Environmental Racism – A problem with no visible solution

Save our water

Save our water (Photo credit: uusc4all)

by Jonas Horvei

The world as we know it is still very much an unequal society.  It is unequal because how others will treat us in our lives is already to a certain extent pre-determined on the day when we are born. Where we are born, our nationality, our family’s background, one’s looks, and the color of one’s skin and so on all plays different in how others will perceive and treat you. A few weeks ago I learned of another new concept related to inequality and discrimination called “Environmental Racism”. According to the USlegal (2013) definition, environmental racism can be defined in the following way:

Environmental racism refers to intentional or unintentional targeting of minority communities or the exclusion of minority groups from public and private boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies. It is the racial discrimination in the enactment or enforcement of any policy, practice, or regulation that negatively affects the environment of low-income and/or racially homogeneous communities at a disparate rate than affluent communities. (2013, USLegal)

Hand in hand with the concept of environmental racism, we also have the concept of environmental justice. In short, environmental justice can be said to be a movement’s response to solve the issues of environmental racism. It is more or less a social movement who strives to put an end to environmental racism, or at the very least to create a more even distribution of both the benefits and burdens.

According to the basic principles of Environmental justice, the movement strives towards the following goals:

  • For everyone to be protected from environmental harm
  • The elimination of environmental threats
  • That everyone has the freedom to participate in environmental decision making

Whether it is possible to realize these ideals or not is a completely different question. What we can conclude so far though is at least, that social movements such as these do help, and they do have results. Pellow and Brulle (2007) describe in one article how the environmental justice movement has been able to fight against cases of environmental racism in the United States. They describe first how researchers managed to provide conclusive evidence that there was in fact a large bias in hazardous waste sites being located in communities where the majority of the citizens were minority groups. Through years of long battles the environmental justice movement helped stop the construction of over 300 garbage incinerators in the United States just in the period short period from 1985-1998. At the same they also influenced the large decline of municipal waste and medical incinerators also in the United States.

In such cases, we can clearly see that social movements do provide a very important element on the local level to stop the construction of sources of hazardous emissions. They highlighted the issues of environmental racism, and the dangers associated with chemical waste incinerators. Without the environmental justice movement, it is hard to say what the situation would be like, but it is evident that social movements do help.

As can be observed, the movement of environmental justice in America has had a strong impact on American society and has had a positive effect, whereas many of the most hazardous polluters have either been shut down or forced to relocate, and has made it difficult in the creation of new such polluting sources in America. Nevertheless even with such incredible results achieved, I cannot help but having this pessimistic view that there is still a long way to go and that future outlook certainly might not exactly be optimistic as many are to believe.

Then comes the problem, what do we actually do with the waste? With larger volumes of waste being produced, where do we put it, what do we do it? We put it somewhere else and ignore the problem. In my opinion, it seems like we are simply witnessing a relocation of the problem itself, that is to say that the problem is instead being transferred to somewhere else. Due to the influence of globalization, more and more industries take the leap abroad, often to developing countries. In such countries not only are labor costs cheaper, the emission restrictions are often much more relaxed. As a result the developed country can remove its pollution problem from its own border, while at the same time gaining profit from not having it in locating it their home country. So even if we might see an improvement in terms of hazardous waste and pollution in our local culture, it does not necessarily mean that the problem has disappeared. In fact in many cases it is highly likely just that it has simply been relocated somewhere else. America does it, Japan does, China does it, even Norway does it, and every country is guilty of it. For instance you have the case of Thor Chemicals, Inc, who during the 1980s moved its mercury reclamation processing facility from the corporation’s home in England to a village in South Africa. (Harper, Rajan 2004, p.3) Cases on international scale where the Northern countries move production, or move the waste disposal to southern countries are unfortunately far too common.

