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Michael Abrahams: The melanin curse

Published:Monday | July 6, 2015 | 7:02 AMDr Michael Abrahams

The presence of melanin in our skin protects us from the deleterious effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This pigment absorbs light very effectively and dissipates over 99.9% of absorbed UV radiation, reducing the risk of skin cancer, especially in dark-skinned people.  However, despite this physiological advantage, dark-skinned individuals continue to face barriers merely as a result of their complexion. The existence of colourism has been well documented among blacks, but having a dark complexion has proven to be a disadvantage in several ethnic groups worldwide.

The term ‘colourism’, coined by Alice Walker, the American author and activist who wrote ‘The Color Purple’, is used to describe the dependence of social status on skin colour alone. This phenomenon is unfortunately, a global one, observed in the Americas, Asia and Africa as result of ‘pigmentocracy’, a term used to describe societies in which wealth and social status are determined by skin colour. In pigmentocracies, the lightest-skinned people have the highest social status, followed by the brown-skinned, with the black-skinned at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole.

In our skin, exposure to the UV radiation from the sun, results in melanogenesis (the production of melanin), causing the skin to tan. Hence, historically, persons of privilege who stayed indoors were of lighter complexion than those of lower socio-economic classes, who were often put to work outdoors in direct sunlight, often under unsatisfactory conditions.   This phenomenon was apparent during the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. Also, during this time, the captors and the masters, the ones in positions of authority who brutally demanded respect, were white. This, along with the introduction of Christianity in some cultures, where a white Jesus was presented as the human manifestation of God, helped to fuel the perception of dark-skinned individuals being inferior to lighter-skinned ones. 

Colourism is seen in many African countries, partly the legacy of systems such as colonialism and apartheid. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 77 per cent of Nigerian women use skin-lightening products in an effort to be more acceptable. But the phenomenon is also seen in Asian countries such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea, where it has been estimated that four out of 10 women use skin-whitening creams, supporting Asia’s estimated US$18-billion market. In India, lighter skin is deemed to be more attractive, with darker-skinned individuals being more socially and economically disadvantaged.

A lighter complexion is so desirable that a cosmetics company in that country produced an application to make the skin of Facebook users look lighter in their profile pictures. Photo-editing software is also commonly used in that country to make oneself look lighter in photographs. Colourism is also present in Pakistan, and an anti-colourism campaign called ‘Dark is Divine’ was launched in 2013 to combat the problem.

In societies that were affected by the transatlantic slave trade, such as the United States of America, the Caribbean and Brazil, colourism is especially alive and well. With slavery and European colonialism came the ideologies of white supremacy and racism, the effects of which have lingered throughout several generations. In Brazil, the quality of life of dark-skinned individuals is below that of light-skinned Brazilians.  In the United States, colourism has been observed among Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans and European Americans, but is most marked among African Americans. In that country, miscegenation, the mixing of different racial groups, resulted in a large number of mixed-race individuals with both African and European ancestry.  In order to distinguish different levels of ‘contamination’, classifications were developed.

The terms 'mulatto', 'quadroon' and 'octoroon' were used to identify a black with one-half, one-fourth and one-eighth of African ancestry, respectively.  The lighter-skinned slaves were assigned lighter duties, such as domestic work, were viewed as smarter, and were given more economic and educational opportunities than dark-skinned captives, who were often forced to labour outdoors.  Going forward other measures were taken to discriminate against those with darker skin colour, such as the ‘brown paper bag test’, where 'students whose complexions were darker than brown paper bags were denied admission to certain African-American sororities and fraternities.

Today, the disparity persists, with darker-skinned African Americans being more likely to have lower incomes and educational levels, negative encounters with police and stiffer penalties for similar offences when compared with their lighter-skinned counterparts.

Colourism is observed throughout the Caribbean, with Jamaica being no exception. One cannot deny the persistence of this cancer among our people. Comments such as ‘she looks good…for a black girl’, ‘anything too black can’t good’, ‘black and ugly’ and ‘I hope that the baby doesn’t come out too dark’ are constant unfortunate reminders that many of us are still mentally enslaved in our prisons of self-loathing and inferiority complexes.

The institution of this mindset is psychologically damaging to our populace, and rather than just resigning ourselves to accepting that this is just how the world is, it is our responsibility to reject it and do what we can to empower not just ourselves, but our children, with the concept that a dark complexion is to be embraced, and not be ashamed of.

We must emancipate ourselves from our mental slavery.  

Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.