All of a sudden the problem of skin bleaching is in the spotlight and we have top DJ Vybz Kartel to thank for it. As I mentioned in an earlier post my favourite Christmas present was a pack of his infamous ‘cake soap’ I received, complete with personal autograph. VK as we’ll call him for short, has recently attracted attention with his complexion suddenly appearing several shades lighter than it used to be, the better he says, to show off his numerous tattoos. The melanin reduction is attributed to the said cake soap which is normally used to whiten clothes in the wash.
It just goes to show you how influential popular music is; young Ebony Patterson has been highlighting the skin bleaching problem here for years with her series of innovative artworks but hardly anyone outside the artworld paid much attention. Then along comes VK, the Darth Vader of Jamaican music (except that he doesn’t want to be dark any longer), with his cake soap and no one can talk of anything else.
Jamaica’s voluble moral majority has rushed to condemn VK claiming that he is encouraging impressionable youngsters to imitate him. What has upset many is that the DJ is unrepentant and even playful about lightening his skin colour, refusing to take the matter seriously and countering that it’s no different from white people wanting to tan themselves. Numerous musicians have rushed forth with anti-bleaching, love-my black-skin-songs but in a way all these knee-jerk responses are just as superficial as the act of bleaching itself, which only changes what is visible without attacking the underlying structural problems that make people bleach in the first place. Historian Elsa Goveia put her finger on it several decades ago when she said the structuring principle of Caribbean societies is “the belief that the blacker you are the more inferior you are and the whiter you are the more superior you are.”
Until this reality changes people are going to think that the best way to advance in such societies is to lighten your skin colour. People can fulminate all they want and express litres of outrage, it will make no difference.
To me bleaching your skin is fundamentally no different from deciding that Creole /Patwa , if that is your mother tongue, is so lowly and contemptible linguistically that it is not worthy of being spoken or allowed in schools. Edouard Glissant described how in Martinique it was common to see “In beautiful rounded white letters on a clean blackboard at the reopening of school: it is forbidden to speak Creole in class or on the playground.” And Jamaica is no different.
The logic is the same: English/French/Spanish is the language of universal currency so our children must only learn English and must actively be discouraged from speaking Jamaican or Patwa, the versatile, volatile language of the streets here that for many is their native tongue. Similarly skin bleachers reason that since white/light skin is almost universally valued higher than darker skin tones, they must use any means necessary to acquire it.
I find this kind of logic depressing. It’s as if to say that if your mother happens to be a poor, barely literate ghetto-dweller you must abandon her and cleave to the English missionary with her glowing white skin and impeccable English. Surely it’s not an either/ or game. Most people would agree that this was outrageous yet many of the same people would find nothing wrong with denigrating Patwa and banning it from official spaces as if it’s impossible to know and love Jamaican and also become fluent in English! The worst part is that for many children for whom Patwa is the only language available literacy becomes inaccessible because you have to know English to study any subject at school. In fact the way some people react to the idea that Patwa ought to be recognized as a language and used as a medium of instruction in schools you’d think that to promote or accept Creole is to diss English!
And if you think that’s bad read Carolyn Cooper’s blogpost where she describes the absurd system of ‘justice’ in Jamaica which is dispensed in impeccable English to Patwa-speakers regardless of whether they understand the language or not!
One morning, as I waited for my case to be heard, I listened in amazement as the judge explained in quite sophisticated English how she was proposing to handle a dispute about unpaid rent.
The defendant was told that the case was going to be sent to a mediator who would discuss exactly how much rent the defendant would have to pay. The distressed defendant kept on insisting in Jamaican that she didn’t owe as much rent as the landlord claimed. The judge continued speaking in English, simply repeating her proposal. This back-and-forth went on for a good few minutes.
At the risk of being deemed in contempt of court, I jumped up and asked the judge if she would allow me to translate her comments for the defendant. She agreed. As soon as the woman understood the proposal, she accepted it. What angered me was the smug question the judge then asked: “Is that what I should have said?” To which I disdainfully replied, “Yes, Your Honour.”
To come back to skin bleaching I had to laugh when I heard someone curling their lip in disdain at Kartel because this person happens to be someone with straightened hair and a very white affect, who never speaks Patwa or genuflects to the African origins proclaimed by her skin colour. What else is that but bleaching? And not just bleaching the superficial skin you were born with but the very culture that is also part of your heritage.
