Vybz Kartel and the Deeper Impact of Skin Bleaching

Now I am sure that all of you who follow dancehall music have been paying attention to the recent controversy surrounding dancehall artist Vybz Kartel and the images of what appear to be lighter skin that have circulated in the media. There is so much that can be said about these images but what I want to focus on is the larger message that is being said by Mr. Kartel's actions.

Now let's be clear. The idea of bleaching one's skin is not new to the black community. Since slaves came to the new world there was a systematic way that blacks were brainwashed to believe that white skin is better. Whether it was the story of Ham that were told to blacks to justify the institution of slavery in a religious context, to the clear favoritism that was shown to lighter skinned slaves, often referred to as house slaves, much of that impact filtered down through generations of black existence in this world. It's of utmost importance to remember that the reason slaves had different skin tones was primarily due to slave masters and slave wives sleeping with and raping slaves.

The creation of skin lighting chemicals came about during the early 1900's. Over the course of the century these chemicals became more and more popular. Towards the latter part of the century bleach creams became very popular in Africa and in the Caribbean. I myself was surprised to see how pervasive these chemicals were on my travels to Kenya in 2000. Not only were they popular but they were marketed on African television much like hair care products and perms are marketed toward women of color in the United States (there is a clear similarity that is not lost on me here).

I believe that the impact of slavery but more importantly western ideals of beauty sifts through peoples psyches and souls like osmosis. It is so strong that often times we don't even see it. There is something deeply concerning when a man or woman who has been blessed with whatever skin God gave him decides that he wants to be lighter and more white. It happens too often. But even sadder is the fact that younger people look up to more famous people who do this and thinks its ok. I can only hope that the discussion that is being had surrounding Vybz creates a larger discussion around beauty and what it truly means.


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