Why White?

Max Siragusa - Senegal

January 25, 2013

A major part of our world is color, and that is (in no small way) thanks to the emphasis and gravity people place on color in their lives. Color is used as a means of expression; color is used as a means of giving empty space life where none would otherwise exist; color is sometimes the difference between a Parisian dressmaker making $8,000 and making $12,000. Color is what was foremost on the minds of men like Ghirlandaio and van Ruisdael when they painted their triptychs and their landscapes, respectively. Human beings place enormous emphasis on color, whether they’re wearing it, having it tattooed under their skin, smearing it on the walls of their home, or dying themselves that color.

That last thing — “dying themselves that color” — you think I’d be talking about doing something like tanning. Or, in this part of the world, given the average skin color, temporarily lightening it. I’m not talking about doing anything as temporary as a tan or a single lightening-lotion application. I’m talking about the use of bleach, peroxide, and chlorine-based products to semi-permanently dye (in some cases, burn) skin a lighter color than it naturally is.

I’m not unused to the idea of modifying skin tone. Many people I know, many of them women and some of them men, will go and tan with the aim of simply being a little darker than usual. Before vacation, I’ll lay in the sun so that I’m dark enough so as not to burn while I’m outside away from home. I don’t mind admitting it, either: I’m fair-skinned enough that I have to take the time to lay under the sun so I don’t get cooked alive. But none of us are constantly lying under the sun with the hope of being permanently darker than we were born. Next to none of the women in my life go to tanning salons and those who do, go for the same reasons a few of the guys I know: to color up before a special occasion or before going on holiday (as is more commonly the case for males). Would I ever do this? Not unless I was going to be on a beach or was going to be outside for extended amounts of time anyway. It’s a time-consuming and generally unhealthy process to darken a fair-toned body outside of the coloring that occurs when you’re outdoors as a matter of necessity or circumstance. There’s a fact about sun tanning, about sun exposure, that needs to be said: it isn’t permanent. I’d venture to say that the vast majority of Caucasians wouldn’t want it to be. People might like being darker through tanning when they have the chance to be, but I can’t speak to any overwhelming desire in any light-skinned person I know wanting to permanently modify the color of their body. Tans wear off and most white folks are okay with it.

In Senegal, that isn’t the case. People want that permanence.

For whatever reason- I don’t know precisely why- there exists a view here on brown and black skin, amongst some men and most noticeably amongst adolescent and teenage women, that it isn’t attractive or desirable; that it is something to be merely put up with if your skin is brown and is to be lightened as quickly as possible if you’re “too black”. This isn’t a mere desire to moderately shift the shade of skin tone. This is a serious want, a fervent dream for some, to come as close to being white as is physically possible. Not everyone holds this view. I refuse to generalize: for every one boy or girl I know who thinks dark skin is an unattractive thing, there is at least one other who doesn’t think that’s the case. But there’s enough of a resentment of the color one is fated to be from birth that a huge market exists for bleaching and whitening products.

Sometimes these products work, as in, they leave the person who uses them actually looking slightly less dark than they might otherwise be. And, that being so, they look naturally that color- they look evenly lighter. That’s not usually the case. Many times, they leave the person who uses them looking orange or shining with an off-gold color that doesn’t look white or brown. It looks rather unnatural. That’s a subjective statement, I’ll admit. There’s no accounting for taste. But are human beings meant to be carrot-colored or bronze-ish yellow? Sometimes the products leave streaks and pigment scars on the skin and other times, they result in doing nothing but killing the skin cells it comes in contact with. So your body doesn’t lighten. You just end up with the equivalent of a sunburn and you peel where you used the product. Where I live, these products aren’t sold cheap and they are not sold in great individual quantities. A woman may need to spend anywhere between 900 and 25,000 CFA on enough bottles or jars of cream or lotion to properly be able to cover the portions of their body she wants to lighten. That’s a fair chunk of change to toss towards cosmetics in a place where 25,000 CFA is enough to feed a family of six for at least a couple of weeks.

