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Skin Bleaching - A Cause for Concern in the Caribbean


Skin bleaching is a growing trend in the Caribbean and may be defined as the removal of skin melanin to achieve lighter skin tone. It is done through the use of homemade products, cosmetic products and dermatological products. One reason for skin bleaching is to create an identity that is perceived as more socially acceptable. According to Hunter (2007), “colorism is the process of discrimination that privileges light-skinned people of color over their dark-skinned counterparts.” This definition emphasizes the prevalence of this phenomenon amongst non-whites. Given the prevalence of skin bleaching and the history of race and colour-based systems of oppression in the Caribbean, it is worthwhile to examine the reasons why skin bleaching occurs in the Caribbean region and its implications.

As previously mentioned, the phenomenon of skin bleaching has its roots in colonization and slavery. Europeans, who enslaved and colonized people primarily from Africa and India, exploited the region on the basis of racism. They believed that they were superior to the indigenous peoples and to people brought to work on Caribbean sugar plantations. The belief that whites were superior was partially attributed to their skin tone and indoctrinated into the minds of Africans, Asians, and other racial or ethnic groups in the Caribbean. This belief persists today in that lighter skin tone is seen as a means of achieving upward social mobility. The complexion consensus is that lighter skin is superior and often privileges light-skinned individuals with more opportunities for success and prestige. However, this is mediated by factors such as level of education and talent (Charles, 2010). For example, in a historical context, mulattoes or persons mixed with black and white heritage were likely to be provided with more opportunities to progress than full blacks. There were real benefits to having lighter skin, and possibly strong messages that affected the identity and self worth of individuals who benefited or lost out because of it. Thus there are both individual psychological and societal benefits of skin beaching.

Furthermore, agents of socialization such as Eurocentric educational system, media and popular culture have been found to influence people to the practice of skin bleaching. Caribbean natives have access to cable television and social media and as such are exposed to Eurocentric programming where western culture is glorified. Even local television stations, for example, in Trinidad and Tobago, broadcast a lot of American programming. When exposed to European culture from a young age, the idea that one is better off being white may be perpetuated. In Jamaica, “roast breadfruit mentality” is a term used to refer to persons who are supposedly black on the outside but white on the inside (Sutherland, 2011). This exposure may enable Caribbean people to become more familiar and knowledgeable about western culture and as such this can result in the idealization of Eurocentric standards of beauty and fashion.

Skin-lightening products are readily available in drug stores and cosmetic stores such as Fair and Handsome and Ashe Skin Whitening Cream. This begs the question of whether or not people bleach their skin to appear more attractive or are they simply following the trends in society. For example, popular Jamaican singer Vbyz Kartel’s complexion has dramatically lightened in recent years and his song lyrics indicate that it is a means of appearing more attractive – “Di girl dem love off mi cute brown face, di girl dem love off mi bleach out face.”

Many people who bleach their skin for non-medicinal purposes ignore the implications of skin bleaching such as mercury poisoning, skin thinning, impaired healing, increased sensitivity to the sun and increased risk of developing skin cancer. The benefits of melanin in protecting the skin are overlooked. Furthermore, altering one’s appearance may be an indication of more pathological problems such as Body Dysmorphic Disorder. Lastly, it may be a sign of non-acceptance of one’s cultural background due to the belief that the only standard of beauty is those defined by European ideals. The solution here is to re-educate the population (reprinted from an article by Amrita Sohan).