Talking Her Out of Skin Bleaching Won't Work

Race Manners: This choice is one symptom of a society obsessed with whiteness. Being judgmental misses the point.

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Common reactions like scorn, disbelief and the singling out of women who engage in this practice as examples of self-hate or a "colonial mentality" miss the point, says Drexel University's Yaba Blay, a researcher and ethnographer who co-directs the school's Africana-studies program. "Skin bleaching is but one consequence of global white supremacy," she writes in one piece pushing back on popular go-to explanations for lightening.

Frustrated with the treatment of skin bleachers "as if they exist within an ahistoric, apolitical vacuum," she points out that while African women are often ridiculed as "naive" or "irrational"  (in much the way you're approaching your cousin's choices) for thinking that lighter skin is more appealing, "we ignore the fact that you can't walk through the streets of Accra [Ghana] without being bombarded with 60-foot billboards" with that exact theme.

And it's not as if the United States is a safe harbor from all that, either. To make up for the absence of those giant advertisements, we get messaging including, but certainly not limited to, the quotes highlighted in this "Say No to Colorism and Misogyny From Black Men in the Entertainment Industry" Facebook post (including this one from Lil Wayne: "Beautiful black woman, I bet that bitch look better red" -- and plenty more where that came from).

So the problem has countless perpetrators and participants. The only real news here is that a person you care about happens to be showing evidence of it all over her face.

That's why Blay tends not to dissuade women from bleaching on a one-on-one basis. Why? It's not effective. "They are impacted by so many societal cues simultaneously to the extent that it's hard to pinpoint what impacts their consciousness most," she says. Blay is designing an anti-bleaching campaign in Ghana over the next year. Rather than shouting, "Don't bleach," the campaign will sing the praises of dark skin -- "normalizing the beauty of brown skin," she explains.

I know you have an individual in front of you, and you feel that you have to do something. So, sure, you can appeal to her vanity, if not her concern for her health, with a reminder that her skin will suffer irreparable damage from this practice. Use this "Get Light or Die Trying" post to illustrate that point. But save the judging, which Blay warns "will only serve to push her practice further underground."

Given all the forces that conspire to keep up skin bleaching, it's almost remarkable that anyone escapes the "Wonderful things happen when your skin is ... light" messaging. The good news: You've done it. Simple as it seems, maybe your job is just to be there, liking yourself and your natural complexion, acting as a counterpoint to those women on those ubiquitous billboards. This way, over time, Blay says, "you may be able to show her the many ways in which browner or darker skin is itself beautiful."

Success here will mean gently serving as an example of a white-supremacy-defying self-love that you want for your cousin -- just without the judgment, the criticism and the message that there is something flawed about the way she is right now. Clearly, the world has provided enough of that to last a lifetime.

The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life -- and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.

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