White is a Pigment of the Imagination

Last month while traveling in Ghana I saw billboards and ads touting various skin-whitening products along the sides of the avenues, highways, and roads. The sale of bleaching creams is booming business in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as men and women blindly reject their own natural beauty for the artificial standards of white supremacy.

So now, with the advent of the 21st century, the visible signs of the “colorline” of which Du Bois spoke over a century ago have morphed into a more insidious expression of Colorphobia. No longer do we see “white only” warnings posted in the front of restrooms and water fountains. Instead, advertisements for skin bleaching creams scream “BLACK GET BACK” louder than any placard or signboard. They have been deployed by the media as viral weapons of psychological warfare, seducing and reducing the witless and clueless into caricatures of themselves—ghost-faced minstrels wearing store-bought complexions (and store-bought hair) while pretending, like Topsy, it jus’ grew.

The false message promoted by these products and their advertisers is light skin and straight hair are desirable because they are superior physical characteristics. The subtext of their sales pitch, the subliminal message is: You can afford to be whiteYou cannot afford not to be white.

That is a Madison Avenue restatement of the two fundamental principles of white supremacy: (1) Be White … (2) Don’t be Black.

That’s what those “signs” signify (the packaging and billboards with the faces of bleached out zombie queens leering out like barbie dolls from hell)—their message is: even if you look like shit … it’s white shit.

But is it really white … or just a pigment of our imagination?

When did “white” people become “white” in their own minds? The answer is when it became profitable. When “blackness” became a marketing brand for labeling and selling African people as beasts of burden it immediately enhanced the value of even the lowliest of Euro-American peasants who could then claim “whiteness” to distinguish themselves from the Africans harvesting tobacco in the same Virginia plantation fields.

Prior to the transatlantic slave trade, Northern Europeans rejected the idea of being “white.” They did so based on their readings of ancient Greeks like Aristotle who held an environmentalist view of human physical appearance. As peoples living in the Mediterranean (the “middle earth”) the Ancient Greeks saw humans with very light complexions to the cold, far north as barbarians and cowards. They viewed peoples with very dark complexions living to the hot, far south with similar disdain. They saw themselves, the humans who lived in the temperate middle, as the most civilized and handsomest of human beings. So, Northern Europeans (the English, in particular) had no use for “whiteness” until they found a use and market for “blackness” via slavery. It was then that it “paid” to be “white,” and it cost dearly to be “black.”

But why do so many people around the world, even in (re)emerging China, continue to succumb to the false consciousness of “white” supremacy? One answer is that a “slave” or “colonized” mentality remains a significant problem in many cultures across the globe. European colonialism ended but Europe has maintained its hegemony over the hearts and minds of billions of people. This tragedy is compounded by the fact that you can free the enslaved (or they can free themselves) but you can’t free their minds. Mental slavery, moreover, has proven more violent, insidious, socially destructive and pervasive than actual physical bondage. As the great South African revolutionary Steve Biko put it: “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

The brief statement above, however, is only one explanation. There are other explanations for forms of Colorphobia that predate the transatlantic slave trade. Some come down to simple somatic preferences on the part of certain societies. Other cases have to do with social status and the fact that darker complexions are associated with outdoor physical labor (farming, etc.) In those instances skin color signaled that the darker person was of a lower class that had to do menial tasks.

But apart from those historical explanations, it is clear a self-hating predilection for “white” skin has been fueled in Asia and Africa in recent years by a western media that promotes western aesthetics, values, and standards of beauty. I’ve provided a number of links to articles and videos to illustrate further this problem. Some of the selected resources date back several years.

View the items below and repeat after each one: White is a Pigment of the Imagination.

White Skin Obsession – Critical Thinking Manila

Skin Lightening — Science in Africa

Skin-Whitening products promote Caste System | Blackpresence.

White Skin – Asia


Ivory Coast

Fair & Lovey Ads – India


4 thoughts on “White is a Pigment of the Imagination

  1. Until I saw a documentary on skin-bleaching a few years ago, I had no idea it was even going on. I never made the connection between the modern practice and the historical practice (particularly in China and Europe, despite the fact that I’ve been a Elizabeth I “fan” for decades) until I read this post. Thanks for writing it. Whitening seems to go hand in hand with hair straightening; the documentary Chris Rock made on the latter was also an eye-opener.

  2. Thanks for reading it, and for your feedback. I also thought Chris Rock did a brilliant job with “Good Hair.” He certainly opened my eyes to the massive amounts of money being spent on it. Recently I saw a news story that reported on the growing problem of robberies involving hair salons, and the thefts of hundreds of thousands of dollars of human hair. Apparently, there’s a thriving underground market for stolen hair. Go figure!

  3. OMG…you hit the nail on the head with this post. I keep wondering how can free people be so blind and mentally bound? Society and the media send messages, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle, every day. Images of beauty are placed before us in advertisements and most are white or fair with long flowing hair. I read an article recently that indicated that dark skinned men are more likely to be charged with crimes than white and fair men who have committed the same or similar acts. I’m not sure about the validity of the report, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I was engaged in a discussion recently and some white friends agreed that if Obama was a dark-skinned man, mainstream white America might have rejected him. I recall as a young person seeking employment and being told not to wear braids or look too ethnic if I wanted to get my foot in the door. All of these messages encourage the thinking that “white is right” and also create the desire for lighter skin resulting in skin bleaching. Fortunately, I had parents who made me feel valued and beautiful and helped me to appreciate and love my dark skin. Sadly, not everyone has that. I am now working on helping my 12 year old to feel just as beautiful and not fall into the trap of mental enslavement. Thanks for a very well written peace. I didn’t realize this was a global problem.

  4. So I found this via Raquel’s post “Colorism v. Racism.” This is one of the better posts about colorism I’ve come across thus far. I especially appreciate how you’ve made it clear that racism/colorism is woven into the historical context of capitalism. This post goes beyond what we normally talk about when we talk about racism and capitalism, which is that “whites” are the “haves” and “people of color” are the “have nots.” What you’ve written explains the lesser discussed topic of how the very concept of race itself was constructed around the desire for economic advantage. Not many people acknowledge or know this, but it’s a crucial component to racism.

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