Amna Nawaz:The death of George Floyd last year has shone a spotlight on what it means to be Black, especially to be dark-skinned in America.Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro has our report from Minnesota, home to a growing population of African and other immigrants.It is part of our continuing series Race Matters and Fred’s series Agents For Change.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Amira Adawe remembers the first time she came to this mall, popular in Minneapolis’ Somali immigrant community.
Amira Adawe:One of the women, I was buying something from her. She said: “You know, if you were a little bit lighter, you will have been more beautiful.”
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Just casually, somebody you had never known before.
Amira Adawe:Just casually, yes.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Being told she’d be more beautiful if she were a bit lighter is nothing new for Amira Adawe. Prejudice against dark skin, or colorism, is pervasive even where people are dark-skinned, like Somalia, where she grew up.
Amira Adawe:My mother’s friends sometimes would say like that I am darker compared to my sister. But my mother always used to say, “She’s very beautiful,” and so being very protective.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:In almost every corner of the planet, there’s a huge social dividend that comes from being lighter-skinned. Sociologists trace it back centuries to European colonization, slavery and class or caste.Studies show people with lighter complexions earn more, are less likely to be arrested and, if convicted, serve shorter sentences than people with darker skin.Whiteness is the global beauty standard. It is reinforced in marketing by the multibillion-dollar business of skin lightening products, hundreds of obscure brands, and some very well-known ones as well.Fair & Lovely is one of the most recognizable brands across South Asia and parts of Africa. It’s made by Unilever, better known in America for Dove, Caress and dozens of other household products.Sociologist Margaret Hunter has studied colorism globally.
Margaret Hunter:In some countries, the names are very overt, White and Beautiful, White Dream.
Narrator:Introducing new Olay whitening body wash.
Margaret Hunter:In other countries, including the United States, we use a little bit more coded language, but they are selling the same set of values.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Skin creams have long been marketed to Black and brown Americans, but when Adawe arrived here at 19, she discovered that, as an immigrant, she was part of a specific targeted audience.
Amira Adawe:It’s not only limited to the Somalis, but also the Asian communities, the Hmong community, and the Latinx communities.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Armed with a master’s degree in public health, she started a group called Beautywell, creating an awareness campaign with the Minnesota Department of Health that warned about skin lightening creams that were tested and found to contain mercury, and a petition drive with the Sierra Club that got 25,000 signatures demanding that Amazon stop selling lotions with the banned toxin.
Amira Adawe:I was able to deliver these petitions and letter to Amazon. And the following day, we learned that they have removed the products off of their Web site.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:But Amazon removed just those 15 mercury-laced products, she says.There remain dozens of brands, with little, if any ingredient information sold online and in stores frequented by immigrants.We asked University of St. Thomas journalism student Safiya Mohamed, who is Somali American, to browse the shelves for us.
Safiya Mohamed:The lady who sold me this told me how this product will make me look lighter and makes you look beautiful.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Minneapolis dermatologist Dr. Margareth Pierre-Louis says some creams don’t work as advertised. Others have varying degrees of toxicity. The most dangerous, and very popular, she adds, are steroid-based cream.
Dr. Margareth Pierre-Louis:They have permanent disfiguration to the face. There is now very white patches on the cheeks, and there’s broken blood vessels and a thinning of the skin that gives these women horrible photosensitivity, meaning they can’t tolerate the sun at all.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Due to both the stigma and isolation of many consumers, it’s a problem that gets little public attention.
Amira Adawe:Only people who had lived experience know.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Most white people are just simply not aware of it?
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Adawe has tried to bring a broader awareness, lobbying, among others, Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum.
Rep. Betty McCollum:These cosmetics are coming in basically unregulated. We had 2.9 million cosmetic products were imported in 20 — this is 20 — it’s the 2016 number. One percent were examined, and 15 percent of that 1 percent had contamination or it had illegal ingredients.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:McCollum has pushed the federal Food and Drug Administration to step up its enforcement and also arranged federal grants of $1 million to help programs like Adawe’s Beautywell.
Betty McCollum:We need to get the inspections up. We need to get these banned.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:For her part, Adawe uses podcasts and works with groups of young women to help them understand and fight anti-Blackness and the use of skin lighteners in their communities.
Amira Adawe:Colorism is so much now embed in cultures, but, lately, what’s happening is more awareness.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Awareness that she says has grown markedly, starting in her own Minnesota backyard after the death of George Floyd.
Margaret Hunter:One of the things we saw that was different, I think, from previous protest moments, we saw a lot of corporations jumping on the bandwagon and wanting to express solidarity.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:In the cosmetics sector, Johnson & Johnson dropped a line called Neutrogena Fine Fairness. J&J is a funder of the “PBS NewsHour.”
Narrator:Our new level of whitening.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Procter & Gamble pledged to dismantle racism through its advertising.But Olay whitening products are still sold in Asian markets. And Unilever said it would change the name of Fair & Lovely to:
Woman:Glow & Lovely. Fair & Lovely.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:Amira Adawe is not impressed.
Amira Adawe:They are still promoting colorism. They still want people to use these products. It does not change the issue.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:The cosmetics companies mentioned here declined to comment. Sociologist Hunter says they, like big corporations in general, are increasingly being held to account by a new generation of consumers and dark-skinned influencers.
Girl:“Sulwe” is going to be read to us by its author, Academy Award-winning actress…
Margaret Hunter:We see more and more celebrities taking positions. And Lupita Nyong’o wrote a children’s book recently to specifically address issues of colorism. As a dark-skinned woman herself, she talked about feeling very isolated.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:That rings very true for journalism student Safiya Mohamed.
Safiya Mohamed:Although I would never think about even touching any skin lightening products, the effects of colorism and the desire for lighter skin really did impact my self-esteem.It is very toxic, especially as a young person, as a young woman of color. But, over time, I have found ways to become more secure in my own skin.
Margaret Hunter:There are definitely signs of hopefulness, but it’s not a quick fix. Colorism is connected to the much larger system of racism, and it won’t go away until racism is also gone.
Fred de Sam Lazaro:One measure of progress Amira Adawe will be looking for is a decline in the still robust sales of skin lightening creams.For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Fred de Sam Lazaro in Minneapolis.
Amna Nawaz:That report is in partnership with the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
Prejudice against dark skin
In almost every corner of the planet, there’s a huge social dividend that comes from being lighter-skinned. Sociologists trace it back centuries to European colonization, slavery and class or caste. Studies show people with lighter complexions earn more, are less likely to be arrested and, if convicted, serve shorter sentences than people with darker skin.