That’s another issue, though: if you run out of lightening product because you didn’t buy enough and it does work (or ends up flecking your skin in some visible manner, attractive or not) then suddenly, you’re at least two different colors. I say “at least” because some girls’ bodies react differently to the chemicals and extracts in these products, not all of which are exactly kosher in the ingredients they’re produced with. So if you have a mild reaction you may end up a few different mottled colors as the products kills your skin and eats into the dermal layers. Not all of them are this volatile; many lightening products are made with vegetable and plant extracts. Regardless of the makeup of these substances, another important fact of note is that none of them dye blemishes. If you’re brown and you have bad skin, those blemishes are only gonna end up as blotchy spackles once you lighten yourself.

The great irony of this effort is its sheer futility. It isn’t permanent. The effect lasts anywhere from a couple weeks to a month depending on which store-bought products you use. And then you have to repeat the same unhealthy, costly ballet of product application all over again.

The bottom line is that there is a limit when it comes to changing your color. American or Senegalese, white or black, it is at best, unhealthy and at worst, dangerous to try to excessively shift the tone of your skin. To do so requires enormous effort; it takes persistence and can damage your skin. At least here in Leona, it isn’t cheap and is an economic suck for the women who want whiteness. In light of how difficult and unhealthy and costly this is, I have to wonder: why?

There exists a degree of “Westophilia” in Senegal that permeates everyday life whether you like it or not, and it’s a noticeable fetish in the younger Senegalese especially. Young adults and teenagers want to wear Western or American clothes, listen to American music, seize and endlessly recite American catch phrases and English snippets (“Time is money!”/”I don’t care!”) and watch American films. It would seem that more imbued elements of Western society, foremost our standards of beauty, are beginning to seep into the Senegalese world. And the “usual” image of beauty has been physically embodied in the form of the white woman because, in the United States and in Europe, most women are white or extremely close to it. And we don’t focus on the color of the beauty we see; we are usually too busy, as Americans or Parisians or Taiwanese or Slovakians, scrutinizing the clothes or the makeup job or the pose or the brand of the beauty we witness. As people with fair skin, that feature is moot to us. But the big differences stick out when we witness something different from who we are, different from our perception of the norm. And, to many young Senegalese, the factor of white skin sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s the noticeable things that get copycatted.

It may simply be that the desire for light skin is just another symptom of this “Westophilia”, if that’s what you want to call it. The men here, the younger ones, don’t always help ebb the fad away. A lot of them don’t give a damn about skin color. They have faults as all men do, don’t misunderstand me. But they generally don’t worry too terribly much about a potential wife’s skin tone. Some do, though. They help perpetuate the chase for lighter skin amongst the females who hear them say “white is what we want” and decide they aren’t beautiful because they’re dark. In light of wanting to be attractive to men who see light skin as what is desirable, the ache for lighter skin is no longer one stemming from cultural emulation, whatever the reasons were for that. The desire becomes one stemming from within the Senegalese culture itself, the desire for lighter-skinned women fueled by the proponents of those who say lighter is better-looking.

It is a sad, sad thing to see women and young girls who are otherwise beautiful in their own right decide they must be lighter because it is what they believe will allow them to approach attractiveness. It isn’t something that has to be, either. Juxtaposed against the individuals trying as hard as they can to become lighter, to become something they aren’t, are the men and women who don’t see light skin as something desirable or needed. Being brown or black or cream-colored is what they were born as and it’s who they are. They realize beauty isn’t dependent on how light you are.They are okay with it and, usually, they’re the older adults and the elderly. It is an indicator that this phenomena of “White is Right”, at least in Senegal, is a fairly recent thing. It hints that as cultures begin to intertwine more and more as they began doing early last century, they will (willingly or otherwise) set examples for each other.

This said, I’m aware that this doesn’t impact me. If someone wants to present themselves as a different color and is willing to go to the lengths necessary to become that color, fine with me. I’m not the king of any dominion except my own and haven’t any right to dictate what they look like. This is not in itself something that affects the United States or those in it; it really doesn’t affect anyone except the people trying to “lighten up”. It isn’t on par with the international nuclear issue or the gun trafficking problem. Not at all. But the issue itself is not what is important. What’s important to us as Americans and to Europeans, Canadians- Westerners in general- is what this phenomena represents. Because if nothing else, this shows the power and the draw and allure of Western culture, The Western Lifestyle; indeed, of the prototypical Western Appearance (despite globalization’s resultant shift of people who aren’t Caucasian- aren’t white- making up more and more of the Western World). This is at once a quietly terrifying and perversely flattering thing that, I believe, begs a prudent closing question:

What will be emulated next?

Max Siragusa