The derogatory representations of the skin bleaching products sold in Harlem.

Author:Charles, Christopher A.D.


A Detroit public television announcement, aired November 14, 1968, showed a young, worried looking African-American woman staring intently in the mirror, and feverishly applying skin bleaching cream to her black face. The narrator's voice, in a derisive tone, said "free your mind," which suggested that the woman was bleaching her skin because of mental slavery (Kardiner & Ovessey, 1951). This announcement, which was aired during a commercial break of the Colored People Time television show, took a satirical look at the prevalence of skin bleaching in the African-American community. The purpose of this article is to understand the contents of the representations of the skin bleaching products sold in the African-American community.

Skin bleaching, which is prevalent in the African-American community (Hall, 1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1999; Hoshaw, Zimmerman & Menter, 1985), has a long history in the United States (de la Pena, 2005; Phillips, 2004; Porter, 2006; Williams, 2006). Historically, blackness has been devalued in the United States. The alteration of the black physicality is related to African-American subjugation during colonialism and slavery, the continued racial discrimination and segregation during Black Reconstruction, the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights eras (Hone, Hine & Harrold, 2006; Schaefer, 2009), and the manifestation of the contemporary discrimination faced by African-Americans driven by White racism and colorism (Dyson, 1997; Hunter, 2007; Schaefer, 2009; West, 2001). However, very little research has been done on the images used to market the skin bleaching products sold in the African-American community and how these images derogate African-Americans. This article is a modest start to address this paucity of research.

I commence this article with a brief review of social representation theory (SRT), which deals with the social images that structure people's reality and guide their behavior. This review is followed by an outline of the ideology of colorism. From there, I go on to discuss skin bleaching, one of the contemporary manifestations of colorism. Next, I outline my method and results, followed by the discussion in which I use SRT to understand the contents of the colorized images of skin bleaching products sold in Harlem. I now turn to a synopsis of SRT, which is illustrative rather than exhaustive.

Social Representations

The social production and diffusion of knowledge is germane to the understanding of the social world. Moscovici (1976) traced the movement and representation of psychoanalysis from the clinicians' offices, to social acceptance among the various social groups in France. This research was a precursor to developing a psychology of knowledge (Moscovici, 1976), which was informed by the question "How is scientific knowledge transformed into common, ordinary or spontaneous knowledge?"(Moscovici & Markova, 1998, 375). Moscovici found that there was mutual transformation between the members of the various social groups and the knowledge they acquired of psychoanalysis in France (Moscovici, 1976). Therefore, knowledge acquired in a social context is at the heart of social psychology because it facilitates our understanding of how new ideas seep into all areas of life through social acceptance. People construct representations of the ideas or images that are unfamiliar thereby making these images familiar and common. Therefore, the social production of knowledge is driven by communication and representations. Knowledge is variable which means representations are dynamic. The represented knowledge, both scientific and non-scientific, takes many forms depending upon the context (Moscovici, 2001; Thommen, 2007).

Wagner (1996) defines social representation as "a socially constructed and organized set of beliefs, opinions, symbols, metaphors and images of socially relevant objects, which plays a vital role in constructing the immediate everyday environment of the people by virtue of its consensuality and its practical implications" (247). Hall (1997) defines cultural representations as signifying practices operating through the medium of language in which meanings are produced and exchanged thereby allowing people to make sense of things. Milgram (1984) also argues that there are two meanings of representations, (a) how the social world is represented by individuals and (b), how the notions of shared meanings are understood.

Moscovici (1988) also identifies three types of representations. There is the polemical representation which arises from social conflict in which there is controversy within a community or group and the members of the community, as a collective, do not share these representations. There is the emancipated representation in which various subgroups that interact within a community share their own version of the representation. There is the hegemonic representation which is a widely and deeply held representation by a highly structured community or group and this representation is coercive and uniform.

SRT amalgamates the individual and the world because thinking is social. The interaction of individuals creates a structure of common references, which guides how people think about the world. Representations structure how people talk and think about objects that are important to them thereby creating reality for these individuals. Representations of meanings operate in the conscious and unconscious parts of the mind. Objectification and anchoring are two key processes in SRT that explains how representations enter consciousness. During the process of objectification the objects which are unfamiliar or new forms a symbolic core through integration which leads to the projection of images. In the process of anchoring, unfamiliar or new objects are classified and placed into the mental sets of people which facilitates the naming and categorization of the objects (Daanen, 2009; Philogene, 2000)

There are representations held by the majority group that influences its members not to mix with stigmatized minorities in the society (Roncarati, Perez, Ravenna & Navarro, 2009). Representations have a history because they persist over time and guide the behavior of people in their cultural context. On this trajectory, the represented history sometimes legitimizes the inequality of the status quo by negating the historical grievances of minorities (Sibley, Liu, Duckitt & Khan, 2008). However, representations of history are socially organized because this history also allows people to come to terms with the past by highlighting socially relevant courses of action (Tileaga, 2009).

In the societal discourse over courses of action, the arguments of authorities are replaced by the authority of arguments. This replacement occurs because there is consensus and variance among social groups where old arguments are contested by new ones in the public arena (Jovchelovitch, 2001). People who are debating an issue will take perspectives that have some commonalities, not because there is consensus among them, but because the debaters have shared knowledge about the issue. The positions taken by the debaters are the products of their socialization, belief systems and the context (Clemence, 2001). In various contexts, there are representations of identity which suggests there are shared answers to questions of Who am I? and Who are we? Representations provide culturally appropriate answers to these questions. These shared answers construct a socially represented selfhood because the self, and the images which inform it, are socio-culturally situated (Oyserman & Marcus, 1998).

The labels "brown sugar" and "redbones" are examples of skin color representations in the African-American community. Although there are disagreements over the high status accorded to brown skin in the African-American community, the label "brown sugar," for example, has shared meaning and understanding during dialogic interaction within the African-American community. The representation "brown sugar" suggests that African-American females with brown skin are sweet. African-Americans respond to the "brown sugar" image positive or negatively based on their values and belief systems. The responses of African-Americans indicate that the representation of "sweet brown skin" influences their behavior. The "sweetness" accorded to brown skin is informed by the ideology of colorism within the African-American community (Blay, 2010; Cross, 1991; Hunter, 2002, 1998, 2007).


Colorism is the ideology which privileges light skin people in the American society over dark skin people (Hunter, 2007). This complexion ideology is prevalent in racist post-colonial societies like the United States, where the White majority dominates African-Americans in particular and minority groups in general (Schaefer, 2009). The source of this complexion ideology is racism, which is the ideology of racial superiority whose adherents deny people they deem inferior their rights and opportunities because of their race (Hunter, 2007; Schaefer, 2007). Colorism is prevalent in the African-American community where there is Black-on-Black discrimination (Berry, 1988). Therefore, the diversity of shades of black makes a social difference in the African-American community (Blay, 2010; Charles, 2003a; Cross, 1991; Seltzer & Smith, 1991).

There are many manifestations of the complexion ideology in the United States such as the attractiveness ratings among African-Americans in their interpersonal relationships which in turn influences their mate selection preferences (Ross, 1997). One study of African-American females finds that the majority believe that African-American men find light skin women most attractive (Bond & Cash, 1992). Light skin African-American women are more likely to marry high status partners, earn a higher income and attain higher levels of education than dark skin African-American women. These differences suggest...

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