Three months ago, I walked into a Cuban pharmacy to fill a prescription I’d been given at the clinic across the street. I had recently come down with a case of photodermatitis, which maybe sounds bad, but the hospital specialist assured me that the scary name was mostly a bluff – I had probably just spilled lime juice on my hands and then unintentionally let the sun stain my skin with these leprotic spots. The recommended treatment was essentially to not let the sun shine on my hands anymore, and to apply a healing salve every morning and evening.
While I was waiting for my medicine in the pharmacy, I witnessed the single most disturbing thing that I saw while in Cuba.
This was more sinister than any evil economic or political ideology I found on the island, more jarring than skinny dipping in the freezing Atlantic Ocean, more frightening than the time a Cuban soldier threatened to arrest me for taking a photo of him.
On a shelf next to medicine and contraceptives, I saw something for sale called skin whitening cream. In case it isn’t obvious, the point behind this product is to lighten your skin, and therefore align it more closely with perfection and beauty. This particular brand was called White Prestige™.
The implicit assumption at play here is that whiteness equals beauty. Dark skinned folks, therefore, need only to assimilate to white standards and expectations if they want to truly be beautiful. A cream like White Prestige might seem odd to some, but this “beauty product” is, after all, for sale in a country with a tired history of racial discrimination against black and brown bodies. This greater context perhaps begins to explain why some darker skinned people would eventually learn to hate their skin so much that they would pay money to bleach it, to apply caustic chemicals (literally acid) to it, in order to escape the social shame associated with not being white enough.
Although these products comprise a multi-million dollar industry worldwide, they are not as mainstream here in the United States. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the very literal whitewashing that takes place in other parts of the world is somehow absent from our society. The all too familiar pattern of altering ones’ skin, eyes, and hair to better align it with how white bodies look has become a common trend in my country, and the twisted philosophy behind this practice (whiteness=beautiful) affects the lives of both whites and people of color, adults and infants.
Which doll is the nice doll? It’s that one. Which is the bad one, the scary one? That one. Why is that doll pretty? “Because it’s white and has blue eyes.” Why is that doll ugly? “Because he’s black.”
I hope you’ve watched the above video, which documents several studies examining how early childhood development and socialization often has racially fragmenting results. Studies like these should break your heart, perhaps especially if you happen to believe that all people are created equally in the image of God. It should utterly rile you that the greater trends of colonial violence operating in our society fracture and build to a rising spiritual conflict inside of our youth.
Since I left Christian fundamentalism (where I had several experiences with fake exorcisms and the like) I’ve been hesitant to name things “demonic” or “hellish.” But the phenomenon recorded in the above video is truly nothing less than satanic, a devilishly fathered system of lies that incarnates itself inside the most innocent.
The kind of shame and self-hatred encouraged by this pattern can actually perhaps be aptly summarized by an old protest song originally written about an IRA terrorist attack in Northern England that left two children dead:
Another head hangs lowly, child is slowly taken
And the violence caused such silence
who are we mistaken?
But you see, it’s not me
It’s not my family in your head, in your head…
Young people begin to absorb horrific messages of White Prestige(™?) soon after they are born. They learn very early to be ashamed of the fact that they don’t seem to match up with popular conceptions of goodness or beauty. Children of color in particular know that it’s not them, not their faces or families, that people are picturing in their heads when we’re having a conversation about who or what is beautiful in this country.
Non-white children instinctively come to understand that their people aren’t represented positively or adequately in the media, that members of their communities aren’t holding a proportionate amount of societal power. And so our young people naturally begin to internalize the unnatural rationale that being a different color consequently correlates to being untrustworthy, dangerous, ugly.
How can we – who believe that the color of one’s skin does not impact the content of one’s character – fight against a culture of such reckless hate? For one, we can talk about it. We can educate young people about this issue. We can teach our children to take joy in their melanin-thick, sunburn-resistant skin, to celebrate their little dark eyes that squeeze almost completely shut when they laugh, to embrace their “wild,” natural hair that refuses to be tamed or pushed into a box.
We can help our children come to know that their own bodies are 100% unique, 100% acceptable. We can work so that they will one day understand that the white supremacy which operates largely unchecked in our country is a system of evil from the devil himself. May our little ones never come to believe the lie that they need to pick up a jar of acid to bleach their skin, and destroy themselves in order to become beautiful.
As Alfonsina Storní, one of Latin America’s most important and incisive poets, wrote almost one hundred years ago: “tú me quieres blanca…me pretendes blanca…(Dios te lo perdone).”
“You want me white…you expect me to be pale…(may God forgive you).”
How about you – do you believe you have been unconsciously affected by systemic racism? Why or why not?