations of skin color. The villagers in that area saw all the many variations of skin color and described them as one would eye color or hair color with no more inner meaning than that. The only white people in town were the priests and nuns, a few merchants and a couple working on leprosy and TB. They had trouble distinguishing between me and my postmate who had lighter curlier hair and outweighed me by 50 pounds. They saw us as being very similar because we were white and had trouble looking for other characteristics to distinguish between us.

Then when I came home after two years in Peace Corps I had a hard time with how people were "classified" according to skin color in ways that I just didn't see any more. By that time it had become a bizarre cultural construct for me that made no sense. It is sad to me that there are so many colors of skin that can be beautiful - from that deep blue black that is so stunningly rich to the pale translucent skin that is opalescent and yet humans have attached meaning to those marvelously divergent shades in such negative ways.

Apr. 07 2014 11:28 AM

Haha, interesting. Definitely 'better' to be light around the world because of all of the racist / historical reasons mentioned. However, interesting side note. I grew up in Queens in the 80's and 90's when hip hop was exploding. In my circle of friends, many of the girls liked the darker guys. They also likes Wesley Snipes (as a sex symbol) and when we put our arms next to each others, the unspoken 'winner' was the darker skinned person (most of us were whites and Latinos) Funny twist in a small space and a small moment in time.

Apr. 07 2014 11:25 AM
Amy from Manhattan

RUCB_Alum, sure, the *root* problem is on the part of the beholder, but those beholders can cause very real problems for the people they behold, affecting them every day with real-life disadvantages. And this kind of thing can be extremely hard to prove in court, if you can even afford to sue.

Apr. 07 2014 11:19 AM
fuva from harlemworld

This is all TRAUMA from having to meet others' standards, TO SURVIVE. And we must DEAL with it. Like all PTSD, it DOES NOT JUST GO AWAY. Race Justice 2.0...

Caller Deborah's point about "breeding" is not quite right, but I get the thrust.

Apr. 07 2014 11:18 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Not sure what Guyana the caller is from but skin color in the English/Spanish/French Caribbean was and is still is a huge problem.

In the Caribbean, dark skinned women found it more difficult to find work as bank tellers etc., in to the 60's.

Apr. 07 2014 11:16 AM

What's with all the bleach blonds??? Is that a prime example of "lightening" to approximate the Nordic look? Oh, the similarities!

Apr. 07 2014 11:15 AM
blacksocialist from BKbaby

60 year old black woman - the "blacks" weren't breed to be light skinned. what foolishness. they were breed to work.....

Apr. 07 2014 11:15 AM

Some of the desire for light skin in certain cultures is the residue of colonialism.

Apr. 07 2014 11:15 AM
RAD from NYC

It's called SELF-TANNER. All Ballroom dancers use it
The product that you would apply to make yourself look darker.

Apr. 07 2014 11:14 AM
Jennifer from NYC

Yes, there are darkening creams - for tanning.

Apr. 07 2014 11:13 AM
Janine from Manhattan

I'm Italian and have had to use lightening creams before laser hair removal treatments because the laser works best on light skin and dark hair. The laser is attracted to the color and for this it's best to lighten any area you wish to have lasered.

Apr. 07 2014 11:13 AM
Robert from NYC

That's why most refrigerators are white, LOL

Apr. 07 2014 11:12 AM
fuva from harlemworld

OK, Nicola has a point about the weaves, etc. But blacks born in America don't use skin lightening. I'm surprised at her experience...

Please, Dencia's response to Lupita was non-responsive, amongst other things. That "spot" argument (Mike tried to use it too) quickly falls apart when you look at the name of her product, what she has done to her ENTIRE complexion and how she KNOWS her customers are using it.

Apr. 07 2014 11:11 AM
The Truth from Becky

Dear Caller "with patients waiting" If you lived in the Country 60 plus years ago I bet you would have had a problem from "white people" and did you have to "look it up" to find out what the issue was with darker skinned Black Americans? Get outta here.

I will never understand why people make ignorant statements

Apr. 07 2014 11:09 AM
rct from nyc

This country still has attitudes re race, gender and age that force accommodations that we'd all rather not make.

