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The Blacker the Berry

Earlier this year, African-American artist Kendrick Lamar released his controversial hit single “The blacker the berry,” a racially-charged anthem with a powerful social message. “You vandalise my perception but can’t take style from me,” Lamar exclaims with great anger. He lambasts the media for its role in propagating internalized racism and vows to never alter his image or personality to please society’s expectations.

The title and ideals of the song are taken from Wallace Thurman’s 1929 novel by the same name. The novel tells the story of a dark-skinned African American woman who feels trapped by her skin color as she struggles with acceptance by family members and discrimination by light-skinned African Americans.

Dangerous Drastic Changes

A few weeks ago I watched a lackluster interview of one of Sudan’s top singers with a Sudanese satellite channel. The woman, who is in her early forties, was clad in an expensive-looking Sudanese toab and wore more gold jewelry than an 80s rapper, but I almost didn’t recognize her at first. Her natural ebony color had changed into a pale light complexion and even her hands were the color of gongolaiz (Arabic name for the baobab fruit pulp, a popular Sudanese super-food). She had obviously undergone skin-lightening treatment and now looked like an overweight, female version of the late Michael Jackson. 

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Skin lightening or bleaching is a worldwide phenomenon and has been a common ‘beauty’ trend in Sudan for a long time. Many women – and men – use a wide variety of skin bleaching products such as creams, lotions, gels, soap, pills and injections to artificially lighten their complexion.

The active ingredients in many skin-lightening products are damaging chemicals such as Hydroquinone, Mercury and highly potent corticosteroids. Long term use of these products is associated with a multitude of skin and body complications including acne, hypertension, kidney failure and cancer. Alarmingly, the noxious ingredients and adverse effects are usually not clearly stated in the products’ labeling or information leaflets.

Although sale of skin-bleaching products is prohibited by law in many countries, they are widely sold on the black market and can easily be bought over the internet. In Sudan, they are readily available to buy over the counter and their dangers are not well publicized and often ignored.

Topical creams are the most widely available skin-bleaching products in Sudan and Africa. Skin absorption of creams is good as they are usually used over a prolonged period of time and are applied on body parts with large surface area, such as the face. Absorption is further enhanced by the hot and humid weather.

Hot and Not

The most famous skin-lightening product in Sudan is Diana cream, manufactured in Lebanon – ironically a country where there have been distinct incidents of racism against black people. Although denied by the manufacturer, it is reported that Diana contains nearly 10,000 times the amount of mercury found in other mercury-containing creams such as Ideal (Lebanon), Kelly (Indonesia), and Fair & Lovely (India). Mercury can be extremely toxic and is linked to kidney damage, neurological disorders and birth defects.

Hydroquinone is a powerful chemical used in many industrial processes and is likened to ‘paint stripper’. Its use in cosmetics is banned by the European Union due to its long term effects. In Sudan, its use remains unregulated and whitening products containing very high concentrations of Hydroquinone, such as Maxi White, are readily available to buy from beauty stores and local markets.

So why do dark-skinned women knowingly risk their health and lives by using harmful skin-bleaching products? Some may argue that they are no different than white women increasing their risk of skin cancer by willingly exposing themselves to harmful light rays on a sunny beach or in a tanning studio. Both groups of women are altering the tone of their skin in their quest for perceived beauty standards.

Complicated Matrix

Light skin tone was historically regarded as a marker of social status, luxury and prestige. In ancient China, dark skin was associated with poor laborers who worked in the sun while the rich maintained their light skin tone by staying indoors and living a life of leisure. In colonial India, segregated by an abhorrent caste system, dark skinned Indians were socially and economically disadvantaged compared to light skinned Indians. Even in Europe, lead-based white face paint was recorded by Greek historians in Athens as early as 400 B.C. and skin lightening agents such as lead oxide were used by European aristocrats in the 17th and 18th centuries as an indicator of high social class. 

