In 1940, Kenneth and Mamie Clark published the findings of one of the most seminal experiments exploring self-image in Black Americans. They showed young Black American children identical dolls that differed only in skin and hair color (one with white skin and blonde hair, the other with brown skin and black hair) and asked them to choose which doll was the prettier one with which they would likely want to play. The majority of the children chose the white doll as the “good” and “pretty” doll over the brown doll. In 2006, Kiri Davis, a young filmmaker, recreated the experiment and found that the results were very similar to those generated by the Clarks almost 70 years prior. These experiments illustrate the negative effects of Eurocentrism on the perceptions of skin color in Black Americans and other communities of color, which are continuously perpetuated in films, television shows, magazine and billboard advertising, music, and other forms of media and entertainment.
Many scholars and historians have tried to explain the origins of the favorability of light-skin among Black Americans. Several of them point to the social hierarchical structures of slave plantations. In the economics of slavery, lighter-skinned slaves were often considered to be of higher value because of their purported White lineage, and were thus more likely to serve inside the plantation house or to be given other tasks that were favorable to field work. These slaves were often treated better than their dark-skinned counterparts, who were more likely to serve as field hands. Following Emancipation, it thus became understood that light-skinned Blacks were better poised to achieve success in American society, and this message has been passed along overtly and subconsciously to generations of Black Americans through the present day. Research on the subject has demonstrated that there is often a direct positive correlation between skin lightness and socioeconomic status. Harry Reid, the Democratic senator from Nevada and current Senate Majority Leader, even reportedly encouraged Barack Obama to run for president because the country was ready to accept a light-skinned African-American. However, the favorability of light skin among people of color is not a uniquely North American construct. The effects of colonization and/or slavery in many parts of the world including Caribbean, Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and throughout the African continent have yielded similar trends.
Entertwined with the idea that light-skinned Black people have higher social standing is the idea that Black people with light skin are more attractive. Many dark-skinned Black women can recall at least one incident where they were told that they were “really pretty for a dark-skinned girl”, implying that the majority of dark-skinned women are not attractive. Understandably, this can have severe negative consequences for the self-esteem of young Black females that carry over into adulthood and parenthood. Many have even argued that putting light-skinned women on a “pedestal” causes some of them to develop a superiority complex. Black men are also negatively affected by the light-skinned aesthetic, but generally not to the same degree as Black women. European standards of female beauty are highlighted and celebrated around the world, and women of color are often subject to the associated constraints of these standards.
Unfortunately, Hip Hop music is no exception to the perpetuation of the light-skinned aesthetic in the media. When Hip Hop music videos first began being widely produced and viewed in the 1980’s, the Black women featured in the videos often reflected the “light-skinned, long-hair” aesthetic. Current Hip Hop music videos have gone a step forward by featuring “exotic” and/or racially-ambiguous women. The shade of the women auditioning for the videos often influences the role they are given in the videos. Some Hip Hop artists and music video producers will argue that light-skinned or “exotic” looking girls are more marketable as their racial ambiguity appeals to a larger audience. Miami-based rapper Rick Ross has offered the idea that featuring light-skinned and “exotic –looking” women in Hip Hop music videos is akin to a “mental getaway” for the male viewers of the videos. Many Hip Hop videos may feature one or a few token dark-skinned women, but dark-skinned women are not often featured as leading ladies in music videos or even in full-length feature films with predominantly Black casts. R&B artist Kelly Rowland, former member of the group Destiny’s Child, has spoken publicly about the struggle to embrace her dark skin both in and outside of the context of her career. However, many other dark-skinned women are discouraged from pursuing music, modeling, acting, or other careers in entertainment because they are well aware of the challenges that await them.
Lil’ Wayne and Kanye West are among several Hip Hop artists that make their preference for light-skinned women well known in their music and in their interactions with the public as well as evidenced by the women to whom they are romantically linked. Recently, Lil Wayne came under fire for a lyric in his song “Right Above” in which he said in so many words that a “beautiful Black woman” would look better if she were “red” or light-skinned. He also reportedly told a dark-skinned fan that he ensures that the mothers of his children are all light-skinned so that his children will be the same. This controversy speaks to the fact that the purported attractiveness of “redbone” or “high-yellow” women is particular pervasive in Southern U.S. culture. Several Southern Hip Hop songs mention that a “redbone”, or light-skinned Black women, is the woman of choice. It is also very pervasive in Jamaica. Considered by some to be the real birthplace of Hip Hop because of the contributions of DJ Kool Herc to the culture, Jamaica is home to several reggae artists, including Buju Banton and Lisa Hype, who have fervently promoted the light-skinned aesthetic.
