Nigerian-Cameroonian pop singer Dencia has found herself on tongues and pages across the globe as of late. However, the newfound spotlight has little to do with her heavily-auto tuned music and everything to do with her controversial new skin care line, Whitenicious. Presented as a remedy for dark spots and hyperpigmentation, “the luxurious skin product” comes elegantly packaged with hopes of a brighter, pigment-free future.
Translation: For a fee, you, too, can be a contestant on The White Is Right.
As the story began to circulate, cries of judgment and justification have rung out from every corner of Negrolandia, on Nigerian lifestyle blogs and Black American web spaces alike. Links accompanied by images of her newly milky-white body glamorously modeling the unblemished possibilities of Whitenicious have peppered my social media timelines daily for the past two weeks. Everyone has an opinion on Dencia, who, the Internet has decided, obviously hates herself, and her drastic transformation.
Just like with formerly chocolaty Dominican Hall of Famer Sammy Sosa and proudly pale Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel, there has been no shortage of both well-intentioned and scathing think pieces lamenting the horrors of such shameful behavior, as it has been called.
Sure, it's jarring to see someone fortunate enough to have been born in beautiful brown skin take steps to alter their complexion.
Sure, one could wax psychological, delving into theories about the effects of racism on the Black mind and self-esteem.
But the question I’m left with as Black brains everywhere get their Stretch Armstrong on in these reaches for reasoning is this:
What makes you any different from Dencia?
In these instances, we, the faultless, quickly and without fail ascend Mount Moral Superiority on our high and mighty mobiles. We declare ourselves qualified to astutely identify the shortcomings of these confused, bleaching souls. We proclaim, virtuously, that those who resort to skin lightening ought to love themselves the way almighty redbone Jesus made them.
It’s easy for us to point fingers at someone over there going to dramatic and risky lengths to moonwalk away from blackety Blackness. But, is stapling 44-inch silky, left-handed Cambodian virgin tracks to your scalp how you show that you love your natural self, as we implore her to do?
It requires no thought to denounce her self-hate cream, but what exactly does the overwhelming preference in music videos and on magazine covers for light-skinned and exotic women with unnaturally robust physiques do to bolster the confidence of brown-skinned girls and women?
When you lambast Beyoncé, Patron Saint of the lacefront industry, for her blond hair and wigs, right before bashing her for daring to allow her daughter to be seen in public wearing her curly hair the exact way it grows out of her head, where is this oft-touted acceptance of your wondrous Blackness in that?
When you intentionally singe your scalp with your beloved creamy crack to “soften your texture,” or make your hair more presentable/"work-friendly," are you not also seeking an aesthetic you were not born with?
When you employ magician-level makeup contouring tactics to achieve the semblance of nice, pretty, narrow European features, or when you, bell pepper-nosed and descended from slaves, leave the house with sky blue contacts, what does that say for your pride?
And so on.
Aspiration to whiteness by people of color is no new phenomenon. Stories of brown folks finding solace, safety and prosperity in the Palace of Paleness date back to when the Cotton Club was but an outdoor venue for Colored patrons found across the Confederacy. However you explain it—survival, self-hate, or selling out—this fondness for the lighter side of life manifests itself in innumerable ways. It guides the actions, mannerisms, and preferences of melinated men and women worldwide. It is driven by a multitude of factors.
The point is: nearly all of us affected to some degree.
We live in a world where whiteness rules or affects everything the light touches. We each have our own ways of coping with such a reality. Rather than jumping on Dencia, Sammy, Vybz and others for their acting on the same deep-seated feelings many of us harbor, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider some of the similarities in our plights.
Whereas, according to Nigerian musician Femi Kuti, Nigerians may opt for Christian names over what may be seen as provincial-sounding traditional names, Black Americans routinely feel the need to soften our Blackness, choosing “respectable” names over ethnic-sounding names. We then circulate memes and screen grabs of multi-syllabic Black names that atypically incorporate punctuation. (I, too, am guilty of this.)
Our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora turn to lightening creams and cake soaps in search of greater desirability despite the known risks of prolonged usage such as skin cancers, rashes, and kidney damage. We perm and texturize our hair at the risk of scalp burns and hair loss and defiantly toss out phrases like “personal choice” and “increased manageability.” We do not, however, examine the social constructs that influence such decisions.
Ultimately, we are more alike than we are different. Irrespective of how we package or position the modification of our appearances or the critique of some expression of Blackness, regardless of intentions, each of these things is an effect of cohabitating with whiteness. This is what comes of a lifetime of being told that your mahogany skin is undesirable, that your natural curls are savage, and that White is right.
We’ve all been touched by White supremacy, like it or not. How that contact affects our self-regard and us is a more complex issue, one best dealt with from a place of honesty and transparency than from a place of condescension. In short: instead of differentiating yourself from so-called lessor Negroes with preachy self-satisfaction, straighten out your own struggle and get real with yourself. You are, in fact, one and the same.