Then what is the solution to environmental inequality and environmental racism? Environmental emissions, pollution and hazardous waste are some of the biggest problems we are facing on a worldwide scale. There is no easy fix, it is as simple as that. Stricter restrictions, finding more environmental friendly solutions, raising awareness of the problem, and stopping making companies benefit from polluting rather than operating environment-friendly are some of the solutions off the top of my head. That is how we I believe we can minimize the problem. As long as issues of environmental pollution exist, inequality will also exist. As sad as it may sound, this is a natural part of human nature, we discriminate against those who are different. As long as we can get away with it, we discriminate, and as long as it remains more profitable to dump waste in neighborhoods with minority groups, or shipping off tons of waste to the Philippines or Bangladesh, environmental inequality will persist, without taking into account the health of other human beings that do not belong in our local environment.


Harper, Rajan. “International Environmental Justice: Building the Natural Assets of the World’s Poor.” University of Massachusetts, August 2004. Web 18.December. 2013. http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/working_papers/working_papers_51-100/WP87.pdf

Brulle, Pellow. “Poisioning the planet: the struggle for environmental justice” the American sociological association, 2007. Web 18 December. 2013.

Women’s Consciousness of Skin Lighteners in Japan

by Mai Kusakabe 

In South Africa, there are a lot of women who want to make their skin color lighter because they try to get better status and become more attractive. Then, how about Japanese women? What are they thinking about their skin color? Actually, we can see a lot of cosmetics and drugs to make their skin lighter in pharmacy. So in order to reveal what they are thinking, I did questionnaire about skin color, and ask ten Japanese girls answer it.



The first question of my questionnaire was which girl do you prefer, and which is more attractive for you? And why do you feel the girl is more attractive?

Nine out of ten girls answered that they like or want to be a girl on the left, who looks Caucasian. Another girl said she liked the middle one, who looks more Japanese. She said middle one seems the healthiest of the girls. Most girls have the same answer, and the reason why they choose left girl is almost the same, because she has white skin! She looks Caucasian! So she looks beautiful!

The second question was have you ever used skin lighteners? And do you do any efforts to make your skin lighter?

To this question, every one answered Yes. This result is kind of interesting. Every girl seeks to get lighter skin somehow, for example, using face lotion and take a supplement including a component to make skin white and using sunscreen to prevent their skin from ultraviolet rays. Thus usually Japanese girls do something to keep or improve their skin color.

The third one is do you use a sunscreen? Yes or No. And for the person who answered Yes, is it for which reason, for health or for keeping lighter skin? Two girls answer No, and the rest answer Yes. Five of them said it is for keeping lighter skin, two of them said for both and one said for health.

The fourth one is why do you do such efforts? Why do you want to be lighter skin? There are two types of answer of this question. First type is that they think or believe white skin is beautiful. Second type is that they said everyone insist white skin is beautiful, so I think so too. The biggest differences between two are their opinion influenced by others or not.

So what kind of factors influence Japanese girls’ opinions of skin color? The options are TV, advertisements of cosmetics, magazines, the Internet, status, public opinion and other. The choice which attracted most votes is TV (six points), following public opinion, magazines (four points), advertisements (three points), the Internet (one point). And there is no vote to status. From this result, we can understand that most people don’t realize that there is connection between skin color and status in Japan, for example trying to get lighter skin is to become more attractive, this is kind of trying to get better status. In addition their idea that white skin is beautiful is mostly influenced by media. One girl said my favorite model has white skin, so I want to get white skin like her. Indeed popular models and actress have lighter skin, and many girls long to be like them. Lighter skin has come to one of major factors to be like admired woman.

Thus, as we can see from this questionnaire, Japanese girl prefer lighter skin. And most of them do some efforts to make their skin lighter, for example, about 70% of girls use sunscreen for keeping their skin color lither. They don’t think it’s for their health, just for their own beauty. They regard white skin as beautiful. The biggest factor of their preference of skin color in Japan is media which give us images of popular models and actress who have lighter skin that makes us long to be like them, and give us impression that lighter skin can get more popularity and attractiveness. The important thing is that it is not always right. Sometimes it makes us wrong decision. So we need to judge whether it is right or not.

