Do You Know Any of These People?
Skin politics in the African American community is dirty laundry rarely discussed in public forums. For years, skin color has been the proverbial millstone around black American's neck. Yet, discussions of skin color and the role it played in societal organization community standing is a touchy subject. For instance, few ever speak about the "paper bag" test, which was used by upper-crust blacks to determine if a person was white enough to gain acceptance. If your skin was darker than a brown paper bag, you did not merit inclusion.
Most would never know thousands of the country's storied institution such as Howard University and fraternities like Phi practiced discrimination against their own relatives. Many believe the practice finally died a natural death, but in reality it still exists much to the community's embarrassment.
Years ago, a strange saying circulated throughout the black community illustrating the skin politics that lingers from slavery. "If you're white you're all right. If you're brown stick around, but if you're black stay back." It may surprise some, but the doggerel poetry originated in the black community long ago and reflects the unsubtle preoccupation with skin color among African Americans.
Although skin color among Africa slaves was predominately dark brown to nearly black, concern about color came about as a direct result of miscegenation. Although the term is commonly associated with African slavery in the United States, it came about much sooner than the kidnapping of blacks from Africa as the first blacks arrived in 1619 as indentured servants. Black and white indentured servants worked for a specific number of years and were then freed. The lives of black and white indentured servants were similar at this time. They worked side by side; they lived together in the same dwellings and fraternized after their labors. They also married and had children together.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, miscegenation is defined as a mixture of races; especially: marriage, cohabitation or sexual intercourse between a white person and a member of another race. During slavery, miscegenation between white and blacks was strictly prohibited. Although forbidden, instances of sexual intercourse between white and black occurred and usually without black female consent.
In the United States, whites saw themselves as superior and all others as subordinate or inferior. This practice was termed hypodescent. During American slavery, the word meant the automatic assignment of children of a white and union between members of different ethnic groups to subordinate status. Progeny of these usually forced incidents became mulattos. However, as the children of forbidden relations matured there was intermarriage between mulattos producing quadroons (a person of one-quarter African ancestry and a Caucasian parent). Octoroon meant a person with one-eighth African ancestry and one white parent.
Perceptions and Reality
Focus on skin color came early during slavery as mixed children of slave owners received better consideration than slaves with pure African blood. The difference was not lost on unmixed slaves as the children of slave master often received hostile treatment from regular field hands. The politics of skin came early for African slaves. Many slaves were children of well-to-do white fathers and many were recognized and sponsored by their fathers. Once free, Negroes of lighter skin color came to dominate the free black community both in numbers and influence.
Because of the better treatment, former slaves often focused on marriage to a lighter skinned black in order to have a lighter child, which was seen as an asset in the black community as fair-skinned Negroes seemed to obtain better jobs and treatment. Even black sexuality did not escape the effects of skin politics as lighter skinned men and women tended to have their choice of marriageable partners. Whether it was the benefit of better jobs or prized romantic interests, skin color has long been an issue in the black community.
Skin lightening or whitening creams have met with controversy in the black community where many claim that such products lead to confused identities and devaluations of traditional cultures. With portions of the black community “skin lightening” is considered to be brought about by a combination of self-hatred, European ideas of beauty and a desire to be accepted by greater society to create better opportunities. How much of this is true remains open to question, but the reality of skin bleaching is tangible and often produces unexpected results.
The skin lightening industry is a multi-million dollar industry, but the economic leads many to give legitimacy to the business of changing skin color, as most creams are a dangerous concoction of chemicals such as steroids, hydroquinone and tretinoin. The long-term use of these drug cocktails can lead to permanent pigmentation changes, skin cancer, liver damage, mercury poisoning and many others.
Yet, the formulations of these products are shrouded in mystery and awareness of their hazardous effects is low. Nearly 30 per cent of long-term users report adverse effects as most skin lightening creams contain mainly two chemicals, hydroquinone or mercury. Mercury is poisonous and can cause permanent damage the nervous system. Mercury poisoning is still known today as 'Mad Hatter's disease as it used to be used in the making of hats. The chemical affected the nervous systems of hatters, causing them to tremble and appear insane. Toxic levels of mercury can also lead to kidney damage and may lead to psychiatric disorders. In addition, it can lead to severe birth defects. 
Other chemicals include topical steroids, which can hypertension, elevated blood sugar and suppression of the body’s natural steroids. The steroid corticosteroid used in some bleaching creams can result in Cushing's disease, a malfunction of the adrenal glands leading to an overproduction of cortisol. Other side effects include increased appetite and weight gain, deposits of fat in chest, face, upper back, and stomach, swelling, slowed healing of wounds, osteoporosis, cataracts, acne, muscle weakness, thinning of the skin and more. 
Consumers wrongly assumed that all ingredients were disclosed on labels. “There’s a basic assumption that there’s some truth in labeling,” said Dr. David McDaniel, a dermatologist in Virginia Beach and a director of the Skin of Color Research Institute at Hampton University (a historically black college). “That’s a false assumption for the skin-lightening market.”
Skin lightning is not relegated to the African American community as countries as diverse as Senegal, India and the Philippines skin lightning is promoted as a way to elevate one’s social standing. India has a thriving fairness industry and fairness creams are reportedly the most popular in the unfettered skin care market. In 2003, Dr S. Allen Counter of Harvard Medical School reported that the high levels of mercury found in people, but particularly women, from Mexico, Saudi Arabia and in Tanzania in East Africa related to the use of skin lightening creams. Allen also reported that 96% of over 300 patients in the Southwestern United States that have higher than normal mercury levels were female and all had used skin lightening products; likewise 90% of women tested in clinics in Arizona who were Mexican-American had been using the same products.
It’s not some fantasy. There is prejudice against dark-skinned people, especially women in the so-called marriage market. Interestingly, prejudice often surfaces among members of the same ethnic groups and races. For the longest, in the African American community light skin was considered more attractive, better accepted and led to superior opportunities. Fairer, lighter skin is highly valued in some countries such as Asia and India.
A small percentage of men also use bleaching creams. Former Chicago Cubs slugger, Sammy Sosa, has a noticeable change of skin color. Sosa, a Dominican-born American citizen, told a reporter from ESPN that he had used a cream nightly to “soften” his skin and that it had bleached it, too.
Given that chemical skin lightening has a range of serious side effects, the best advice would be to stay clear of such products and be happy to be in your skin.
 Simon Pitman, Medical research highlights dangers of skin lightening, Cosmetics Design, February 15, 2008,