MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now we want to talk about skin color, not race, skin color. In the wake of Michael Jackson's death there was much discussion about how his complexion and facial features changed over the years. He went from a smooth brown-cheeked young boy to a very white adult man. At one point he said he had Vitiligo, a disease that causes depigmentation in patches of the skin. And he implied that he'd whitened the rest of his skin to smooth out that splotchy skin tone.
But I think it's fair to say that that strategy still raises questions because he could have chosen to cover the lighter skin. But the whole conversation reminded us that in many parts of the world trying to lighten a skin is a common practice, although still controversial. In parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa, skin lightening products are heavily advertised and many people are willing to spend a lot of money and risk their health to use them.
To talk about this trend we're turning to Radhika Parameswaran. She is an associate professor of gender and media studies at the school of journalism at Indiana University. Also with us is Pinky Khoabane, she is a columnist for the Sunday Times in South Africa. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Ms. PINKY KHOABANE (Columnist, Sunday Times, South Africa): Thank you.
Professor RADHIKA PARAMESWARAN (Indiana University): Thank you, I'm delighted to be here.
MARTIN: Radhika, I understand that you've been studying this whole question of skin lightening for some time now. How did you get interested in this topic?
Prof. PARAMESWARAN: I got interested in this topic because it's one of those issues that you sort of grew up with. It's one of those beauty taboos. And it's widespread and it's talked about, it's whispered about, people buy the products. But if you talk to educated women all over, you know, in many parts of the world that you mentioned they may not admit that they use these products.
MARTIN: What do you think it means? Do you think it means that they want to be white?
Prof. PARAMESWARAN: I would say it does not imply necessarily that people want to be white because different cultures have different standards of beauty and lightness is associated with status that is peculiar to each culture. So, for example in India, lightness, I like to call it lightness, could be associated with caste but it could also be traced back to colonial history.
MARTIN: Pinky, what's your take on this? You are South African. You are considered black although you are fairly light-skinned. What are your thoughts on that?
Ms. KHOABANE: You know, Michel, I agree with Radhika because as she says, people buy the products openly but they actually are ashamed to be seen to be using the products openly. People in the world that we live in today are just false, basically. I mean you see false lashes, you see false nails, you see false hair, you see false everywhere, you see false skin. People are not happy with who they are.
MARTIN: Pinky, it is my understanding that these products are banned in South Africa or certain ingredients...
Ms. KHOABANE: Yes.
MARTIN: ...in these products. Are all the products banned or just certain ingredients?
Ms. KHOABANE: The ingredient hydroquinone, which is the one that was used in most of these creams, there can only be a two percent hydroquinone in these product. But you still find those products at two percent. But they are now, you know, in a lot of African countries it's a black market thing. People are still buying these products, people want to be white...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KHOABANE: ...or light.
MARTIN: You think so? And why is that - and why is that, Pinky?
Ms. KHOABANE: The reasons reside in our history. All over, meaning South Africa, we have a white government that dominated black people. And the lighter you were, the bigger the opportunity. And, you know, from moving just from saying it's an issue of job opportunities, people are now - they view beauty this way. It's used as a beauty thing, when I think it's a psychological issue around where we come from historically.
MARTIN: Can I ask you, Pinky, have you ever had that experience yourself? Has anyone ever refused to date you or offer you a job or an opportunity because of your skin color?
Ms. KHOABANE: I have experienced it where, some years ago, I was on a bus, and I used to straighten my hair and have rollers in them, you know, and style my hair that way. And because I'm very light-skinned, complexioned, they always thought I was what we call a colored here. Colored is a mixture of a white person and a black person.
So I was allowed on the bus until one day, I was asked to them show them my identity document, where they found out that I was black. And then I was asked to get off the bus.
I mean, I know so many South Africans who even changed their names to white names just for the opportunities, and I think a lot of people have always used skin-lightening cream for those job opportunities.
MARTIN: In fact, we have an ad. We have an ad that aired in the Philippines that speaks to this whole question of tying light skin to job opportunities. Here it is.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman #1: I had to work hard and take care of my face if I want to succeed. So I use only the best. I use Ponds.
Unidentified Woman #2: Just like the millions of lives touched by Ponds skin-whitening vitamin cream, it helps even out pimple scars and gently whitens for flawless, rosy, white skin.
Unidentified Woman #3: I worked hard to achieve my dream. I love my life now, because Ponds loves my skin.
