When I saw Sammy Sosa with his jarringly lighter complexion at the Latin Grammys last week, I wasn’t all that shocked—and I certainly didn’t think it was steroids. I’m a brown girl who knows the work of skin lightening creams when she sees it.
In an era when countries like the Dominican Republic and India have put colonialism squarely behind them, you’d think that we would be throwing concepts of caste aside, embracing our brown selves and celebrating that no one is forcing their aesthetic standards (or anything else) on us anymore. But instead, it seems like people of color across the globe are still colonized by colorism.
To be fair, it’s certainly not just Sammy Sosa, the Dominican Republic and India. It’s Japan, Malaysia, Cuba, Iran, Britain, Singapore, Mexico, Sri Lanka … the list goes on and on. The skin lightening cream industry is a $432 million a year industry in India, $7 billion a year industry in China—and it’s growing globally.
Even though I’ve never used skin lightening creams, I’ve known about them since childhood and remember being hyper-aware of cultural messages that “fair” was prettier than dark. In the world of Bollywood and Indian cosmetics, fairness creams are as old as human vanity and as common as hair dye. I’ve seen it all before. Someone you know has a dark-coffee complexion one week—and then, bam!—it’s café con leche the next.
The thing is, despite the popularity of skin lightening creams, no one wants to admit that they use them. At first, Sosa tried to deny it, too. It was the side effect of a treatment for a skin infection; it was the bright lights of the cameras; he really wasn’t trying to look like Michael Jackson (or a vampire). But it seems Sammy doth protest too much.
Now it turns out he may want to endorse the cream as a spokesman. Oh, Sammy. If he does, he’ll join the ranks of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan (think South Asian Tom Cruise, minus the Scientology), who came under fire for his advertisements endorsing a new skin lightening cream for men in India.
This would be yet another blow in the long line of attempts to spread the word that some people happen to like dark brown skin, thank you very much, from the Black Is Beautiful movement in the U.S. in the ‘60s and ‘70s to the recent Dark Is Beautiful campaign in India.
Of course, it’s easy to rage against Sosa’s skin lightening and colorism in general. It’s everywhere, and it’s not especially subtle. Just pay attention to who’s dark and who’s not in a Bollywood film, or even a black Hollywood movie, for that matter. Turns out the fairest of them all is typically the sweet, virtuous Snow White/Prince Charming types, whereas the darker-skinned characters are usually fumbling through life, if not downright villainous.
It’s also easy to take the Sosa incident personally. I know countless people who use skin lightening creams, and they’re all smart, confident and beautiful. But it doesn’t change the deep-seeded message about dark skin they’ve heard all their lives. It’s summarized perfectly in a quote from the movie Mississippi Masala: “You can be dark and have money, or you can be fair and have no money. But you can’t be dark and have no money and expect to marry Harry Patel.”
So what can we take away from Sammy Sosa? Well for starters, oddly enough, I think his willingness to come clean about using bleaching creams can only be a good thing. Part of the problem is that this is a trend that’s happened largely in silence for generations now. This could start an important dialogue about what hydroquinone actually does to your skin, about treating skin conditions that really do affect people of color and about the difficulty of finding makeup as a brown woman—even today. Maybe we’ll start talking honestly about our deeply rooted preferences and prejudices that make skin lightening a multi-billion-dollar industry worldwide.
I remember the excitement I felt the first time I saw somebody who looked like me on TV. (I’m pretty sure he was playing a taxi cab driver, but it was still pretty thrilling.) Like it or not, Sammy’s a role model—and his decisions affect others in ways he might never imagine.
That doesn’t mean the man can’t lighten his skin if he wants. But I wish that, before his makeover, he would’ve considered this: As a baseball player of international renown, he had the power to hawk something a lot more powerful than a tube of hydroquinone cream—that is, the message to love thy brown self.
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering South Asian American community issues and cultural trends.
PHOTO GALLERY: Take a look at these celebrities' changing faces.