Blacks lighten their skin. Brunettes dye their hair blond. People get face lifts. Older women hide the gray.

The point is that race is still an issue for us, although it should not be one. We all, however, mess with nature to find social acceptance (and work!).

Apr. 07 2014 11:09 AM
PJ from Bklyn

Black my story, African glory...

Apr. 07 2014 11:07 AM
chantal from great neck / dc

I'm Persian and was raised the same way. My mom would always buy me foundation in the whitest color she could find, despite the fact that I have olive skin. She also HATES it when I tan and bribes me not to. It's all about purity and looking like an angel, I think. I think in Iran it meant that you weren't working class. My friends are tried the same way. Meanwhile, my generation loves to tan and be bronze.

Apr. 07 2014 11:06 AM
amandagov from Manhattan

Lighter skin in India means you were not doing work outside, laboring. It communicated class.Light skinned people do not work out of doors and thus have lighter skin.

Apr. 07 2014 11:06 AM
mbclinton from nyc

I'm Afro-American and we watch as fellow black people become successful they become lighter but mainstream media chooses to ignore. oprah has lightened herself up and no black person thinks Michael Jackson produced white children no matter what he did.

Apr. 07 2014 11:06 AM
Quynh from Manhattan

I'm Vietnamese and growing up, my mother always emphasized staying out of the sun less I appear to look like a "farmer" or "peasant" because ours was an upper class, educated family. Re: the east Asian concern about lighter skin, there is a class element to this. In Japan, a homogenous society, racial purity (ie - not being half, not being Korean or Southeast Asian or South Asian) is, indeed, part of the national outlook.

Apr. 07 2014 11:06 AM

@Amy from Manhattan

I may well be eliding the degree to which racial stigmatism is a driver for wanting to 'blend in' but I would suggest that the root problem is with those cabbies, landlords; not their passengers/renters/etc. Embrace your difference, let the racialists see you in court (when you can prove it).

@BL - The Japanese Ainu - a northern demographic, darker and more hairy are the object of rejection in their country.

The natives of Goa in India are also quite dark.

Apr. 07 2014 11:05 AM
jade from nyc metro

Japan's preference for lighter skin is traditional, going back centuries (at least). It certainly predates Commodore Perry and the opening of Japan. The traditional mode of lightening the skin was using pigeon poo/crap.

Freckles are very much disfavored. If you are freckeled, it's because you're in the sun -- i.e. out in the fields planting or some such. If you can stay out of the sun, you have more money.

Apr. 07 2014 11:05 AM

I'm ethnically Sri Lankan and pretty dark (been told I'm darker than some black folk) and when I was a teenager I used to use Fair & Lovely. I hated having dark skin, but that was from the culture I came from; having dark skin was considered unattractive. I even read some old SE Asia fairy tales where the princess, or whomever, always had light/fair skin. I would compare my quest for lighter skin to some black women's quest for "good hair." I knew intellectually that I was trying to live up to someone else ideal of what beauty is, but it wasn't until I started dating my very white husband that I was able to appreciate and even love my dark skin. He showed me how beautiful dark skin can be. Thank you baby.

Apr. 07 2014 11:05 AM
Suzanne from Plainfield. NJ

I am of Polish & Irish descent with blue eyes and white skin. When I buy foundation I pick 'bisque' - the lightest possible & I love my skin, but when I was a teen I tried to "tan." Fortunately for me, the sun made me sick, and I couldn't stay in the sun. I was embarrassed by my "white legs" that other kids made fun of. This report made me feel sad for the young girls who don't love who they are, no matter the shade. When you are young, you want to be like everyone else, so why would young Indian or black girls not be taught to love their skin shade? It's really sad. I think its changing, at least here in the US.

Apr. 07 2014 11:02 AM

I wonder if the Indian trend toward a value in lighter skin began under British Imperial period. Can you address this aspect of the question?

Apr. 07 2014 11:02 AM
fuva from harlemworld

If this phenomenon exists amongst black people born in America, it is very, very rare.

Apr. 07 2014 11:01 AM

East (and SE) Asia -- fair skin means no time in the direct sun.

