Imperialism: a black and white issue?

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A study was carried out to test the hypothesis that the variation in the pigmentation of skin colour in the diverse populations, is consistently correlated with the mean measured IQs of the various groups. (1) The notion that people’s cognitive abilities can be ranked on a sort of hierarchical scale seems absurd. The main limitation of such a study design is the reasoning behind the causal basis of the correlation. The simple genetic association, due to cross-assortative mating and IQ versus a pleiotropic correlation, in which both of the phenotypically distinct, but correlated traits are manifested by one and the same gene. This is something for the 94 percent of (white) politicians sitting in the House of Commons to think about. (2)

This scientific correlation can be compared to the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, the intellectual and philosophical revolution which  portrayed Europeans as the embodiment of intellect and beauty (3). These principles were later epitomised in the work of Immanuel Kant, who claimed that the colour of the individuals skin was “clear proof that what he said was stupid” (4: p.38). Thinking about this more profoundly, the ideology of IQ and intellect was almost founded during the Age of Enlightenment. Therefore, are these scientific tests based on a concept which was created to heighten European superiority?

Blackness depicted as being synonymous with sin, whiteness with purity. Religious folklore overflows with stories of sin turning men black, to stories of black people being born in hell.

The unequivocal link between the psychological damage of the slavery movement and the development of the skin bleaching industry is distinguished by Deborah Gabriel (3). The imperialist domination over African nations ultimately ‘dehumanised’ those who were enslaved, thus establishing an exclusive standard of human beings, based on the superiority of the white race. Between 1526 to 1867, (6) approximately 12.5 million slaves were shipped from Africa to the West. Gabriel pursues this arguing that scars of this "tragic past" (3), developed through centuries of being perceived as “second-class”(3) citizens are inextricably linked to the development of the skin bleaching industry.

Thinking about the concept of colourism further, which Gabriel defines as an “internal form of racism” (3), disregards those with darker skin. Furthermore, Bodenhorn and Ruebeck (6) discuss that colourism developed during the slavery era in America, in reference to the fact that light-skinned slaves were disproportionately selected to work as house-slaves, whereas those with relatively darker-skin were forced into the fields. Developing further, it could be implied that a lighter skin tone was regarded as the basis for a better standard of living (5), which further highlights the exponential imperialist influence. Moreover, centuries of “irreparable cultural damage” (3) from enslavement has established the foundations for the phenomena of skin bleaching to this day.

This issue of colorism is reflected in the media in the forms of advertisement, magazines, movies, television and the internet. Mainstream media  plays an important role in the construction of the black image, shaping society’s understandings of blackness and beauty, often dissociating the one from the other.

As argued by Deborah Gabriel (3): “Because white skin is personified as the beauty ideal, lighter skin women are seen as more beautiful than darker skinned women” (p.28). Even though we live in a diverse society, popular culture keeps privileging light skinned women over their darker counterparts  as they are closer to whiteness and eurocentric features. In 2005, four african american women (Halle Berry, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo and Oprah Winfrey) appeared in People’s Magazine list of “50 Most Beautiful People” but all of them except for Oprah Winfrey had a lighter complexion which is a product of their mix race heritage (8). Furthermore, the glorification of white beauty is clearly visible in the fashion industry which is dominated by fair skinned models (3). However, earlier studies have found that even black african american magazines such as Ebony leave little room for dark black women in their pages.(3) This highlights how the colorist bias is also embedded in the minds of the black community. Being light skin a marker of beauty and attractiveness, dark skinned women may suffer from low self esteem in a world that fails to represent them and that constantly rewards and values whiteness. In fact, researchers found that “a change in skin color from dark to light is associated with a .28 increment in self-esteem” (9). That is to say that colorism actively affects women’s perception of their dark skinned self in a negative way. The issue is being brought to the attention of the international audience thanks to notable celebrities such as actress Nandita Das. In an interview with The Guardian, Kavitha Emmanuel, founder of Indian NGO Women of Worth, explains how the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign endorsed by the actress in 2009 “is standing up to bias toward lighter skin in India” (10).

Photo taken in a shop in London.

During the nineteenth century, Great Britain was one of the leading Imperialist countries of the West and had colonies in India since the sixteen hundreds. At the end of the 19th Century, British emigration to India increased exponentially as the British Imperialist Government encouraged the ideological reproduction of the Empire (11). Nationalist British who moved to India considered themselves to be a superior race with respect to the black Indians. As they were a minority, the British were mainly interested in Indians for their army and as workforce while higher positions were reserved to the “whites” or in some cases to whiter skin Indians (12). The idea of a lighter skin ruling class being considered more privileged deeply embedded in the Indian culture such that even after independence in 1947 lighter skin was still considered more desirable (12). Market size for fairness cosmetics and creams in India is estimated to be approximately 450 million USD today and the market growth rate for this cosmetic branch is 20% per annum (13). According to “A conjoint analyses of consumer preferences” by Dr. Ritesh K Patel (13) “It has been estimated that males constitute 20% of the total sales for fairness creams in India” and teens make up the 10% of sales of fairness skin cosmetics: these products have penetrated the Indian society as a whole.

Skin bleaching products are not only widely diffused in India, but can be found worldwide and are very easily available as we can see from Figure 1, a picture taken recently in central London. Also, internationally-renowned Western cosmetics giants such as Garnier, which owns 7% of the total market share (13), are the main actors behind this obsession with fair complexion that continues to grow exponentially.


          Figure 1. Skin bleaching cosmetic products found in London, 1st of December 2018.


References

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  2. Wood J, Cracknell R. Social and General Statistics Section. "Ethnic Minorities in Politics, Government and Public Life". 2013. Available from: https://www.ukren.org/uploads/sn01156.pdf [Accessed 28th November 2018].
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  4. Kant I. On the Different Races of Man. In: Eze EC. (ed.) Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader. (38-64). Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell; 1997.
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  6. Bodenhorn, H. & Ruebeck, C.S. J Popul Econ. Colourism and African–american wealth: evidence from the nineteenth-century south. 2007; 20: (599-620). Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-006-0111-x
  7. Frazier EF. Black bourgeoisie. Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press; 1957.
  8. Harrison, Matthew S. Racism in the 21st Century: An Empirical Analysis of Skin Color. New York: Springer-Verlag New York Inc.; 2010.
  9. Maxine S. Thompson, Verna M. Keith. The blacker the berry, Gender, Skin tone, Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy. June 1, 2001. p. 347.
  10. Abraham MR. "Dark is beautiful: the battle to end the world's obsession with lighter skin". Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/sep/04/dark-is-beautiful-battle-to-end-worlds-obsession-with-lighter-skin [Accessed 6 December 2018].
  11. Kaul C. From Empire to Independence: The British Raj in India 1858-1947, The Government. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/modern/independence1947_01.shtml [Accessed 4th December 2018]
  12. Mishra N. Washington University Global Studies Law Review, Global Perspectives on Colorism (Symposium Edition), “India and Colorism: The Finer Nuances”. 2015;14(4). Available from: https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1553&context=law_globalstudies [Accessed 2nd December 2018].
  13. Patel RK. A Conjoint Analysis of Consumer Preferences for Fairness Creams among Small Towns Located near Ahmedabad City. 2014;2(3). Available from: http://internationaljournals.co.in/pdf/giirj/2014/march/2.pdf  [Accessed 4th December 2018].