Watch: Are we color obsessed? Black women may be risking their lives by lightening their skin
Some people of color may be putting their skin and lives in danger by subscribing to what society defines as beauty. Experts say the use of some skin bleaching products are dangerous and people need to know what they’re using before it’s too late. ThePowerBloc’s Marc Lamont Hill got some answers from doctors about this alarming trend. The following is a transcript of that conversation:
Marc L. Hill: While Black men are struggling to keep their skin healthy, Black women are risking their lives to lighten their melanin. A new study finds colorism is driving many Black women to use potentially dangerous skin lightening products. Researchers at Northwestern University surveyed hundreds of women, most of them Black women. About 21% of women reported using skin lightening products, 21%. That’s more than one in five. I’m trying to understand why. And so I brought in two people who are brilliant, wonderful experts who can help me make sense of it all. First up is Dr. Yaba Blay. She’s a scholar, activist, a cultural worker and author of an amazing book. It’s called One Drop Shifting the Lens on Race. We’re also joined by Dr. Hope Mitchell, a board certified dermatologist and CEO and founder of Mitchell Dermatology.
HIll: Doctor Mitchell, I’m going to start with you. Women who said they used skin whitening creams were also more likely to say they had experienced colorism in their lives. How do you make sense of this reality? We see we experience colorism, but the response is to engage in a practice. It’s largely unhealthy.
Dr. Hope Mitchell: It’s it’s very unhealthy and it’s unfortunate. You know, I experience in my practice many people who come in seeking not only just evening of their skin tone. That’s probably one of the biggest reasons why women come in about this pigmentation, but also colorism as well. I’ve definitely experienced in my practice women who want to lighten the skin tone, women who have been the victim, I say, of buying products on the Internet that have high, dangerously high levels of, I would know, an active ingredient that helps to lighten skin targets where they have overused it. And I’ve had to help them to correct their skin tone.
HIll: Wow. Dr. Blay, this is complicated to me. Right. And I’m trying to understand it. I mean, I get. you experience colorism. You live in a white supremacist world that tells you the entire time you are on the planet that something’s wrong with your hips, your lips, your nose, your skin, all of it. When women are using these products and I know you’ve done research on this, are they doing it strategically just to survive a world that’s anti-black or does it become something internalized where they actually want to feel better about themselves?
Dr. Yaba Blay: I think it’s a combination of both. And before we even saw that, I want to make a correction in that it’s interesting that the research only focus on women because both women and men whiten their own, particularly all of work. So it’s interesting. There’s a nation of whiteness and a maximization of blackness such that largely Black men are rewarded, seen as more attractive, more masculine if they are working. And that’s that applies to women as well. So what I’ve seen across the world is that the attempt to as beautiful definitely fuels the practice of skin whitening. But in Ghana, for example, it is also a matter of feeling. Right. And I connect that to the ways in which blackness was then projected as dirty. And so, yes, in a white supremacist world, if we valorize whiteness, people are attempting to approximate whiteness, to feel more valuable in a white supremacist context. But what’s also interesting to me is that we focus so much on the practice. Like when you ask the question, I’m going to ask the question, why not? Right. We live in a world that makes it an option and we spend so much time talking about folks who take advantage of the option as opposed to the folks who make it an option. Right. We focus so much on an especially bleak if I’m going to my beauty supply store right now, there’s an entire aisles full of products that the U.S. says– banned. How’d they get there? It’s a multibillion-dollar industry. Right. And like, you know, threatening, like so many practices. We we talk about the practices more than we talk about the products.
HIll: Right. Which is an important analysis that we have to have actually really appreciate. Also appreciate pointing out that men get this stuff, too. I think actually about Sammy Sosa. And Sammy Sosa was rich, famous, and it was headed to the Hall of Fame. We had a Hall of Fame career, steroids notwithstanding. He had all the things he didn’t need any more success, and yet he still bleached his skin considerably. Dr. Mitchell. This isn’t just a cultural decision or a psychological choice. There’s an actual physical consequence to this stuff. Forty-five percent of the women surveyed said they were unaware of ingredients like hydroquinone that exists inside of skin lightening products. I suspect men will be equally unaware of these products. Those types of ingredients are unhealthy. They’re dangerous. What are some of the risks we face physically when we make these choices?
Dr. Mitchell: Well, I mean, one of the the top concerns that I have would be just an allergic contact dermatitis. Anything that traumatizes our skin tends to leave inflammation, which leaves even more dark patches. And it just sets off this vicious cycle of more dark patches, more of a sense or need to use these creams to even out the skin tone that we’ve made even worse. And so that’s probably our top concern. Exogenous ochronosis is a more permanent condition where we can see really deeply set pigmentation that looks more dark brown or gray in the skin. And that’s a condition that can be more permanent and much more difficult to remove.
HIll: Somebody comes to you and says, hey, I want to lighten my skin. What do you tell them?
Dr. Mitchell: I tell them, you know, healthy skin is where it’s at, right? Regardless of your skin tone and healthy skin to dermatologists means definitely skin that has an intact skin barrier. Skin in which there is balance of oil production. All skin tones are beautiful, bright or can be bright. And so we talk more about the healthiness of an intact skin barrier and less so about the color that you are. And so it’s really important that as dermatologists that we really hone in on what it means to have healthy skin. And so that’s where I stand..
HIll: I appreciate that analysis. And that’s important. Right. And I know it’s not your job to talk them down the ledge of white supremacy, but there’s a way that we have to get it. And I think Dr. Blay pointed that out quite brilliantly, that we have to break down not just the choices people make, but the systems that force us or shape our choices, because that’s the real answer here to getting to healthier skin and healthier minds.
Learn more about the dangers of skin bleaching products from the clip above, and tune into theGrio with Marc Lamont Hill every weeknight at 7 pm ET on theGrio cable channel.