Eight billion shades of human skin color make this planet a colorful place to live, work, and play with each other. Yet, even in 2015, people all over the world are conditioned to think that one shade of beige is better than any other. We need some other kind of conditioning. Air conditioning probably won’t do the trick. Rather, unconditional love and respect for each person that survives their mother’s birth canal. And even if they don’t. That’s the ticket. Love and Respect for each person, regardless of skin color. It’s so simple. And Simple is the new Cool, according to our (cool) guest Wilbur Sargunaraj, one of many artists against racism championing the case for honoring the value in each person regardless of the richness of their pigmentation because, let’s face it, Colorism Ain’t Cool.
Wilbur Sargunaraj is a self-described musician, speaker, filmmaker and humanitarian. His 2013 film Simple Superstar delightfully conveyed the import of recognizing that everyone has something special to offer humanity. He offers sincerity and simplicity as values we can so easily embody instead of chasing fame, fortune, or glory. In this conversation with Wilbur after the screening of Simple Superstar at the 11th annual 3rdi San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, he passionately articulates his experience of being on the receiving end of incredibly insensitive and outright colorist remarks from even (so-called) friends and relatives. Millions of people, like Wilbur, children included, hear downright demeaning comments throughout their lives. Please take a listen to the interview and share your thoughts and feelings with us. You can also watch the whole of Simple Superstar below, for free. Thanks, Wilbur.
It turns out that racism seems to be bad for our bodies, minds, hearts and spirit. The negative impact on health, self-esteem, confidence, achievement, and relationships of racism is being documented in the scientific literature. The Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, a peer-reviewed journal specifically devoted to research on race in the social sciences, dedicated an entire issue in April 2011 to the subject of racial inequality and health. The American Psychological Association Office of Ethnic Minority Affairs’ (OEMA) Ethnicity and Health in America Series has been raising awareness about the varied health concerns of people of (darker) color in America, including the physiological and psychological impact of stress caused by the experience of racism and discrimination. The American Journal of Public Health reserved an entire section of the May 2012 issue to the science of research on racial/ethnic discrimination and health. (Those articles are open access. Here’s a link to a selection of the abstracts with links to the full articles.) Even just the anticipation of racism induces an exacerbated cardiovascular response. Young males’ perceptions of discrimination are associated with increased substance use.
As is common with academic conclusions, more research is needed. That research ought to also take a life course perspective. Certain incidents have varying impact depending on which age they are experienced and in which context. An ecosocial approach considers that racism is not only an individual experience but also a collective institutional, structural experience. A model that allows us to examine discrimination at the intersections of gender, class, literacy, geography, age, language, religion, among other factors is imperative, as is understanding the consequences of racism on the racist.
Despite all the evidence of the toxicity of a colorist belief system, people all over the world, primarily women, though men apparently make up 10% of the market, are applying cremes containing toxic substances to their skin in order to lighten their pigmentation. Apparently about 60% of the women in India use these products, according to Didier Villanueva, a manager for L’Oreal India. It’s a massive US $20 billion industry in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and India. In India alone, it was a US $430 million market in 2010, growing by 18% annually. The Anglo-Dutch company Unilever has been selling a cream called “Fair and Lovely” to Indian females since the 1970s. Kolkata based Emami introduced “Fair and Handsome” for men in 2005. L’Oreal’s in on the action too. And to top things off, or bottom them out, as the case may be, Midas Care Pharmaceuticals started marketing “Clean and Dry” intimate wash to lighten up the genitalia. For crying out loud, just turn off the lights and get on with it. We can play Name the Corporations promoting these toxic concepts, beliefs, and products too. (I’ve got a Name that Corporation game for industrial disasters coming online soon. Stay tuned.)
Most skin lightening creams block or reduce the production of melanin, the natural pigment in our skin that increases with exposure to sunlight, serving to help protect us from excessive radiation exposure. Melanin can protect us from 99.9% of absorbed ultraviolet radiation. So, if you are considering the damaging effects of the sun, the more melanin you have the better. That translates to the darker the better. Melanin, by the way, is also responsible for the color of your hair. Just take one moment, all thee dark-skinned people with dark hair. How many of you are coloring your hair black while whitening your skin? Oh dear, the twisted logic of what is considered beautiful.