Unidentified Woman #2: Ponds skin-whitening vitamin cream.
Prof. PARAMESWARAN: Can I add something to the ad, Michel?
Prof. PARAMESWARAN: There's been an incredible boom in the skin-lightening cosmetics sector, which is almost about 40 to 50 percent of the entire cosmetics sector. And beauty becomes a part of this economic upward mobility, and skin whitening, of course, becomes a strand of that push for upward mobility.
So the message here is that skin whitening is no longer just about getting the right man, but now that that's changed a lot and women are joining the work force - and this is the interesting thing in India is that skin-whitening products or skin-lightening products are sold to women across the staggering socio-economic spectrum.
MARTIN: I just want to play another ad that combines both the issues you just talked about, Radhika, the idea that this is necessary to be both professionally and personally successful, and here it is. Here is this ad.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: She enjoys a full-time career and independence. She knows and colors by heart, taking charge of the radiant, white skin that she wears. That's attitude, powered by Active White. Tell us, what man can resist her? Be the fairest of them all. Active White L-Glutathione for radiant white skin.
MARTIN: There's another ad that we aren't going to play for you because it's not English and you really need the visual to understand the ad, but it's for a skin whitener that is being sold in India which features one of the most popular actors in India, who says to a man who's darker-skinned, you know, why do you think you can talk to that girl with that dark skin, with that ugly face? And he kind of rubs the skin disdainfully of the other man's face, and then magically, of course with the use of this product, it's all fine. Everything's better now, and he gets the girl. We'll actually put the video on our Web site if you want to see it, at the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.
But Pinky, I wanted to talk about something you wrote in the piece you wrote for the Times. The piece is titled "Cut the Hypocrisy: Leave Michael Jackson Alone."
The argument that you make is that a lot of people are engaging to some degree in the behavior that Michael Jackson exhibited to an extreme, but what you say is that thousands of dark-skinned people across the globe spend copious amounts of money trying to change their skin tone or straighten their hair. Conversely, white people spend a sizable amount of money frying themselves in the sun or under tanning machines, risking their health to acquire a darker skin tone. So what do you think that means?
Ms. KHOABANE: We live in a society which is basically saying to us we've got all of these resources and products, and if there's anything about you that you don't like, we can find a way of changing it.
MARTIN: And Radhika, what about you? What's your thought about this? I mean, as we know in the United States, this is very much discredited, this - skin lighteners and stuff are very much frowned upon, as we see from the conversation around Michael Jackson.
Prof. PARAMESWARAN: Yes, I agree, and this is what's fascinating again, you know, to me is as an Indian living in the United States, I like to do cross-cultural, comparative work. And the difference between India and the U.S. is that in the United States, you had a civil rights movement. Beauty was made into a political issue. So beauty was politicized and discussed in a way that it has not been in India. But I also want to point out that I don't agree that tanning is the same as skin lightening.
White people tan up to a certain point. They do not want to acquire a really dark skin tone. There's an ideal skin tone that white people want to acquire in order to look like upper-class white people, you know. So I like to keep those separate and not fall into the bandwagon of, you know, the grass is greener for everybody on the other side because white people were not colonized in the same ways that brown and black people have been across the world.
MARTIN: Pinky, final thought from you? What about that? You mentioned that skin-color prejudice or prejudice by ethnic group was the law in South Africa. It no longer is. Does it follow, then, that black is becoming more beautiful?
Ms. KHOABANE: Just after the 1990, 1994, there was a great upsurge. That's when we got our democracy here. There was an upsurge in black is beautiful in the clothing. We wanted to affirm ourselves as black people. But I see that diminish in the sense that I see ourselves trying to look white. You know, people may say that's not the truth, but I see this upsurge of people who are just about shunning who they are.
MARTIN: Pinky Khoabane is a columnist for the Sunday Times. She was kind enough to join us from her home in Johannesburg, South Africa. If you want to read the piece that we're talking about that Pinky wrote in its entirety, we'll have a link on our Web site. That's the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. We were also joined by Radhika Parameswaran. She's an associate professor of gender and media studies at the School of Journalism at Indiana University, and she was kind enough to join us from their campus member-station, WFIU. Ladies, thank you so much.
Prof. PARAMESWARAN: Thank you.
Ms. KHOABANE: Thank you so much, Michel, and thank you, Radhika.
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