Sun | Sep 25, 2022

Jaevion Nelson | You can’t stop bleaching

Published:Saturday | June 22, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Students are bleaching their skin and educators are punishing them for it, though they have no authority to tell children what they can and cannot do with their bodies.

This week, a letter (allegedly) from the principal of Irwin High School in St James, Victor Newsome, to a parent about their child was circulated online. Newsome noted “that there are changes to the tone and complexion of the [student’s] skin” which is “visible on his/her face when compared to the photograph that is on file”.

One can safely assume that this is about bleaching; something that has been around for so long and will not stop any time soon, no matter how harmful we tell people it is and how much we punish children and adults for bleaching their skin. Over time, more children will turn up at schools with a lighter skin colour and we will just have to deal with it like we are with boys wearing more fitted pants or boys and girls styling their hair as they like.

Newsome’s letter, which seem to be a generic one prepared for dissemination to parents and guardians whose children turn up at school with a different colour face than what is on their file, is evidence of the fact that this is something schools are actually grappling with.

I appreciate the arguments about how dangerous bleaching can be and understand where people come from about how leaving it unchecked might result in other students bleaching their skin as well. Notwithstanding these genuine concerns, the response to this cannot be chastisement and punishment (or invasion of one’s privacy), like the route Newsome has clearly chosen.

In his letter, he requested that he be provided with “a medical report from a doctor concerning the condition, as [they] are not sure if it is contagious”. It went on to say that if this is not forthcoming, the student should stay at “home until his/her original complexion has returned and when it would have been deemed safe for him/her to be integrated into the school population”.

Whether we like it or not, students will bleach. Many of them come from homes and communities where this practice is particularly normal and actually encouraged; where they are celebrated when dem cum (that is, when skin changes colour) instead of judged.

I find educators to be worryingly myopic, as they are unable to respond to issues like bleaching without shaming and punishing the student and disrupting their learning. Quite frankly, I can’t quite fathom how one student’s bleached skin warrants suspension, as it has little to no effect on other students.

We have to understand bleaching to deal with bleaching. A judgemental approach, an attitude that suggests people do not love their black skin and are stupid, will not yield results. We can help people reduce the harm they cause themselves, though.

People will bleach and will continue to do so, as they have been doing for so long. They will continue to pride themselves on mixing all sorts of ingredients (bleach, toothpaste, curry, actual bleaching cream, and other things) to ‘cum quick’ (lighten their skin in a shorter time). Our focus should be helping them to reduce and eventually stop certain practices.

If we want to help people who bleach their skin, chastisement and a judgemental attitude won’t do it. Be quiet if that is the standpoint you come from. Understand why people engage in certain practices. There are lots of videos about bleaching in Jamaica on YouTube, including an excellent and respectful one done by Dionne Jackson Miller and her team a couple years ago.


Harm reduction is a better approach to deal with this very prevalent practice which has become a critical part of the way of life in many communities. Harm-reduction programmes acknowledge that people may never stop a certain practice but accept there are ways to help them reduce how often they take drugs, the kinds of drugs they take or how they take it, for example.

Harm reduction is an efficacious strategy that yields good results. The success of Jamaica Moves, thus far, is the acceptance that many of us are lazy and don’t want to exercise and love the sweet supm dem. Rather than say do this and do that, we are encouraged to make room for better practices. Similarly, varying versions of harm reduction is employed for tobacco smoking, weed smoking, use of Viagra, use of make-up, alcohol consumption, etc. It works. It works better.

Effective harm-reduction programmes in parts of Eastern Europe, for example, where drug use is a big issue, have been effective. For example, governments do needle exchanges so people don’t share needles. You are not encouraging drug use but you are helping them reduce the harm they cause themselves and the likely budgetary implications it will have on the government.

At the end of the day, schools don’t have any authority to tell someone not to bleach but we all understand it can have health implications. Disrupting the child’s education is not a solution and this practice should be stopped. We need a public-education initiative in schools and among parents that’s non judgemental that will help students and their parents/guardians reconsider their use of products that bleach their skin.

The Ministry of Education also needs a robust programme to train educators about rights and responsibilities and alternative forms of discipline and helping students to reconsider certain actions (note use of reconsider rather than better/responsible/good).

Bleaching is not going away. It’s a bit part of our society. People do it for many reasons. All we need to do is help them understand the harm they can cause themselves and hope they will reconsider. We also need to help them find less harmful ways to do it. Let’s help poor people access safer ways to do it, since they cannot afford to tone like rich people, rather than chastise them.

Jaevion Nelson is a human rights, social and economic justice advocate. Email feedback to and or tweet @jaevionn