I have never been quite as intimidated by an inanimate object as I am by the little bottle sitting on my bathroom countertop. It had arrived, along with a flood of other unfamiliar toiletries, in my cousin’s bag this morning. The bottle is only a couple of inches high and the words “Fair and Lovely” are written across the top in friendly, pink script. An ambiguously ethnic girl smiles on the front. Behind her grinning mug is a picture of the same girl, minus the idiotic grin but plus a whole hell of a lot more melanin. “Smear me all over your face,” the bottle demands rudely. “Then maybe you can be white – pretty – and happy, too.”
A lot of girls in my extended family (a lot of Sudanese girls, in general) have been all too happy to acquiesce to that vulgar demand. It’s a pandemic sweeping through the Sudanese community, the wild desire to buy bleach and wash your skin away. You know, I understand why it happens. We have a history of colonialism that didn’t exactly foster positive ideas about race. And today, with the ubiquity of American culture, even people still living in Sudan are constantly exposed to Western standards of beauty. Little girls in Sudan watch just as much Disney Channel as little girls in America. And Disney Channel is chock full of smiling pretty white girls that we can never resemble. No one wants to feel that they’ll never be pretty. So what’s a little Sudanese girl’s best chance to be like one of those smiling white girls? Become a smiling ambiguously ethnic girl, like the one on the “Fair and Lovely” box.
I’m not saying girls in Sudan shouldn’t watch Hannah Montana or Jessie or whatever show centered on a charismatic Caucasian is currently in vogue. Maybe, however, they could also have a chance to see a show that follows the exploits of a talented and beautiful Black girl. This should not be solely Disney’s responsibility; in an ideal world, the fight against colorism would start at home. However, realistically, Sudan just does not have any entertainment companies on the same scale as Disney.
In any case, American culture is pervasive all around the globe. Everything, from our music to our clothes, has gone international. The Disney Channel, alone, is available in 166 countries and territories, in 34 languages. However, of the six live action shows currently airing new episodes, only one of them has a lead that isn’t white. When you count re-runs, the number changes to nine live action shows – but still only one starring a Person of Color. The channel has two new live action shows starting next year and both star smiling white girls. These are the statistics for a channel that is literally available in most of the world.
Skin whitening is not okay, though, even if it’s explicable. Every small bottle of hateful bleach purchased is a spit in the face of our ancestors. My mother’s great-grandfather fought against the British imperialists and temporarily succeeded in pushing them back. They called him “Al-Azraq”, the Blue One, because he was so dark. They also called him “Al-Amir”, the Prince, for fighting against the British. If I bleach away my blue-blackness, then I must bleach away the princely attributes, too. What would he say, that brave man, if he knew his descendants were trying their best to make themselves up like his oppressors? What would we say, in our own defense, if he saw us now, having sacrificed our skin and our pride to the altar of “You can be white and pretty and happy”?
Every small bottle of hateful bleach purchased is a spit in the face of our future children, the generations of Sudanese yet to come. It is a harsh admission that, no, they aren’t good enough just the way they are. We are implying that, yes, the world is right and you are inferior. To ever be worth anything, you had better try and be more, well, white (you can be white and pretty and happy). When we buy “Fair and Lovely”, we are telling all of those future kids, who must already deal with racism from the outside world, that without lighter skin they cannot be “fair” nor “lovely”. Rather, you must be “Fair and Lovely” or neither “fair” nor “lovely”. This a package deal, sweetheart.
The critical thing to understand is that whitening one’s skin is not a cosmetic choice but rather a political one. If you bleach your skin, you are buying into the myth we’ve been fed for centuries that black people cannot be attractive, that the only people of value are those with pale skin. It is not merely a personal choice; your actions have ramifications for the entire Sudanese, as well as the general Black, community. If you agree that you need to be paler to be worthy of any position in society, you are supporting the same mistaken assumptions that allow store clerks to be suspicious of black shoppers. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, you are consenting to being made inferior. You are propping up an outdated societal structure, one that is actively detrimental to every minority.
It’s desperate and sad, this rejection of our own natural bodies. I know, however, that the problem isn’t limited to the Sudanese community. In fact, “Fair and Lovely” is an Indian company, and skin whitening creams are also popular in other Asian countries, such as Japan and China. It’s all part of a larger problem. In our globalized world, we have all somehow decided to buy into a single, narrow standard of beauty and it’s one that doesn’t leave room for too much of a tan. We all have to work against it, this evil desire to force the world’s wide spectrum of people through the world’s tiniest hoop.