It’s pointless to get our knickers in a knot over Kartel’s latest antics. As a tweeter I know said “People are going to have to be mature enough to think for themselves. If the likes of Kartel can lead them astray then they already lost.”
I think Vybz Kartel is the very embodiment of the contradictions that bedevil Jamaican society and we should be grateful to him for foregrounding this disfiguring practice. But we need to go beyond that and deal with the fundamental problem that causes people to bleach their skins to begin with: the social value placed on lighter skin colour. Until that is addressed the bleaching agent industry will continue to flourish here and everywhere else that puts a premium on ‘fair’ skin (In the country of my birth pale skin is so prized that someone of my complexion could never play a starring role in Bollywood) .
It’s not a moment too soon for The International Conference on Language Rights and Policy in the Creole-Speaking Caribbean taking place in Kingston tomorrow and day after. Below is a disturbing video on a family of skin bleachers in downtown Kingston.
41 thoughts on “Cake Soap and Creole: The Bleaching of the Nation…”
Promotion of the vernacular as the medium of instruction sounds like a great idea. Except that, if it isn’t accompanied by real investment in public education (which from all I can gather from up here has fallen steadily in real terms over the past three decades), it is just going to be one more band-aid over what’s actually a cancer.
It will do little to address the real problems facing education, opportunity, or social and economic dysfunction, of which bleaching is simply the latest and most disturbing manifestation (say I who went to school with fellow pupils who were named after “skin toning creams”).
Of course Fledgist that goes without saying but has nothing to do with the vernacular, in the meantime however, banning the vilification and ridiculing of Patwa would do wonders for everyone concerned–
Very profound, and true to the sinew.I for one am an ardent fan of patwa and I don’t ramp fi use it, I know its frowned upon by many, but I don’t care, because I know when I’m required to speak the mother tongue, I can do it and do it well.As for the bleaching, I do agree that the practice will continue as long as we continue to have an inferiority complex. So I waste no time in lamenting Kartel’s latest trend. If he thinks he looks better now, more power to him.
Welcome and thanks for your comment Tsansai! Sometimes i think that it’s not a matter of low self-esteem but rather a rational choice in a society that implicitly values light skin.
Annie, another eloquently written article. The Vybz Kartel/bleaching issue has been looked at from so many different angles – and yet, you managed to introduce another perspective. “Bleaching” not being limited to the reduction of melanin in skin, but also the reduction/elimination of our ancestors and our culture. This is applicable especially to those Jamaicans who speak, act and otherwise live as North Americans – for e.g – albeit never having set foot on a plane.
Bleaching is way more than a skin-deep issue. Until I’d read this article, I hadn’t given that idea any consideration.
And I agree wholeheartedly with Tsansai regarding the use of our mother tongue … Patois is so colourful and vibrant – why must we also try to remove everything that makes it what it is in order to fit another country’s perception of ‘ideal’ and ‘acceptable’?
Annie, thank you for this article. Much-needed!
Thanks, really glad u liked this post…it’s something i’ve spent hours thinking about, the ignorant nonsense people spout about Patwa bothers me more than you can imagine, and i’ve thought and thought about how best to make the point about how ridiculous such arguments are. the skin bleaching phenomenon provided the right leverage–so i for one am grateful to Kartel…
I don’t think any celebrity has made so much of a impact on regular people in a long time, probably since Bolt, we should give him an award and put him on some kinda campaign to raise money for Haiti (god knows they need all the help they can get)
LOL good suggestion Owen!
it saddens my heart as a young person each time I see VK, hear his music and see what he is promoting. Great read Annie, thank you for sharing.
Well said, Annie. The analogy to patois/English is apt and an unexpected one. I read your post twice because of that. You know my views on the importance of English for the Jamaican population (as a business matter at least) but I wholeheartedly agree with using patois as means of instruction. It seems a valid and effective way to address some of the problems with Jamaica’s public education system.
As for skin bleaching, I agree that we need to tackle the underlying problem of the social value placed on lighter skin….which leads to an often sub-conscious self-hatred of one’s self. In my opinion bleaching is an issue of self-hate, though I don’t think that all who bleach consciously recognize that. Though not exactly the same I think of my own issues with my hair and how I associated “long and straight and please also blonde” with “pretty” and “acceptable” for a very long time…it was something I internalized and didn’t even realize until I was forced to accept that my hair was going to stay kinky and curly despite great protests (aka Mommy said no to processing it). But bleaching as self-hate is another issue and possible post of my own; it’s still something I’m turning over in my mind. What concerns me greatly about skin bleaching, though, is the long-term health effects…that’s something that I’ve not seen much thoughtful and non-reactionary commentary about.