Mzungu and Colorism in Africa

by Miho Tanaka

Reading “Skin Lighteners in South Africa: Transnational Entanglements and Technologies of the Self (2009)” by Lynn M. Thomas, I was reminded of and reflected on my experiences in Africa. It was inconsiderable that South African care so much about their skin color even though skin lighteners sometimes bring problems to their skin.

However it is true that the people I met in Kenya put value on light skin and they connect it with high social status very much. The other internship students from Europe, the United States, and Asia and I were called Mzungu by Kenyans. I saw Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans, Americans, Brazilians, Swedes and Germans all called Mzungu. Mzungu is the Swahili word that describes rich and White people from African people’s perspectives. More specifically, not only Caucasians but also people from developed countries with light skin of color are Mzungu. It seems that many Swahili-speaking countries use the term Mzungu, as some websites and blogs show on the internet (Hoff n.d.; Duara 2008). Both Hoff and Duara write that Mzungu is used in central and Southern Africa. When I visited Rwanda this summer Rwandan also called us Wazungu, the plural way to call Mzungu.

Interesting are those African people who are eager to have networks or connections with Mzungu people. For instance, while I and the other internship students were in a community in Kenya and belonged to a Community Based Organization, some Kenyans suddenly joined the organization and many HIV-positive people started to attend our meetings as well. However according to local members in Kenya, they began to be absent from meetings after all of the Wazungu left. However, some of them have tried to maintain their connections with Wazungu. Most importantly, they strongly connect idea of economic and social status mobility with being Mzungu. If they could have been married with a Mzungu woman or man, they would not have to be in trouble of impoverished in Africa anymore. They would be able to get out of their homeland and have a better life.

Considering the case of South Africa, the tendency that they would like to have lighter skin color must be much higher than the other countries since they were harshly segregated by skin color during the period of apartheid. Even though they might have skin troubles from using skin lighteners, upward mobility would be more important for them since it would determine their entire life and success. Therefore, they care more about their skin tone rather than their health. However the status in South Africa must be changed since the abolition of apartheid. Nowadays there are poor Whites going begging in South Africa, and it also might be a factor that changes preference of white or light skin. I suppose the tension between Mzungu and Black Africans, which connects social upward mobility with light skin color, would not change because Black Africans regard Mzungu as coming from totally different background and statuses. However, it might create new black movement as their economic status changes with economic growth.


Duara, D. (July, 19th 2008). The Mzungu term : get it right! Retrieved on November, 22nd 2013 from http://pernille.typepad.com/louderthanswahili/2008/07/the-mzungu-te-1.html

Hoff, W. (n.d.). Mzungu Design. Retrieved on November 22nd 2013 from http://www.mzungudesign.com/welcome/

Thomas, M. L. (2009). Skin lighteners in South Africa: transnational entanglement and technologies of the self. In Glenn, N. E. (Ed.), Shades of difference: why skin color matters. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Dark and light skin as fashion

by Emina Miki

From this week’s presentation, I realized interesting similar situation between South Africa and Japan. In South Africa, they tried to have lighter skin by using skin lightener, in contrast, in the past in Japan a lot of young girls tried to have darker skin by using cosmetics. Their ideal skin colors are different from each other, but it is same that they try to be different skin color from their natural skin color.

In about 2000, there were a lot of young people especially girls with darkened skin and white lips in Shibuya, Tokyo. They changed their hair to gold, burned dark their skin again and again at the tanning salon and put on almost same figures because that style was the vogue at that time. Japanese young women would think darker skin is more beautiful as same as that South Americans have thought lighter skin is beautiful. Moreover, Japanese women painted their eyes using pens. In general, young Japanese girls with dark skin have been called “yamanba” ironically. “Yamanba” means the ugly old woman who lives in the heart of a mountain. However, they didn’t change their figures. On the contrary, they made a community and one culture at that time. The center of the trend was absolutely people with dark skin. So this age ended cause of the current of the time, but in South Africa they banned to use skin lighter because that was bad for face and they might lose pride in being black. I think this is a big difference between them. In Japan, though there were some people who don’t like their looks and their looks caused a lot of fuss, it wasn’t punished. Actually I thought they lost their natural identity because the face after making up and tanning was too different from the face without makeup. Also they didn’t want to make appearance in natural face, but people with dark skin were some of Japanese, so it might not ban their behavior.