The desire for light skin that has been fueled by a variety of societal strongholds has led to the dangerous cosmetic practice of skin-bleaching. Skin-bleaching creams are easily found in beauty supply stores; however the Internet has increased access to their use in recent years. These creams are produced for the purpose of reducing the visibility of dark spots on the skin, which are sometimes the result of acne or hormonal changes. However, the abuse of these creams for the unintended use of lightening the entire face and large sections of the body is on the rise. It has become particularly rampant in developing countries including Senegal, India, and the Philippines, as many individuals living in these countries believe that lighter skin can elevate social standing. There have even been reports of women bleaching their children’s skin as a result of such beliefs. Women of color from all socioeconomic backgrounds have adopted the practice. There are several Hip Hop and R&B female artists that have allegedly lightened their skin to improve their appeal to consumers, including Beyonce, Rihanna, Trina, and Lil’ Kim.
Some high-profile men of color have also adopted the practice. The most famous of these men is Michael Jackson, who is said to have adopted the practice to even out his uneven skin tone due to the effects of vitiligo. However, when baseball phenom Sammy Sosa recently made headlines when he appeared with colored contacts and dramatically lighter skin, he shot down any assumptions that he had a skin disease and instead claimed that his lightened skin was the result of a product he used to “soften” his skin. He also fervently insisted that he is not a “racist”, but had simply made a personal cosmetic choice. Reggae artist Vybz Kartel, who promotes skin-bleaching (also known as “browning”) in his music and was also recently featured in the news for sporting dramatically lightened skin, likened the cosmetic practice of skin-bleaching with tanning. While the health dangers of tanning have been widely detailed in scholarly journals and covered in the media, the dangers of skin-bleaching have not been as extensively studied and made well-known to the general public.
Dermatologists around the world are reporting a spike in the number of people that seek their services to address severe side effects of skin bleaching, which include skin thinning, stretch marks, and severe acne, among others. Many of these creams contain steroids, which can suppress the body’s ability to produce its own steroids. Long term use of skin-lightening creams with steroids can also lead to elevated blood pressure and blood sugar levels. There are some creams that do not contain steroids, but counterfeit products containing steroids often end up in stores. Some of the more potent skin bleaching creams contain mercury, a well-known carcinogen which has been shown to severely damage the nervous system. Another common ingredient in these creams is the chemical hydroquinone, which attacks melanocytes and thus inhibits the production of melanin in the skin. Hydroquinone has been implicated in the rise of the incidence of ochronosis, or darkening of the skin. Hydroquinone has been also been linked to a number of other adverse health conditions ranging from dermatitis to skin cancer, leukemia, and other cancers. Unfortunately, there is little infrastructure in the cosmetic industry to regulate the production and sale of these creams. Many stores and online resources sell creams illegally, as several of them have unsafe levels of hydroquinone, steroids, and other chemicals. It is clear that the light-skinned aesthetic not only poses a threat to psychological health, but also poses a severe threat to the physical health of people who are looking to get a perceived edge in life.
Some Hip Hop artists have attempted to fight back against the damaging effects of the light skinned aesthetic in the Hip Hop community. For example, Mos Def and Talib Kweli released a song on their “Black Star” album entitled “Brown Skin Lady” which comments on the “brainwashing” of Black men in preferring a Eurocentric female aesthetic and celebrates the beauty of darker-skinned women. In Jamaica, where the negative public health effects of skin bleaching have become so staggering that the Ministry of Health developed an aggressive marketing campaign telling Jamaicans “Don’t Kill The Skin”, reggae artists including Nardo Ranks and Mavado have also begun to fight back. The damage that the light-skinned aesthetic has made to the psyche of communities of color is not easily reversed. Musical artists and other celebrities of color should be made aware of and accountable for how their role in their propagation of the Eurocentric ideal of beauty affects their fans. Individuals and entities that control media content must also be held accountable for their roles in this propagation. Ultimately, widespread educational initiatives in communities of color that encourage self-love and acceptance in spite of antagonistic messaging are absolutely necessary to stop the endurance of this damaging ideology now and in the future.