Thanks for the post. Very thoughtful and provoking.
Thanks for leaving a comment Cuke! I’ve missed getting comments since i moved to WordPress. yes, remember those long arguments on Twidder between @bbb and moi, and occasionally you, well, this came out of that…
I am concerned about your juxtaposition of skin bleaching and patwah as native language. Skin bleaching is one aspect of a range of perceptions of beauty, which you can trace back to the Sumerians. In communities where most people have dark skin, pale skin is better, whereas in communities where the majority are fair-skinned, darker complexion is desirable. That is just one aspect of larger picture. Designer brands is another, keeping your weight abnormally low is another, maintaining a fit body is another, spa treatments is another, and surgical enhancement is another. The key factor here, that you haven’t discussed in your essay is “direction of change”. The better your ability to alter your appearance, the higher up in the social hierarchy you are. In innercity Jamaica, there exists a microsociety wherein members of a community collectively agree on what “beauty” is. Then there is the associated cost. The more you can pay, the lighter your skin. People with very light skin are able to afford effective products and sustain the ritual over a longer period of time. Their relative “wealth” is seen as consistent, and this translates to higher status in that community. Patwah, on the other hand, is not going to get official validity because of a pervasive ignorance about language and social participation in general, and not because social prejudice. Jamaica is an retrogressed post-colonial society that treats incisive commentary on individual and social action as an attack on its integrity. There can’t be visionary leadership if this blindness goes untreated.
the thing about people who bleach their skin, it doesn’t even look natural – it looks like they bleached, which to me is pathetic.
Eventually, society will eventually reject or get tired of a trend like bleaching (one can only hope). Although an avid fan of Michael Jackson’s musical genius. I do believe that many look at the man himself with some sadness because of all that contributed to his demise. Carrying out destructive behavior is unfortunately very sad because if you have unconditional love for the humanity of your fellow brother/sister, seeing people make choices that you don’t agree with will always bring about controversy. That’s the double edge sword that is free will.
I feel we should let people do whatever they want to do to themselves, im here in the US so im not to familiar with the other cultures and if this is even right to do there. No matter who u are or what decide t do its your body so nobody should be saying anything about it….I want me some cake soap, how can i get me some legitimately?
LOL! thanks for your comment…cake soap is available in all the supermarkets. ppl wash their clothes with it, its blue and is used to brighten your whites…if you’re in the US you can probably get it from a West Indian store…
Your welcome, its really a matter of personal choice than restriction so let them so it if they want, will and have bleached my face (not by much) but an looking into entire body bleaching.
I seen the video that wa spodted of the family that bleached, one part of it shows the ladies with different products to use, did they really use Marie Claire hair bleach on their skin too???
I’m white, I don’t like my skin tone, I love to tan and make it darker. If I like to make my skin darker I have no problem with black people trying to make their skin lighter. To me its’ just personal preference. Its’ just like some of the thousands and thousands of people who do plastic sugery to have breast implants or facial restructures they want to look the way they want to and if its’ what makes them happy I am happy for them aswell.
Just looked at the video, and yes it does damage your skin but so does sun tanning, there are many people with skin cancer from tanning. But I do guess that the bleach would be more harmful to the human body.
and alcohol is also harmful, people choose their poisons, and should be free to without Big Brother or some Ayatollah in the form of the moral majority telling them what they can and can’t do, if you’re not worried about the fact that i’m slowly starving to death why get excited because i choose to lighten my skin???! such hypocrisy!!
A very thoughtful article. I agree with what you say and was especially struck by your tweeter friend’s comment that “People are going to have to be mature enough to think for themselves. If the likes of Kartel can lead them astray then they already lost.”
Quite! Encouraging people and empowering them to do just that is the real battle that needs fighting.
Thanks for your comment, yeah i thought that just about summed it up, ppl must take responsibility for themselves, there’s too much reliance on so-called role models…
This is one of the most profound posts I have read on the phenomenon of bleaching. I am Kenyan myself and I am virulently against skin bleaching but your post goes to the heart of both the Caribbean and African psyche. My mother doesn’t bleach but we were not taught our native language as she saw it as inferior to English. This post definitely hits the heart of the issue (bleaching of our minds and cultures), the best rationalisation I have seen of skin bleaching so far. Thank you.