Implies that you are not outside picking rice, i.e. that you are cosmopolitan rather than a farmer.

This explains the umbrellas you see being used by Asian women on sunny days -- and for that matter the reason some of your listeners may have noticed a related phenomenon of Asians not showing up to the pool until after 4 pm.

Apr. 07 2014 11:00 AM
fuva from harlemworld

Hayelllll no.
Pathetic. Ironic.
(And that Lupita...Whew. FINE.)

Apr. 07 2014 10:58 AM
The Truth from Becky

Hmm wonder why people are lightening their skin? Who set the standards of beauty?

Apr. 07 2014 10:58 AM
foodaggro from Brooklyn

Please keep in mind:
"The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice."
That is all. Thank you.

Apr. 07 2014 10:58 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

This is really interesting when one thinks of how popular tanning salons were (until people awoke to the dangers of UV rays), and now spray-on tans and tanning lotion. I guess "the grass is always greener..." (or, as Erma Bombeck would say: The grass is always greener over the septic tank.)

Apr. 07 2014 10:56 AM
Robert from NYC

This is so strange to me. I can't believe that people do this. I understand people looking to acquire a tan but to lighten skin to me is very strange. Often I wish I were darker skinned. I mean, I'm so white that I'm blue! I guess it goes both ways. But I think darker/black skin is really more attractive.

Apr. 07 2014 10:51 AM
Amy from Manhattan

RUCB_Alum, the problem is that so often the "beholder" is the one deciding whether to hire you, or rent/sell you an apt., or pick you up in their cab. So, unfortunately, it's not necessarily just an "ego problem" for the applicant or would-be passenger.

Apr. 07 2014 10:47 AM

Holy Shades of Discredited Melting Pot Assimilation!

Unless you are in a field where your looks are used to sell things, i.e. modelling, acting and to a much smaller extent broadcast journalism, any claim that you are too ethnic - too black, too white, too Chinese, too Jewish, too Arabic, too hairy, too flat, too large, etc. etc. shows a problem in the eyes of the beholder *not* the person being viewed.

Any attempt to 'correct' the problem with straighteners, lighteners, surgery, etc. is a problem with ego formation for the person contemplating the alteration of their natural self. Get comfortable with conforming a little less.

[Unless, of course, you are a model/spokesperson/actor. All those folks have weak egos if they feel they need 'a little work' to get jobs but their culture (agents, art directors and casting directors) are built to support that misguided view.]

Apr. 07 2014 10:14 AM
Ash in Chelsea from Manhattan, NY

I am a 74-year-old black man. I was stunned to hear this as a news item early this morning on WNYC. I was born in New Orleans where skin color has its own particular history. I will never forget my black mother -- ethnically a black American and with dark skin -- telling me not to date a certain dark skin girl because black women were evil. I ignored this absurd assertion and have managed to live my life without one bit of concern about the color of anyone’s skin, including my own. While I have known plenty of people with light and dark skin to use sun tan lotion on beaches, I have never known anyone to use skin lightening creams. The whole idea sounds unhealthy to me. And why is this topic confined to women? Are they the only ones who pursue this sad and bizarre activity?

Apr. 07 2014 09:34 AM
carolita from NYC

My mother's South American, and she can't stand it if I get even the slightest tan. Also, along with skin whitening goes hair lightening (or straightening), usually. My mom would love me to lighten my hair and wear much more makeup (paler foundation, of course). This could probably be explained by what my mother told me when I asked her what to put on my social security card application long ago: because my dad is white, I wondered if I should put "other" for the "race" box. She told me "put white, it's better." I never forgot that, because I thought it was so wrong. Not because I had ideas about what race was better at the time: in my mind, mixed was better because my classmates and I used to compete about our how diverse we were, and the of a mix, the better. When we moved to a mostly white neighborhood, I experienced and witnessed racism for the first time. So, obviously, thinking about my mother's own prejudices, I can see how people with darker skin could resort to lightening because they feel like their skin color affects their social status. I think it's better to embrace it and let people face and accept you as you are, rather than see yourself through their ignorant eyes for the rest of your life.

Apr. 07 2014 08:23 AM

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