In conclusion, I think the use of skin lighter in South Africa was considered as bad thing to face and the product which was promoted of hating the color of their skin, so many opposition movements occurred there. In contrast, young women’s behavior such as tanning their skin and painted their face by pens was considered as just the vogue. So I thought many people have thought that it would end in the near future though their behavior affected their healthy bodies.

The appeal of skin lighteners in South Africa: a racial and gender issue

by Joana Ito

In 1991, most skin lighteners were banned from the South Africa’s market, as a result of the Black movements’ criticism against the structural racism, allied to the arguments of health concerns. However, as a report of UNEP showed in 2008, the racial and medical arguments were not sufficient to erase the appeal of the skin lighteners: 35% of the women in South Africa were still regular users of skin lightener products.

The racial/color discrimination element regarding the use of skin lighteners can be clearly identified, as the lighter skin is valued more, while the darker skin is considered less desirable. For that reason, consumers of skin lighteners in South Africa are in many occasions described as “sellouts”, who act against the interests of black as a whole, by denying their own “blackness”; and often accused of committing “racial betrayal”. It is relevant to note however that, as the consumption of skin lighteners is concentrated in the female population, the discussion around the use of these products cannot be limited to the issue of political awareness of race, nor in terms of racial pride and shame.

The behavioral change regarding the use of skin lighteners faces many obstacles, as the appeal of these products is based on multiple factors. According to Thomas (2009), the use of skin lighteners is mostly related to utilitarian motivations (such as for better social position, job and marriage opportunities) and to abstract perceptions of beauty, influenced by both traditional pre-colonial values, and the values rooted in the historical past of colonization, segregation and apartheid. Consequently, when the question of the use of skin lighteners is presented in narrow terms of white-black discrimination, it may exclude the consideration of constraints and limitations that many of those women could face, if they were not to confirm to the socially constructed ideals of beauty. According to Glenn (2008), while men are more likely to be considered valuable when they have wealth, education and other forms of human capital, women are considered valuable when they are physically attractive, even if they lack other capital. For that reason, the relative cost to “not betray the race” and not use skin lighteners, in this case, can be considered higher for black women, as their life opportunities may be more affected by the beauty standards of their society.

To modify the individual perceptions of self-esteem and pride regarding their own race is a first step to tackle the remaining racial discrimination challenges in South Africa. Nevertheless, when the parameters of physical attractiveness and beauty defined by the society can strongly influence the life opportunities of the women, the problem is not only about race, but also about gender. If the aesthetic parameter (determined by a male dominated society) were less relevant to determine the social position and value of these women, wouldn’t they feel less compelled to use skin lighteners and have more incentive to become more “loyal” towards their own race?


Glenn, E. N. (2008). Yearning for lightness: Transnational circuits in the marketing and consumption of skin lighteners. Gender & Society, 22(3), 281-302.

Thomas, L. (2009). Skin Lighteners in South Africa: Transnational Commodities and Technologies of the Self.” In Evelyn Nakano Glenn, ed., Shades of Difference: Why Skin Color Matters. Palo Alto: Stanford University of Press, 188-209.

UNEP (2008). Mercury in products and wastes. Geneva, United Nations Environment Programme, Division of Technology, Industry and Economics, Chemicals Branch.