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia 

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the rise of euro-centrism intertwined with colonialism, media power and mass consumerism contributed to a global increase in ‘pigmentocracy.’ The latter describes societies where white or light-skinned males are at the top of the social hierarchy and non-white females, particularly black females, are at the bottom.

Today, skin lightening products are most commonly used in countries and communities where there is prejudice or discrimination against people with darker shades of skin. This commonly occurs in Africa, the Middle East, East/South East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Caribbean, Latin America and the United States of America.

The incidence rates of skin bleaching are alarming; ranging from 24% of women in Japan to 60-65% of women in India. A 2004 survey by Synovate AsiaBUS revealed that 38% of 2,496 women living in Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea had used a skin-lightening product.

Another survey conducted in Jordan showed that 1 in 3 Jordanian women surveyed used skin-lightening products and believed that a whiter skin tone was a mark of beauty that boosted their marriage and employment opportunities.

African women remain amongst the biggest users of skin-lightening products with reported rates of 30% in Ghana, 25% in Mali, 77% in Nigeria, 27% in Senegal, 35% in South Africa and 59% in Togo according to the World Health Organization.

In Sudan accurate statistics are scant but it’s safe to say that skin lightening products are used by a considerable number of Sudanese women of all ages. A 2014 survey conducted among 1187 teenage girls from different schools in Wad Madani revealed that 55% of respondents admitted to using skin lightening products bought from local markets or beauty stores. Interestingly, most of the girls believed that the ‘white’ face was more beautiful than the ‘black’ face regardless of homogeneity with other body parts.

Today, it is not that uncommon to see a girl in Sudan with pale, chemically treated face and dark hands. There is an assumption that the face is more important as men and society in general will look at the face, whilst most of the other body parts are often covered up in public due to social and religious reasons. The latest trend in Sudan and many African countries has been the injection of whitening creams under the skin, which dramatically lightens the skin and gives a more homogeneous skin tone. This type of treatment is potentially hazardous even when performed by a medical specialist and can lead to irreversible skin damage.

Sudan is an ethnically diverse country where wealth and social status have historically been associated with skin color. The hierarchies of skin color are such that a lighter complexion is equated to social status, racial superiority and power.


Racism and colorism (i.e. discrimination based on social meanings attached to color) is rife in Sudan but the issue is not as simple as often portrayed in the western media. For example, the Darfur crisis is often oversimplified as a conflict between light skinned Arabs and dark skinned Africans. While race, color and heuristic pride of the powerful groups are at the heart of the Darfur crisis there are numerous political, economical and social factors that have collectively led to the calamitous situation which the world continues to witness.

The dominant Arabized Muslim tribes in the North claim Arab lineage and have traditionally held power and wealth. They have lighter color tones compared to tribes from the western and southern parts of Sudan and often see themselves as the ‘neutral’ brown color i.e. not too light and not too dark. Those at the lighter end of the skin color spectrum are referred to as ‘halab’ in reference to the Syrian city of Halab (Aleppo) – and are the descendants of Arab tribes, Turkish, Syrian and Egyptian immigrants. On the other end of the color spectrum are the ‘zurug,’ tribes of ‘African origin’ with dark skin complexions. The complexity of color issues resonates in the fact that Sudan has more Arabic terms to describe the various skin color shades than any African or Arab country. Terms like ahmar (red), asfar (yellow), asmar (light tan), gamhi (wheat coloured), zongy (zulu), akhdar (green) and azrag (blue) are commonly used within Sudanese society.

Slavery has a long history in Sudan and “blackness” has traditionally been associated with slavery. Political correctness is virtually non-existent in Sudan and despite the Islamic tenet that racism is wrong, racial slurs and petulant jokes are common place even among the educated. Terms like abd and khadim (Arabic for a male and female slave respectively) are not uncommonly used by light skinned persons to refer to those who are dark skinned. These terms have also been used by those claiming Arab lineage in reference to ‘non Arab’ individuals, even in the absence of any distinguishable difference in skin color, as a proof of Arab hegemony.

As Sudan descended into civil unrest and civil war after achieving independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule, many darker-skinned tribes from the West and South of the country were forced to migrate to central Sudan for security, environmental and economical reasons. As displaced and impoverished migrants relocated to shanty towns around the big cities many tried to re-establish their lives by fitting into the new society. Amongst the persistent pressure to be accepted by the dominant, urban Northern culture and climb the social ladder, many dark-skinned women resorted to bleaching their skin.

Colorism

Undoubtedly, Sudanese women who bleach their skin often do so due to societal pressure. The untold truth is that Sudanese men prefer women with lighter skin and women feel that they are more likely to get male attention and ultimately get married if they had a lighter skin complexion. Successful and rich dark skinned men often aspire to marry light skinned girls or are encouraged to do so by their families. Alas, mothers are commonly more concerned about skin color and hair texture of their son’s potential bride than by her qualifications or occupation.

Color prejudice issues are not unique to a geographical location and many cultures share similar cultural fallacies. In “The blacker the Berry”, Wallace Thurman’s U.S.-born protagonist Emma Lou’s dark skin, is described as “blue black” which is analogous to “azrag” in Sudanese culture. Her mother and grandmother take pride in their light-colored skin that shows their ‘prestigious’ European ancestry. During slavery, black slaves with white ancestry were believed to be intellectually superior to those of pure African ancestry. In Sudan, a similar mentality still exists as those with Arab or non-African ancestry often perceive themselves to be “superior” intellectually and otherwise.

Interestingly, Emma Lou’s mother encourages her to use skin-lightening products to increase her marriage-ability. Her mother also tells her that “a black boy could get along but a black girl would never know anything but sorrow and disappointment.” The Wad Madani survey mentioned earlier suggested that a large percentage of schoolgirls were supported by their mothers, who wanted to boost their daughters’ marriage potential or had used skin bleaching products themselves.

Old-fashioned, patriarchal and sexist ideals remain prevalent in Sudan today even amongst women. In patriarchal societies, women represent sexual attraction, fertility, motherhood and virtue. A woman who fails to meet these expected ideals usually bears the brunt of society’s wrath and discrimination. Society’s retaliation against unmarried women is so severe that marriage becomes an obsession and is viewed as a girl or woman’s ultimate goal.

Many Sudanese women pay a heavy price in their quest for ‘beauty’ and societal acceptance but get nothing in return. The same society that dictates the excruciatingly unreasonable standard of female beauty violently retaliates against women who bleach their skin. Indeed, these women are often taunted and looked down upon as insecure, self-hating individuals and their lighter skin complexion soon becomes a subject for mockery and derision. 

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Photo Credit: Atlanta Black Star 

Colorism can be psychologically damaging and can affect self-perception and self-confidence. Obsession with skin color exacerbated by societal pressure frequently results in self-hatred, anxiety and depression even amongst children. Globalization and celebrity culture play a major role in influencing self perception in developed and developing countries particularly amongst the middle classes. Satellite channels showing Lebanese pop singers and Turkish actresses with silky white skin are popular in many regions of Sudan. Even darker-skinned celebrities such as popular Bollywood actresses and African-American pop stars (e.g., Beyonce Knowles, Nicky Minaj) are increasingly flaunting a ‘whiter’ image and have been scrutinized for perpetuating the beauty industry’s message that ‘fairer is better’.

Skin bleaching is a multi-billion dollar industry that exploits the insecurities of women in some of the world’s poorest countries whilst putting them at risk of cancer and other serious health conditions. Ultimately insecurity kills all that is beautiful and if this skin lightening craze is allowed to continue, it literally will do so.

Bibliography

Thurman , Wallace. The Blacker the Berry. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 2008.

Lynn, Richard. “Pigmentocracy: Racial hierarchies in the Caribbean and Latin America.” The Occidental Quarterly 8, no. 2 (2008): 25-44. 


Mohamed Shawgi

Doctor in the United Kingdom