Why Fair is Unfair in UK Quality of Life: Evidence of the Bleaching Syndrome

An upcoming documentary from the UK pop star, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, acknowledges that "colourism sits right beside racism". In this great revisited post, Ronald E Hall discusses colourism in the UK

To be dark in the UK today regardless of race is to be unfairly stigmatized in failure to meet the ideal of fair skin. To be fair and/or light-skinned, on the other hand, is to be celebrated as attractive and smart in line with the fair skin ideal. This is true for UK men, UK women, UK whites, UK blacks and other UK people of color. 

Black and Asian citizens of the UK in particular not only experience this penchant for fair skin from outside their racial group but within it as well. While the bias against darkness is most apparent in skin bleaching by women around the world, it is increasingly apparent to UK dermatologists who see patients requesting skin bleaching products.

Gina is a dark-skinned woman in her mid-twenties and a resident of the UK, born of Jamaican descent.  She is from south London where she was advised by friends to visit a shop in Peckham,where she purchased a bottle of skin lightening cream. What happened to her after using this cream is typical. However, her situation is of the more extreme variety. 

Initially Gina applied the cream to her skin two times a day before seeing immediate changes in her dark complexion. She had become noticeably fair. Enthused, she increased the application to as much as six times daily. Eventually Gina noticed changes in the skin on her thighs, legs and face that appeared to be blotches. Concerned, she sought the attention of her doctor. He diagnosed her as having adrenal gland malfunctioning, and her blood pressure had become extremely high. She almost died from her attempts to attain her desired fair skin (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/oct/16/health.healthandwellbeing).

During my 30 years of studying this subject both as a student and as a professor, including visits to the UK, I have found a desire to be fair prevalent in all places among all peoples around the world touched by Western influence. Subsequently, in the most remote of places we have developed an internalized bias indicative of what I call the “bleaching syndrome.” As suggested by the “bleaching syndrome”, fair skin is perceived by those who have dark complexions as a direct means to a preferred quality of life.

A Fair Skin Quality of Life

When we think of the desire for fair skin, Black folk are the first who come to mind. However, until publication of The Color Complex in 1992 (by Russell, Wilson & Hall: revised edition in 2013), any talk of bias was a well-kept, well-known secret in the Black community. And this is despite the fact that any number of scientific investigations have established that those who have fair skin acquire more education, work at more prestigious occupations, and earn significantly higher incomes than their darker-skinned counterparts. This is a truth that prevails even in Africa and the Caribbean where Blacks exist in considerable numbers, as well as in the UK.

Each year, any number of Black and Asian women living in the UK apply bleaching creams in the hopes of reaching their desired quality of life. When they are fairer ,they expect to get better jobs, and make more money, as research suggests. And perhaps most appealing of all, they also expect greater success on the marriage market in attracting the most desirable mate. 

Belief in the positive effects of fair skin for a successful quality of life is strong. Law enforcement in the UK has seized any number of illegal bleaching cream products being shipped into the country illegally. These provide dark-skinned women with access to fair skin not under some apartheid regime or American slave era, but in emulation of the many modern-day pop stars like Beyoncé and Lil’ Kim. Dark-skinned women in the UK are convinced that the success of such pop icons. their role models, is due to their having fair skin. This creates a profitable market for bleach creams that will reach consumers legally or otherwise (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/oct/16/health.healthandwellbeing). Thus, the quest for a desirable quality of life via fair skin is evidence in the UK of the bleaching syndrome.    

The Bleaching Syndrome

The bleaching syndrome has three components. In the first place, it is psychological, involving the adoption of alien ideals and the rejection of native characteristics. This means that naturally dark-skinned women in the UK will prefer fair skin as their personal ideal. Secondly, the bleaching syndrome is sociological. This means that it affects group behavior in line with these fair skin ideals. The final aspect of the bleaching syndrome is physiological. Here, individual psychology and group behavior eventually lead to the bleaching of skin for a fair complexion. These bleaching actions are not limited directly to skin but any physical attribute perceived as a stigma. Therefore, northern Asians in particular exhibit the bleaching syndrome not only in their preference for fair skin but eye shape as well. In an effort to acquire white “round eyes”, Asian citizens consider having blepharoplasty, a surgical procedure that can alter stigma of the Asian eye fold. This desire for both fair skin and eye surgery is strong evidence of the bleaching syndrome in the UK.
Blepharoplasty; before and after (Photo: User:People bios)

The Solution is Political

Asians born in India comprise the largest foreign population living in London at 9.1%. They are joined by considerable factions from Pakistan at 4.0%, and Bangladesh at 3.1%. Combined with more settled Black populations, this is a considerable number. All four groups have dark skin and make up a substantial bleaching cream market (http://www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk/resources/briefings/migrants-in-the-uk-an-overview/).

The solution to the bleaching syndrome will be political. The “natural hair movement” offers a good example of how we may be able to combat internalized bias for fair skin and round eyes via the bleaching syndrome. Activists committed to various causes celebrated the once stigmatized kinky hair. Today all over the world afros, dreadlocks and other forms of course hair textures are redefined such that dreadlocks are not unknown to be worn by whites in the UK as well.  

The end of the bleaching syndrome won’t be achieved by banning fair skin or taxing bleach creams. Rather, it will be by political action to challenge fair skin as the sole ideal by feminists and other activists including pop entertainment icons. Given their efforts, others will be inspired to move a generation to the rescue of darkness from the fair skin ideal. Crossing paths between those who challenge bleaching dark skin and those who celebrate dark skin will then introduce a culmination of efforts as others join in. And in the aftermath, what is now unfair in UK quality of life can eventually become fair with the UK leading the way!

Ronald E. Hall is Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University and an affiliated scholar of both African American & African Studies and the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University. Dr. Hall has published widely on the topic of racism and skin color, is a noted international lecturer and expert witness in court cases dealing with skin color issues. Dr. Hall is the author or coauthor of over 150 books, journal articles, interviews, and international presentations and lectures.


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