This week’s Chai Time in the Asian American Cultural Center exposed the dark side of skin lightening in various cultures. Members of Kappa Phi Gamma and Delta Epsilon Psi fostered discussion on the cultural views of skin tone, the harmful effects of certain skin lightening products and ways to challenge colorism.
Jessica Co, Manjari Mishra and Tino Marrero began the discussion by defining colorism as prejudice and discrimination based on skin color. They then asked the group to discuss how colorism has affected their lives.
Various students spoke about how light skin is preferred in their culture and how their relatives or friends will make comments on their skin tone. Many who spoke said that family members either praised them for fair skin or told them that their skin was too tan.
One Indian student said that in India, fair skin is considered good skin. When a family member complimented her on her light skin, she said that she didn’t know whether she should feel good or view the compliment as indicative of a problematic mindset.
Mishra, a fifth-semester neurobiology major, discussed her own use of the skin lightening cream Fair and Lovely and the effect it had on her self-image.
“I wore Fair and Lovely up until eighth grade,” Mishra said. “It was sad because … like you two [in the audience] said, you’re not pretty enough.”
The presenters also talked about the dangerous side effects of skin lightening and skin bleaching. Co, a seventh-semester marketing major, said certain skin lightening creams contain mercury, and other creams sold on the black market also have questionable ingredients. This is clearly bad for users’ health, as users of these products might apply them daily to the sensitive skin on their face.
Marketing for these products is only becoming more aggressive, depicting lighter skin as more beautiful and even targeting men. The presenters discussed how celebrities in certain cultures have admitted to lightening their skin and how young people’s admiration of celebrities might drive their desire for lighter skin.
Marrero, a seventh-semester psychology major, brought up the question of skin color as a factor in marriage eligibility. Some students in the room discussed how their parents and family members told them that they should only marry people of a certain skin color and how being too tan could be an impediment to marriage.
Students began to discuss how to challenge colorism in their lives. Presenters noted that this generation grew up with their parents’ and grandparents’ ideas of beauty but have also acquired other ideas about what makes someone beautiful. The group agreed that they could change how their future children perceive skin color and beauty by presenting role models of diverse skin tones and valuing health over physical beauty.
Other students mentioned the idea of changing how one reacts to certain remarks. Instead of taking a comment about being too tan as an insult, students felt empowered to take it as a compliment.
“I really got to express my own opinions and relate it to my life a lot,” Srivani Agnihotram, a first-semester physiology and neurobiology major, said. “When someone says ‘Oh, you’re tan,’ say thank you kind of thing, so I can do that now. If somebody says I’m tan or says something about my skin color, I’ll take it as a compliment, instead of taking it negatively.”
The discussion ended on a positive note, with students understanding the dangerous effects of skin lightening on their health and self-esteem. The presenters encouraged their audience to continue to challenge the idea that skin lightening is more beautiful.
“Maybe just confronting it together can start a really beautiful thing in the future,” Marrero said.
Stephanie Santillo is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.