Skin Lighteners in South Africa

by Maiko Takada

I would like to discuss about the issue of “betraying the race” by examining the discussion question from class.

The first question is “Does betraying the race happen not only when people try to whiten or lighten their skin color, but also when people try to get tanned or darken their skin color?” My answer is, “It depends on the purpose or reason that you change the skin color”. In the case of South Africa, one’s racial category determined most life outcomes. Whiteness, purity, and social power are strongly connected. However, if your skin color was black, you are not able to get well-paid job or higher social status. In addition, people do not see you as an attractive person because of your skin color. Therefore, black people are eager to whiten their skin color. In other words, they aim to racial uplift by using skin lighteners as technologies. On the other hand, in the case of white people or Japanese, they go to the beach or pool side to get tanned because they enjoy seasonal benefit or vacation. Those ideas are similar with “Eat watermelon because it is summer” or “Let’s have a massage because we are vacationing at hotel”. It is clear that they are not trying to darken their skin to live in better life in the society. The differences between the two cases are that denying own feature or changing appearance for fun. People get tanned not because they are denying their skin color but black people abandon their blackness and eager to whiten the skin color. In conclusion, if people are not proud of their natural skin color and try to get tanned to change the race, this would be called “betraying the race”.

Second is “Are there any action which are seen as a betraying the race besides changing the skin tone?” Hair straighter, color contacts, and high heels were suggested as the examples in the class. When I was in high school, there were many girls who use hair curler because they think they look cuter with curly hair than straight hair. American celebrity Taylor Swift sometimes appears with straight hair although her hair is naturally curly. One of my Japanese friends showed up with gray eyes and said that she is wearing color contacts which she wanted to have for a long time. I can see many girls in high heels at the university, station, or shopping mall. In my opinion, those cases are closer to the case of getting tanned than using skin lighteners in South Africa. Because they seem like they just enjoy the fashion. Thus, I do not think people are betraying the race in this case. However, as Misa explained in the class, if Japanese people wear blue color contacts to pretend different race for example, then it could be “betraying the race”.

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4 thoughts on “Skin Lighteners in South Africa

  1. I strongly disagree with your anology of black people betraying their race. South Africa’s history of social injustice is one that is well known by the world, it is true that the African ius not well received in ANY part of the world, and is the most misunderstood race of the human species.

    Black South Africans have lightened their skins long before Europeans came to the continent and started their oppresive laws, they lightened their skins because its considered more beauriful (this has no bearing on them “trying to be white”). If they really betrayed their race, would they not have abandoned their indigenous languages, traditions and customs? Would they not try marry a man of a difference race?

    They lightened their skin because they could. Black skin can go light and go back to dark, white, asian skin cannot. Its the same with europeans dying their hair colour to lightet (for asians) or darker (for europeans) it is all for cosmetic reasons!!

    • Thanks for commenting on my student’s post. You raise some important points. Critics of the marketing and use of skin lighteners in South Africa have argued that the products present physical health risks, and that they reflect the internalization of apartheid-era racial ideology. The idea of “betraying the race” reflects the opposition to apartheid, and the desire for solidarity, I think.

      Studies of “marrying up” in many countries have documented people’s attempts to improve either their own status or that of their future children by marrying someone with lighter skin tone. How about in South Africa?

      As to whether someone might alter their appearance “for cosmetic reasons,” how can we understand our notions of beauty in a deeper way? To what extent do our views of what’s beautiful and what’s not reflect racial ideologies? How about our images of being successful or being modern?

      When my students tell me that doing things like lightening the skin is simply a personal preference, I ask them how is it that so many people seem to share the same personal preference? Our ideas about beauty and cosmetics are influenced by our social environment, including mass marketing, legacies of colonization, and other factors. The reading Maiko was responding to analyzed the history of the use of skin lighteners in South Africa, from the late 19th century to the end of apartheid. So, why did South African ads for skin lighteners in the early 20th century explicitly state that the products were made by American blacks? Why did those ads connect lighter skin with higher status or greater beauty? Yes, people lightened their skin because they could, but what motivated them to do it in the first place? Let’s dig deeper to understand those “cosmetic reasons.”

      • Thanks for your reply.

        Here are my thoughts, it is very important to understand the real reasons behind an action of a people, i am a black South African and can tell you skin lightening for Africans does not have it inception in racial betrayal, yes its progression has diluted the reasons for it.

        When Africans lost their land and were displaced through the various laws introduced by the settlers, the effect was felt in every aspect of their exixtence, overnight a people had to adapt. Indeginous soils and herbs once used for cosmetic purpses (imbola and such) were now rareand very hard to come by, the chemical version these natural substances were indeed harmful and were banned eventually. My point being, Africans had used “skin lightners” before europeans came to Africa, in the aparthdid era having a lighter skin tone meant getting a job snd providing for one’s family (as the europeans felt tne darkdr a skin tone, the more backward the person), it was a mere way to exploit a oppresive system.

        As for marrying up, there wer interracial relationships in South Africa, however the apartheid government was so good in terrorising sny individuals in interracial relationships theh wete not a common occurence, also there was such animosith between white and black that these relationships were prevented from both sides of tne colour line (no matter how light skinndc the African somsn was), till this day interracial relations still bear a stigma.

        The biggest consumers of skin lighters in South Africa is the Indian population, due to the caste system the Indians have, a dark skin tond is not appreciated, infact this is where skin lighteners were sourced by Africans.

      • Thanks for continuing the conversation. I’m teaching this class several more times this year, and I will be sure to include your comments in our discussion of skin lightening in South Africa.

        There are other cases where practices of skin lightening preceded colonization or contact with Western powers, including in India and Japan. However, that doesn’t mean that the practices retain the meanings they had before colonization. With all cultural practices, the meanings behind them shift over time, as cultural, social, political, and economic contexts also change. This makes understanding these practices difficult, but also more interesting.

        Thanks for being part of the conversation.

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