Thanks Barbara, so glad to hear from someone in Kenya…Africa…i’m really curious about how all this plays out there…I too was not taught my native language Malayalam, in deference to English, i was taught the alphabet but its a difficult language with 56 alphabets and my parents didnt persist with it thinking that English would serve me better. It’s something I deeply regret because it made outsiders of us in a sense…condemned to a certain kind of cosmopolitanism…i think this is why i react viscerally to the debates around language here. English is great but acquiring it should not be done at the expense of our mother tongues…Today I regret that I am illiterate in Malayalam for all practical purposes. While I can speak it and understand it (entirely through my own efforts) I can’t read or write it…
I enjoyed reading this article. I am a Jamaican living in the US and everyday I see my fellow Jamaicans still bleaching their skin. I wonder if they can fathom the very idea of how they are damaging their skin as well as their self-esteem?? I shudder to think of the younger ones who idolize VK and want to be like him. As for the patwa (patois), I chop it up everyday..when my friends and I want to have our private conversation when everyone is around, we jump inna de patwa and have a great time with it. A professor once said to us “I heard you girls talking in a language that I do not know, what was it?” We politely told her it was Jamaican creole. We were actually discussing our Jamaican vacation. I think education is one way we can attempt to influence ourselves into the correct frame of mind so we no longer damage the integrity of our skin or our minds. I agree with “if the likes of Kartel can lead them astray then they already lost.”
Thanks for your comments 100%! appreciate the feedback, yeah Patwa must be like having a secret language…v cool
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WHA GWAN FI MAKE MON BLEACH?
SAD THING IS CHILDREN ARE AFFECTED BY THIS TOO. ADULTS BLEACHING LITTLE BOYS AND GIRLS. I HEARD IT MAKE YOUR BODY STINK, BAD ODOR. I WODER…CAN THEY SWIM IN CHLORINE FEELED POOLS? CURIOUS MINDS… HMMM…? THE PRO’S TO IT ALL IS THAT WE LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE EVERYBODY CAN DO WHAT THEY LIKE, EXPRESSING IT IN ANY WAY. MANY FEEL WHO ARE WE TO JUDGE AND THAT THEY HAVE A RIGHT TO LIVE LIFE AND DO AS THEY PLEASE, JUST AS GETTING A HAIR CUT, CHANGING CLOTHES, NAIL POLISH AND SO FORTH. IN THE MEDIA MORE STEPS SHOULD BE TAKEN ACTIVELY TO PROMOTE POSITIVENESS AS THE YOUTH AND ADULTS FOLLOW ALL TRENDS AND STYLES. WHERE IS THE ACCOUNTABILITY? IT’S JUST THE SAME AS CIGARETTE AND LIQUOR COMMERCIALS. PURE MADNESS A GWAN! LOVE THE SKIN YOU ARE IN*
WHITE PEOPLE TAN IN THE SUN…THEY BURN, TURN RED, SKIN PEELS…BLACK PEOPLE IN THE SUN…?????????????????? A LIL DARKER…THATS IT! NOW…BLACK PEOPLE BLEACH THEIR SKIN…WHAT HAPPENS? SKIN PEEL, REDNESS, BURNS!!!!! WHY????? WHY DO WE WANT TO DO THIS TO OURSELVES????? WE ARE STRONG, POWERFUL, BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE…WHY WOULD WE WANT TO RID THAT FROM OURSELVES…FOR MONEY??? FOR ACCEPTANCE FROM ANOTHER CLASS, PEOPLE, GROUPS??? HAVEN’T WE HAD ENOUGH???? SLAVERY! SEGREGATION! LYNCHING! POLICE INJUSTICE! RACIAL PROFILING! now BLEACHING! YA’LL DON’T SEE THAT THIS IS ANOTHER SYSTEMATIC PLAN! WHITE PEOPLE CAN SAY ALL THEY WANT ABOUT THEM TANNING AND ACT LIKE ITS THE SAME THING AS BLEACHING…GOOD FOR THEM! BUT US, BLACK PEOPLE! OUR SKIN IS IMPORTANT!!!!!! WHAT WE POSSESS AND GENERATE WE MUST TAKE CARE OF! AND NOT DESTROY IT…IF THE ADULTS CAN’T DO IT..AT LEAST GIVE OUR CHILDREN A CHANCE…DON’T DESTROY THERE LIVES GIVE THEM GUIDANCE AND LOVE…TEACH THEM TO LOVE THEMSELVES AND EVERYONE! PEACE!!
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