By Themba Mkhize
If Rastafari is the epitome of Jamaica’s sub-cultural vibrancy, skin bleaching is its antithesis. Whereas Rastafari exalts the African identity, skin bleaching erodes the most prominent symbol of African descent – dark skin.
Skin bleaching is not unique to Jamaica. Unfortunately, in many regions where African or African-descended populations exist, there is evidence of a sub-culture of skin bleaching. This is also the case among other ethnic groups where skin complexions influences perceptions of beauty or are indicators of socioeconomic standing (in Latin America and Asia, for example).
In the Jamaican context, however, Rastafari and skin bleaching can be viewed as divergent responses to the same economic, political and socio-cultural elements (across time). Much like with Rastafari in the past (unfortunately), skin bleaching is perceived by many to have a correlation with other forms of deviance such as criminality, as well as low traditional educational and professional attainment. Skin bleaching also betrays in some cases an inferiority-complex and tells tales of historical colourism and classism.
The third Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey (2018) showed that eleven percent (11%) of our population has used skin bleaching products. That represents approximately 300,000 Jamaicans who have exposed themselves to the documented biological and psychological traumas related to skin bleaching.
Recently published research conducted by the Medical Physics Research Group from the University of the West Indies (UWI) found that a number of skin bleaching products being sold in Jamaica are potentially harmful to the local population (especially when patterns of usage were considered) (Ricketts et al., 2020). Pavithra Rao (2019), writing for the United Nations’ Africa Renewal information programme, pointed out that skin bleaching has been associated with kidney damage, psychosis, brain damage in foetuses and cancer.
In his 2010 work, Skin Bleaching in Jamaica: Self-Esteem, Racial Self-Esteem, and Black Identity Transactions, Dr. Christopher Charles found that there was a negative relationship between self-esteem and skin bleaching – meaning that as self-esteem decreases, the likelihood of skin bleaching increases.
The Association of Black Psychologists too, put forward findings that colourism in the United States had considerable psychological impact on young girls. It affected their self-esteem, perceptions of beauty, economic opportunities and likelihood to partake in “risk behaviours” such as substance abuse and skin bleaching.
Thus, the biological and psychological implications for a society where skin bleaching is prevalent are not difficult to see. Just as visible are the undercurrents of colourism and classism which have fed into, and continue to feed the sub-culture of skin bleaching in Jamaica.
The most prominent “bleachers” in modern times have been local musicians. Many Dancehall musicians visibly partake in skin bleaching and glamourize it as a part of their image, much like Rastafarians did with locks and their style of dress. Many impressionable youth have become attracted to this image and started to practise skin bleaching too.
In some instances, again, like locks in Rastafari, skin bleaching is a rejection of traditional middle-class and upper class value systems. This may be accompanied by a rejection of governmental authority and an indifference to a legal code which undermines their value system.
However, unlike reggae music – which rejects inequity, combats injustice and challenges the status quo; and locks – which put on show a naturally beautiful element of African-descended peoples (our hair) – skin bleaching betrays a counter-intuitive and obsessive admiration with having a lighter skin complexion, which is perceived to be better than a darker complexion.
So, though some dancehall and reggae musicians advocate for black consciousness and self-love (think back to Spice’s song Black Hypocrisy where she challenges colourism in Jamaican society, and her use of the Jamaican phrase “I feel a way!” in chiding a Walmart employee who she believes racially profiled her), their voices are counteracted by their metaphoric frat mates, whose messages are sometimes louder, more contemptuous and more exciting.
While this is so today, I hope that initiatives like the Love Your Skin, Appreciate Your Melanin initiative will continue to grow and make headway in addressing the issue of skin bleaching. In the next chapter of Jamaican history, I hope to see a voluntary shift away from skin bleaching as we become better educated and more confident in ourselves as we are.
We want to hear from you! Send feedback to email@example.com.