by Obiora N. Anekwe
(For Part 1 of this editorial series, please click here)
“I’ve been black and dark-skinned for many years, I wanted to see the other side. I wanted to see what it would be like to be white and I’m happy” (Fihlani, 2012). These words are those of South African musician, Nomasonto ‘Mshoza’ Minisi, who commented on her usage of skin bleaching creams. Her sentiments are reflective of a shared consensus among many people around the world who share a universal standard of human beauty based on abstract, non-substantive values of selfhood and collective racial imagery. Unfortunately, a global misperception about dark skin color among some people still determines their self-esteem and confidence. I will discuss the damaging health care phenomenon of skin bleaching, how to help resolve this dangerous and unhealthy practice, and provide educational and ethical avenues by which solutions can be framed to help alleviate misconceptions about melanin.
In part one of my opinion editorials, I briefly discussed how Dominican baseball great Sammy Sosa succeeded immensely as a world renowned athlete, but still struggled with internalized issues related to his skin color. He ultimately lightened his skin in order to compensate for his dark-skinned complexion. His actions are reflective of a stigma that dark skin amounts to ugliness and minimal intelligence. Sosa should not be blamed for the increased usage of skin bleaching products by consumers. He’s simply a product of a highly coloristic society in the Dominican Republic that mostly believes that lighter skin brings forth greater opportunities. For instance, in a recent study of perceptions of skin color among Dominican children, most of them surveyed believed that whiter or lighter-skinned test dolls were more beautiful and intelligent than their darker-skinned counterparts (Cabrera, 2014).
Celebrities such as Sosa influence our social, economic and health care behavior. As they lighten their skin with skin bleaching creams, many unsuspecting customers also follow suit and buy similar products on the black market, often sold with higher levels of toxic mercury and other dangerous chemicals that harm the skin (Lewis, 2007). One international celebrity, Cameroonian pop singer, Dencia, lightened her skin and now sells her own line of skin care bleaching creams called Whitenicious (see Appendix, Image 1).
More than ever before, bioethicists must strive to inform potential buyers of the health risks of these products. They should also help educate dark-skinned people about the benefits of having higher levels of melanin, especially in tropical countries where melanin protects darker skinned people from skin cancer (Welsing, 2013a). Decades ago, Carter G. Woodson (1933) most eloquently concluded in his groundbreaking book, The Mis-education of the Negro, that dark-skinned people have been conditioned to believe that they are inferior simply based on the color of their skin. His words are still pertinent today. It is up to bioethicists to help re-educate melanated populations in order to effectively change negative misconceptions about dark skin color. In my estimation, this sort of re-education may even change a persistent desire to buy skin-lightening creams that cause harm to the physical body. It is up to bioethicists to reframe these challenges and refocus on educating the public about how dark skin color and melanin benefits one’s physical, mental, and spiritual essence.
Some opponents contend that teaching about the benefits of melanin is a form of pseudoscience and unrelated to the field of bioethics. To the contrary, I believe that teaching our most vulnerable about the significance of melanin is science at its purest form; for science is a search for truth free of deadly deceptions. I also argue that to not teach the most vulnerable about this pertinent matter would be ethically disingenuous since many such critics have used whiteness as the basis for genetic white superiority; even going as far as conducting race based medical studies on vulnerable populations to prove their beliefs. Teaching about the benefits associated with higher levels of melanin builds human pride, confidence, and a positive consciousness for dark-skinned people who otherwise have been taught to believe that their dark skin color limits their destiny, value, and status as human beings. Most importantly, teaching highly melanated people about the medical benefits of dark skin may prove to be the most significant factor in reducing the need to bleach their skin.
But how can highly melanated people be re-educated about the negative health effects of skin bleaching creams while reducing the sale of these products? Simply said, we need to first educate consumers. It begins with dispelling global preconceived myths about dark skin color through education and presenting a more balanced approach about the significance of melanin. For instance, many people are unaware of the origins of skin coloration and the creative functionality of the Pineal gland. This organ is located in the central portion of the human brain. It produces melanin, the substance that generates skin color in the body (King, 2001). Melanin also serves as a protective mechanism for people in tropical countries such as Brazil, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic (Welsing, 2013b). When people of color in these regions use skin-lightening products, they abnormally reduce the ability of melanin to naturally protect their skin from diseases such as skin cancer (Lewis, 2007).
