Who is the fairest of them all?

Transforming the hue of one’s “natural” skin colour is most often – in pop culture, at least – a white conversation. For instance, when Snooki mentioned on Jersey Shore that she categorizes her race as “tan” when filling out papers, or more seriously, in 2009 when Lara Stone posed in Paris Vogue with blackface.

But what about when black folk lighten their skin? Is that flirting with the Other in the same way? Or is it considered self-mutilation?

Tyler Perry’s promotional ads for his forthcoming neominstrel/neomammy play-turned-film Madea’s Big Happy Family, featured the “female” protagonist (Tyler Perry) as “the real Black Swan,” with white hair and caked white skin, like a reverse blackface, I suppose. Jezebel.com called it “horrifying.” Rightly so.

My aforementioned examples are more or less about performing colour in a venue outside of everyday life. In contrast, skin bleaching has always been in an alternate category for me, one with much more deeply negative connotations. I’ve read newspaper articles about it, but for the most part, the use of skin whitening creams and soaps was something that I relegated to the land of the far, far away; or at least to the less industrialized world.

A few years ago, skin whitening hit home – literally. I was visiting my dad in Jamaica, and my cousin, only a month older than me, was sleeping over. We were getting ready to go to an annual A.T.I. Negril party, where Jamaicans meet up during Independence weekend, for something akin to North America’s spring break. While she was applying purple eye makeup to match her outfit, I was looking through the cosmetics she had strewn over the dresser in my temporary bedroom. I thought I didn’t look the part for the party. My hair, dress and talk is all very, well, Western, so I thought that some of her makeup could help me out. I saw a skin whitening cream and halted my rummaging. I said nothing.

What. The. Fuck. I had to digest this. I hadn’t planned to have a “decolonize your mind” discussion, especially with my own cousin. And plus, who am I to say anything? As someone that has light skin, I’m aware of my privilege. In Jamaica, I would be more likely to get hired. And maybe even in Canada.

There are studies that back this up. In the U.S., light-skinned blacks fare significantly better than dark-skinned blacks on standardized tests, and the gap is so wide that it parallels the gap between whites and blacks. What’s more, skin whitening extends past psychological issues, and presents serious risks to physical health; hundreds of Mexican-American women got mercury poisoning as a result of skin whitening creams, according to a 2003 article by Harvard neuroscientist Allen Counter.

And so, I’ve always felt privileged because of my skin colour. It’s a brown that fashion-lite magazines might compare to coffee with cream. I’ve never particularly hated the colour of my skin, in the way that, at times, I’ve hated my hair or my thighs. In Toronto, I get called “light-skinned,” and in Jamaica, it’s “browning.” My friends and family have always complimented my skin tone. I’ve directly benefitted, in many ways, from my links to whiteness.

Despite the incident with my cousin, I wondered: is skin bleaching about self-hate? During a speech in 1962, Malcolm X said it best: “Who taught you to hate the texture of your hair? Who taught you to hate the colour of your skin to such extent that you bleach to get like the white man?” Even with such strong views, many people tend to trivialize the issue. In January, Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel said, in an interview published on rollingout.com, “I feel comfortable with black people lightening their skin. They want a different look. It’s tantamount to white people getting a sun tan.” What’s more, Kartel’s “before and after” photographs have been spinning around the blogosphere due to his drastic change in complexion. Reactions have been similar to when Jamaican dancehall artist Lisa Hype released a song in 2009 called “Proud a mi Bleaching:” shock and disgust.

However, when thinking about skin whitening, it’s crucial to go beyond placing individual blame on people like Kartel and Hype, and instead acknowledge the larger system of white hegemony that reinforces beauty stereotypes for both men and women. Skin whitening is about more than individual choices or beauty rituals: it’s much more complicated. Particularly in Jamaica, colourism is framed by writer Edward Kamau Braithwaite’s concept of creolization, which has created a dichotomy between the lighter-skinned middle classes and the darker-skinned working classes. In Jamaica, skin bleaching could potentially be a form of resistance against traditional norms of masculinity as well as the civilizing mission of the middle class.

Rollingout.com argued that Kartel and “other uninformed blacks are victims of a senseless epidemic that destroys the progression of the black community.” Demonizing and victimizing the alleged uninformed populations, which is how the conversation around skin whitening is often framed, is hateful and unproductive, and leads to an environment that reinforces negative stereotypes of the black working class, instead of exposing the broader dynamics of power at work.