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.[1]

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 Lighteners

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.[2] 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. [3]

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. [4]

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.”[5]

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.[6] 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.[7]


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.[8]

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.[9]

[1] Linda Allen Bryant, Slavery and Miscegenation in America, The Legacy of West Ford,

[2] Nalini Ravichandran, Skin whitening creams can cause long-term damage, doctors warn, Daily News, August 4, 2013,

[3] Dr. S. Allen Counter, Whitening skin can be deadly, Boston Globe, December 16, 2003,

[4] Lynn Berry, The Dangers of Using Skin Lightening Creams, March 27, 2008,

[5] Catherine Saint Louis, Creams Offering Lighter Skin May Bring Risks, New York Times, January 15, 2010,

[6] Lynn Berry, The Dangers of Using Skin Lightening Creams, March 27, 2008,

[7] Dr. S. Allen Counter, Whitening skin can be deadly, Boston Globe, December 16, 2003,

[8] Enrique Rojas, Sosa: Cream has bleached skin, Sports ESPN, November 10, 2009

[9] Simon Pitman, Medical research highlights dangers of skin lightening, Cosmetics Design, February 15, 2008,

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Comment by Donald R Barbera on July 18, 2014 at 1:05pm
It is interesting how disaster,severe trauma or adversity can open one's eyes to other people and their pain, especially when we are hurting also. Suddenly, we are rowing the same boat--pain. Coming from a small town I saw all flavors of racism, but I later came to understand fear of the unknown. I didn't forget it but I understood. Ignorance of the world, it's people and it's issues can lead to unreverible ignorance. I learned from growing up in a mixed neighborhood of poor whites, Mexicans and blacks. The same thing happened in the military. I grew. I learned and that was the most positive thing that came from my service. There were others, but it was the people and their backgrounds that helped and taught me the most.
Comment by Joan Denoo on July 18, 2014 at 12:50am

I was so incredibly lucky, I was born in 1936 at the end of the Great Depression, unemployment was very high, farm kids were leaving the farms and moving to cities looking for work. Modern technology required fewer farm workers than before the Depression and idle workers, poor economic conditions and racism were all tangled in the "bowl of spaghetti" problem. Morrison Knudson came through the farming communities looking for strong, willing bodies to build railroad bridges across the southern tier of the US. In 1940, my Dad loaded his old car, pulled a 12 foot house tailer behind and Mom and I tagged along this new, exciting adventure of leaving small town eastern Washington state and headed south. A job awaited Dad and migrant worker camps awaited Mom and me. We trekked along like a buck leading a doe and fawn over mountains and through valleys.

I don't really remember how mom and dad handled the race issue. We kids acted like kids the world over. We playing, explored, learned from each other, ate together, and sat around at night under the cottonwood trees listening to banjos, guitars, harmonicas, spoons, while singing and dancing, and listening to old family tales and ghost stories. The Mexican and black men chiseled oatmeal out of the bottom of big pot that hung over a fire and cooker their morning gruel. Layers of oatmeal formed on the bottom of the pan preventing even water boiling it in. The men took their chisels and hammers and broke loose delightful morsels of hard oatmeal that couldn't be chewed, it was so tough, but it was sweet and crunchy, and real treats. The men tossed chunks over their shoulders, and we kids scrambled an got our portions. 

We were all poor, strangers in a strange land, Depression Era weary and not yet traumatised by experiences of WW II. Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese and everything changed that day. We didn't realize it at the time, but a huge social transformation was about to take place. 

Few northern kids get the kind of exposure I did to different races. We were just children, growing up in hard times, too busy and too young to know about race and raceism. Our parents were small town farm folk and I don't remember learning racist bigotry. I am sure that if you asked a black or Mexican or Native American child pof that era, he or she would have a different memory than I. 

Comment by Donald R Barbera on July 17, 2014 at 7:34pm
Sentient--As usual, you are on the money. Skin color has and hasn't been an issue for me. Growing up light blacks were often picked upon and ostracized by my own people, while to whites of that time I was just another "nigra." I didn't understand it when I was younger, but when I became familiar with African American history it all made sense. During that time it could be dangerous even to look at a white man, much less a white woman. No one speaks of it, but whites were awarded a superior standing that was okayed by whites y themselves. And, because of slavery blacks came to think of themselves as less. Tie that together with Eurocentric ideas of beauty and you create cognitive dissonance that is so overwhelming the victim is usually unaware and accept second-class-citizenship. Blatant imitation, regardless of what the imitator says is an admission of not being good enough. Most make the changes I've spoken of as a concession to beauty. From an ethnic stance, I must ask" whose beauty?" Perhaps, I read too many black power advocates who believed that unnaturalness in physical beauty came from deep-seated esteem problems. Usually, when this discussion comes up in the black community most is directed toward women as they are more concerned with hair, nails, skin etc. today,the complications run even deeper as racial mixing if not common is at the very least not unusual. A writer on racial issues summed up part of the issue between black men and women when he said, "Why buy a knockoff when the real thing is available."
Comment by Donald R Barbera on July 14, 2014 at 6:24pm
Me too. He said it was a skin softener that did it, much like the millions I lost in the stock market. If that was happening why didn't he stop? Evidently it spread across his hands and arms and other places.
Comment by Luara on July 14, 2014 at 9:45am

the look of the skin in these pictures is, frankly "spooky."

Yes, the skin lightening seems to result in a grayish color.  As if the person were quite ill. 

I really wish we could all just get a brain wash from all that preoccupation with color and race.  It's self-perpetuating.  People show discomfort, anxiety or prejudice, which generates anger and various other problems, which generate discomfort, anxiety and prejudice ...  I wish there were a Race Amnesty Day, when everyone would somehow forget their past experiences around race, and we could all start over.  

Comment by Michael Penn on July 14, 2014 at 9:26am

Lupita Nyong'o is Luo I think. I believe my wife said that, and Luo names are easy to spot. She is another one of these women who look good in very short hair.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on July 13, 2014 at 11:53pm
Lupita Nyong’o an Academy Award winner is beautiful woman who hasn't given in to skin bleaching. Again, the look of the skin in these pictures is, frankly "spooky." I have friends from Sweden who would look sun tanned next to most of these pictures. By the way, it was no accident that I followed up my blog on hair weaves with this one.
Comment by Donald R Barbera on July 13, 2014 at 11:46pm
In the black community, very dark people are often called "original" black and it is meant as a recognition of full blood. Whether there is any truth to it no one knows. And, as with all things many use it to denigrate those with very dark skin.
Comment by Donald R Barbera on July 13, 2014 at 11:37pm
Michael you certainly have a point. I understand it to a degree, but it is a drastic step to take and many that make it have no hope of being a Michael Smith much less a Michael Jackson. And, like tattoos, it is something they have live with the rest of their and explain to their children one way or the other.
Comment by Donald R Barbera on July 13, 2014 at 11:32pm
Randall--I love a good pun. They say the pun is the lowest form of humor and I just happen not only a professional, I am the self proclaimed king of low humor.



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