Sources of preferences for whiter skin

by Kana Masaki

The main discussions in the chapter by Lynn Thomas are the use of and opposition to skin lighteners in South Africa. Skin lighteners were used by people in America at first to conceal blemishes and whiten their skin tone, and skin lighteners spread to South Africa too. Skin lightener advertisements in magazines spread it even more. South African women bought skin lighteners for higher status. In interwar South Africa, segregationist emphasized white skin supremacy. This led to the racial categories and this historical background is the reason why some women in South Africa bought to get a higher status. On the other hand, some people argue that they use skin lighteners, because they simply want to look beautiful and attractive and tend to prefer lighter skin traditionally. The author says that it’s difficult to discern whether lighter skin preference comes from precolonial conceptions of beauty or they come from racial hierarchies brought during colonialism. There are political opposition and medical opposition. The political opposition was using skin lighteners are a racial betrayal and self – loathing. The medical opposition was a health concern. People knew that these whitening or lightening creams contain toxic ingredients such as ammoniated mercury.

Same as South African women’s case, Japanese women also prefer white skin. Does white skin preference in Japan also come from the country’s historical background, or is just a traditional conception of beauty? Japanese women spend a lot of money on buying so–called bihaku cosmetics. Why do they spend so much money on such cosmetics? I guess having white skin was a traditional conception of beauty. There is a famous proverb, “irojiro wa hichinan kakusu,” meaning having a white skin can make you look attractive even though you have other faults. In other words, white skin can hide your faults and make you attractive. Also, it’s said that geisha has a really white skin as an exaggeration of Japanese beauty. These may prove that a white skin preference is just a traditional conception of beauty. On the other hand, I guess maybe it is not. The introduction of westernization during Meiji period could be a cause of white skin preference in Japan. The government tried to westernize everything in Japan at the time. For example, they made all men cut off chonmage to catch up with the West. They tried to westernize Japan to make a civilized Japan. I guess this made people think that looking like western people are cool, therefore having a white skin is the best.

Tomorrow in class, Karen and I want to have a discussion about whether light skin preference in South Africa comes from precolonial conceptions of beauty, racial hierarchies during colonialism or the mixing of both.

Valuing Lightness and Darkness

by Karen Mori

This week’s reading might seem a historical fact of the rise and fall of the skin lighteners, but I think this history of the skin lightener is not so important. To me, the most essential part is the hidden desire for people to improve themselves for socio-economic reasons or embedded idea of beauty that can be seen through the use of skin lighteners. The author of the reading (Lynn Thomas) states that the spread of skin lighteners across the world is a result of U.S. commodities and ideologies of race which became a motivation to sell those products. This skin-lighteners market eventually became entangled with economic relations, and racial hierarchies gave a meaning to “whiteness” that it is better than being darker. The reason why the use of skin lighteners were so popular despite the fact that it is symbolizing whiteness=better is because of how society was structured and how society pushed the ideology of skin color through advertisement. As a result, Black women’s concept of beauty became deeply affected by Whites.

The author mentions that “it is difficult to discern whether such valuing of lighter colored skin was rooted in pre-colonial conception of beauty, a product of racial hierarchies introduced through colonialism and segregation, or entanglement of the two,” despite the fact that the author think the concept of skin color is affected by structural forces from advertisement and social hierarchy. When I read the reading, I definitely thought yes, the concept of “being white is better than being darker” is socially created through colonialism. However when I reflected to Japan, my country, I feel little uncomfortable when I think about valuing “Bihaku” (whiteness) is affected by the West.

I personally prefer being white for no reason but I don’t think being tan is not so bad because maybe I lived in America and Americans valued being tan. When I met my friend after summer break, she was really tan, and I said “Kurokunattane” meaning you got darker (not so offensive in Japanese) and she got so upset said “hidoi” (how mean you are). I was so surprised that darkness is considered bad in Japan. Anyway, saying that whiteness is valued in Japan, some people say that Japanese adoration toward the West since Meiji period to become modernized is still affecting our value of whiteness or taller nose or longer legs. I cannot believe that Japanese are affected by historical social structure. However, when I go back to the reading what I am saying is that Black Africans prefer to have light skin not because they are affected by White.