The brouhaha over the changes in former Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa’s skin coloration cuts to the core of an issue that has been around since European powers first colonized darker-complexioned peoples.
The Dominican-born Sosa, who was photographed last week with a noticeably lighter face, first denied using a bleaching cream—or having vitiligo, the skin condition that Michael Jackson claimed caused his skin to lighten. But the Sosa did an abrupt about-face and not only acknowledged using a bleaching agent for a number of months, but also endorsed the product and said he plans to market it in South America.
“Obviously Sammy Sosa has found a way to make gold out of people not wanting to be black.”
The dark-skinned American hip-hop performer Jahhi, who has lived in several countries around the world and for extended periods in Jamaica, noted sadly that Sosa, 41, might be on the verge of making additional millions. “It’s not even about trying to be white, it’s about trying to move up the color/caste social system,” said Jahhi. “In every country that I’ve lived in that was colonized for over a long period of time, darker-skinned people equate light skin with beauty, success, and wealth.”
Bhaswati “Bebe” Bandyopadhyhy, a native of India who has lived in the U.S. since 1991 and works as a data systems manager, recalled her own childhood. “My grandmother was very fair-skinned, and so was my father, and she used to think nothing of joking that I must have been found by the side of the road because I was so much darker than other members of the family,” she said. “My sister is fair-skinned also, and she received much more fawning over than I did.”
The most popular bleaching cream in India is Fair and Lovely, and it still sells well in India, said Bandyopadhyhy. “It’s not as bad for males as it is for females being darker…the stigma isn’t as great, but it’s still present to some degree,” she said. “Things are changing in India in terms of color prejudice, but very, very slowly.”
Jahhi was shocked, he said, to hear rumors of a “brown paper bag test” to get into the NAACP during the organization’s early years. (If your skin was darker than a brown paper bag, went the rumor, you could not get in.)
“As the Spike Lee film School Daze portrayed, there's still lots of inter-race prejudice among American blacks, and even the new film Precious is now being criticized because all of the dysfunctional characters are darker-skinned, and the characters who help them out are played by lighter-skinned blacks,” said Jahhi. “This is something that has been whispered about for years in the entertainment field.”
The issue gets even more complex when Michael Jackson is injected into the conversation. “Some people who look down their noses at blacks who hate themselves over their skin color still give Jackson a pass for what he apparently did to himself,” said Jahhi. “It’s really kind of hard to understand.”
Bandyopadhyhy says that money plays a big part in the color paradigm: “A fairer-skinned woman in India is prized, and because of the custom of arranged marriages they can bring a bigger dowry. Additionally, the companies that make the bleaching creams are getting rich off of people’s negative images of themselves, and that’s very sad.”
“Obviously Sammy Sosa has found a way to make gold out of people not wanting to be black,” said Jahhi.
Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.