There are a variety of substances found in skin lightening creams. Some are more toxic than others. Of these Hydroquinone and mercury are the most concerning. Hydroquinone is one of the most common ingredients in skin lightening cremes. It’s an irritant to the skin, particularly when applied repeatedly, or in combination with tretinoin (Retin-A). Sometimes a steroid cream is added to cut down on the inflammation. It’s been shown to induce leukemia in mice and rats. Overuse can cause ochronosis, a speckled and diffuse pigmentation symmetrically over the face, neck, and sun-exposed areas. Over-exposure to hydroquinone can cause some serious toxic effects, including central nervous system excitement, colored urine, nausea, dizziness, suffocation, rapid breathing, muscle twitching, delirium, and collapse. It’s been banned from use in cosmetics in the European Union since 2001. It’s still available in the rest of the world in varying concentrations.
Mercury is fun to look at and terrible to play with. Over-exposure to mercury can damage the skin, kidneys, nervous system, and the developing brains of children. It can also cause psychiatric effects causing one to become “Mad as a Hatter.” The United States Federal Drug Administration has issued a consumer warning against skin lightening creams that contain mercury. Through testing they’ve discovered more than 35 different products that contain unacceptable levels of mercury. One product in Texas was found to have mercury levels 131,000 times the acceptable limit of 1 ppm! Just last year a team of international scientists examined 549 skin-lightening products for their mercury content. Of the 549 products, 6.0% contained mercury above 1000 ppm. Of the mercury containing samples, 45% were in excess of 10,000 ppm. Of those products bought in the USA, 3.3% contained mercury levels higher than 1000 ppm. The USA banned mercury containing cosmetics in 1990, once again lagging behind Europe where these products were banned in 1976.
In one study published in 2003 in the Journal of Environmental Pathology, Toxicology and Oncology, skin lightening cream containing mercury was applied at various intervals to mice for a period of one month inducing permanent damage to the kidneys, brain, and liver of those poor critters. That was after just one month of use. Most humans are applying the creams, sometimes more than once daily, for periods ranging from one month to many years.
The loved ones of users of skin lightening creams are also at risk for exposure to these toxic substances. Often family members are found to be hugging and snuggling with each other, especially in families with darker skin tones, thereby getting exposed. Even just the vapors emanating from the skin creme can offer substantial exposure to mercury, especially significant for small children. In 2010, 15 cases of skin lightening cream induced mercury toxicity were identified in 5 households in California and Virginia. Only nine of those people were actually using the cremes. The youngest of the non-users was 8 months old. Two of the users were mothers and had applied the skin lightening creams during their pregnancies or while breastfeeding. Six of the users had symptoms of chronic mercury toxicity: numbness, tingling, dizziness, forgetfulness, headaches, and depression.
So while hundreds of thousands of people are harming themselves and their loved ones in the pursuit of some unnatural standard of beauty, let’s count the victories for this side of reason. This year the Ivory Coast banned skin lightening creams containing mercury, cortisone, Vitamin A, and hydroquinone more than 2%. This is a pivotal decision following in the footsteps of South Africa where creams containing more than 2% hydroquinone were banned in 1980. Sadly, Ivorians seem to be ignoring the ban, as are 35% of South African women. The World Health Organization reports use in Africa ranges from 77% of Nigerian women followed by 59% of women in Togo with 59%; 35% in South Africa; and 25% in Mali. The level of self-esteem, or rather, self-hatred reflected in these numbers, and stories reported by the BBC, is heartbreaking.
Oh wait, I was counting triumphs and just slipped into gloom again. Let me get back on my victory horse here. The Dark is Beautiful campaign in India was successful last year in pressuring the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) to introduce guidelines on acceptable advertising pertaining to these cosmetic products. Specifically these are:
2. Advertising should not use post production visual effects on the model/s to show exaggerated product efficacy.
3. Advertising should not associate darker or lighter colour skin with any particular socio-economic strata, caste, community, religion, profession or ethnicity.
4. Advertising should not perpetuate gender based discrimination because of skin colour.
Now, for those of you who have never witnessed any of these ads, they really are hideously distasteful, humiliating, and utterly ridiculous. Take a look at these ads that, thankfully, will never be aired again.
Finally, we’ll need our artist friends to bring us to our senses for no amount of information offers the same inspiration as a healthy dose of sincerity. My good friend and extraordinary artist, Micropixie, aka Single Beige Female, shares this charming and ardent plea for earthly kinship. Because everyone is valuable, and beautiful.
You can watch the whole of Simple Superstar here,for free: