Scandal of Bleached Black Faces

The-Latest  SPECIAL REPORT  -  Deborah Hobson

 "If you’re Black stay back, if you’re brown hang around and if you’re white you’re alright”. Thus went an ugly, rhyming catchphrase of African and Caribbean colonial times. Its message under-scored the divisive racial hierarchy which was common place and lived on even after independence in the late 1950s and 1960s. ‘Black’ referred to dark-skinned people and ‘brown’ to their mixed-heritage kin with a fairer complexion. Even today, the rhyme evokes bitter memories for those who experienced the social stigma of being ‘dark’. They painfully recall how, in school they were told to sit at the back of the class and as adults they were denied access to better-paid jobs, in banks, retail and government. In urban Britain, some backward youth use 'blick' as a derogatory term to refer to a dark-skinned Black person.

In 1991, controversial Jamaican ‘ragga' artist Buju Banton, later infamous for his homophobic lyrics, reignited the old melanin tension between African-Caribbeans. His international hit single “Love Me Browning” celebrated his preference for light-skinned women. The song,with its infectious beat and uncompromising lyrics, propelled Banton to the status of “king of the dancehall” music scene and at the same time focused attention on the secret use of potentially lethal skin bleaching products by many Black women in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the UK as a crude means of improving their social acceptance.

Creams containing four per cent hydroquinone, a harsh bleaching agent and the steroid cortisone, were used by those trying to achieve the ‘browning’ look. Widely condemned by the medical profession, the ‘beauty’ preparations caused severe and sometimes irreversible skin mutations, hyper-pigmentation, Cushings syndrome - which shows itself as a large growth at the back of the neck - and ultimately  skin cancer.

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Unperturbed by warnings against the use of melanin stripping products, women in poorer parts of Jamaica used homemade concoctions containing household detergents, hair straighteners, toothpaste and curry powder to lighten their skin. Dermatologist Dr Neil Persadsingh said: “If you go to the ghettos, you will see people with their faces white from the application of these bleaching preparations. You see this everyday in Jamaica.”

In the UK, cosmetic creams or treatments containing hydroquinone have been banned by law since 2001 and it is illegal to supply, offer to supply or possess to supply this type of goods. This hasn’t been sufficient however to stop the illicit trade in these products by unscrupulous store owners eager to make a quick profit by exploiting the self-loathing of a number of Black women who would rather have a ‘Janet Jackson’ than a ‘Lauren Hill’ complexion.

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The-Latest can reveal that ‘hair and beauty shops in busy Rye Lane, Peckham, South London, UK, home to a vibrant largely West African and Caribbean community, have been at the centre of Southwark Council’s Trading Standards Office investigations into the sale of the outlawed merchandise. As a result, Hairplus store has been ordered to pay fines and costs totalling £20,423 recently after 188 prohibited medical and cosmetic creams were found on the premises and seized by a team of Trading Standards Officers and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.

Mrs Abosede Olowu, Director of Hairplus Ltd, had previous convictions for similar offences dating back to 2001. In October 2005 Ace Hair and Beauty store, also on Rye Lane was fined a total of £14,612, when 1,754 banned ointments and creams were found. Danny Lee-Frost, Head of Medicines Enforcement at the MHRA, said: “Using banned cosmetics can lead to permanent skin damage and unsupervised use of prescription only medicines could have very grave consequences for consumers. The level of the fines reflected the seriousness of the offences and further test purchases and enforcement will be carried out in Southwark this year”.

Black women who create a market for these skin deforming substances must learn to love the skin they were born with. Unlike past generations, there are a wealth of positive images and role models for them to see and with which to identify, if they still need confirmation that Black is beautiful.  

Please take some time to listen to the music file attached to this article. The song is called "Black, Brown & White" and was written and recorded by influential blues and jazz artist William Lee, better known as Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958). It is a powerful attack on racism with a compelling chorus "Get Back". Although Broonzy wrote the song in 1949 it was rejected by record companies in America. In 1951, it was writer and critic Hughes Panassie, based in France, who helped Broonzy to get "Black, Brown & White" in circulation.

Thanks to contributor Mike Farrier for submitting the song to The-Latest. 

* If you are not a registered member of The-Latest the music file attachment will not appear at the end of this arcticle.