Although it is not widely discussed, skin pigmentation plays a vital role in one’s human existence. Hence, the unnatural alteration of skin color through skin lightening products causes greater harm than good to people of color who possess higher levels of melanin produced from the Pineal gland (Duke, 2011). Located at the center of the brain, the Pineal gland has also been referred to as the Inner Eye and the Seat of the Human Soul, especially in Egyptian history (Nasheed, 2012). According to some scholars, soulfulness is attributed to the Pineal gland (2012). Melanin is, therefore, the neuro-chemical basis for what is called Soul in black people (2012). In fact, the activation of the Pineal gland is believed in biblical scripture to allow humans to meet God face to face (King, 2001). In Genesis 32: 30-31, this process is described in Jacob’s transformative meeting with God: “And Jacob called the name of the place Pineal, for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved. And as he passed over Pineal the sun rose upon him.”
Melanin is also the first gland developed in the body (The 8th realm, 2014). It is responsible for sensing light and darkness (Inner of Third Eye); telling our bodies when to do its functions (Biological Clock); setting the pace or rhythm for the body (Pacemaker); helping us orient ourselves (Compass); and producing/secreting the hormones of serotonin and melatonin, which, in effect, creates melanin (2014). As a matter of fact, all humans have melanin but at different levels or classifications-six to be exact (2014). When people alter their melanin levels by unnaturally bleaching their skin, they deregulate the natural means by which the body regulates itself and preserves a healthy balance (Afrika, 2009).
Education through public service announcements and the social media must also serve as a means to help eliminate the need to bleach one’s skin. For example, Jamaica’s public service campaign educates its citizens about the health risks of bleaching one’s skin. For several decades, Jamaica has been plagued by a high number of instances in which people buy banned skin-lightening products. But within the past few years, public health officials in the country have decreased the black market sale of illegal skin bleaching products through the “Don’t Kill the Skin” prevention campaign (Lewis, 2007). Even Dove, a leading manufacturer of soap and skin care products, has released an internationally marketed internet commercial on YouTube celebrating and redefining beauty by focusing on the strengths of color diversity among people of color. These campaigns seem to be effective in reaching a segment of the population who otherwise would be unaware of the dangers involved in skin bleaching.
Nations with high imports of banned skin bleaching products should impose heavy fines for transporting and selling these products. Skin care product companies should also begin to accurately portray the diversity and range of black and brown people throughout the world. The lack of diverse depictions of skin color only translates into inaccurate messages that beauty is found through having lighter skin color.
And lastly, bioethicists should dedicate more research to the investigation of melanin in order to debunk myths about the inferiority of highly melanated people. We must be willing to conduct research that challenges the non-scientific and racialized belief shared by some that highly melanated skin equates to human inferiority. This sort of belief system only increases the globalized consumption of skin bleaching products. We must not only change the negative imagery of blackness, but we must also adopt a balanced perspective and knowledge of melanin’s significance in relation to scientific inquiry and discovery.
Afrika, L. (2009). Melanin: What makes black people black. Seaburn Publishing Group:Long Island City, New York.
Cabrera, C.E. (2014, February 5). Dominican colorism. The Huffington Post: Latino Voices, 1-6.
Duke, B. (2011). Dark girls: Real women. Real stories. Duke Media.
Fihlani, P. (2012). Africa: Where black is not really beautiful. BBC News: Johannesburg, South Africa. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-20444798
King, R. (2001). Melanin: A key to freedom. Lushena Books, Inc: Chicago, Illinois.
Lewis, T. (2007). Don’t kill the skin campaign targets illegal bleaching products. Jamaica Observer, p. 1-2. Retrieved from http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/news/118126_Don-t-kill-the-skin-campaign-targets-illegal-bleaching-products
Nasheed, T. (2012).Hidden colors 2: The triumph of melanin. King Flex Entertainment: The 8th realm: Online journal of my conscious mind. (2014). The blessing in blackness: Thoughts on melanin.
Welsing, F.C. (2013a). Public lecture on, Can you protect your melanin. Youtube Channel.
Welsing, F.C. (2013b). Public lecture on, Surviving racism in the 21st century. Youtube Channel.
Woodson, C.G. (1933). The mis-education of the Negro. Las Vegas, Nevada.