African people who use harmful using skin whitening and chemical hair straightening products are said to be acting on a legacy of British slavery and the racism borne of colonisation and empire. Others argue it is simply a fashion statement. Which is true?
Couple caught selling poisonous products to African people
Illegal skin poisons seized at Afro Hair and Beauty shop
Sat 6 January 2007
Yinka Oluyemi and her husband Michael have been fined £70,000 for selling illegal and harmful skin products containing excessive levels of hydroquinone to their African customers.
The couple, who have three children and lived in a £725,000 home in Sydenham, earned £1 million selling poisonous skin lightening products. They admitted four counts of selling or offering for sale prescription-only products and six counts of supplying cosmetic goods containing hydroquinone, a chemical that is banned in the UK under the Consumer Protection Act 1987.
The former Black Business Award winners operated from their two cosmetic shops Yinka Bodyline and Beauty Express, in Peckham, south-east London and had received a number of official warnings and a fine in 2001 for selling products containing harmful levels of mercury and hydroquinone. Despite this, in October 2005, the couple were awarded a Black Business Award “for their contributions to the hair and beauty industry”.
In sentencing the couple, Judge Nicholas Philpot described the Oluyemi’s as “hard-nosed business people determined to make money regardless of the danger to public health”. He went on to say that although he felt a custodial sentence would have been appropriate, exceptional personal circumstances persuaded him to suspend a nine month prison sentence. They are also expected to pick up the prosecutions £22,000 legal costs and have been disqualified from being company directors for five years.
Skin lighteners containing hydroquinone has been banned from many european countries because it has been known to cause irreversible skin damage, skin swelling, permanent discolouration and even leukoderma, commonly known as vitiligo. Singer, Michael Jackson is perhaps the most famous person alleged to be suffering from vitiligo with many suspecting that this is due to excessive skin bleaching. The use of mercury in skin whitening products is also thought to cause liver and kidney damage and as well as mercury poisoning. As awareness of the effects of these chemicals increases along, companies are constantly seeking to use other potentially harmful chemicals in their products such as Kojic acid. However, in 2001 a study conducted by the International Agency for Research on Cancer found that kojic acid can be genotoxic (poisonous to organisms by damaging its DNA) to rodents and there was limited evidence to suggest that it can also cause cancer in experimental animals. These chemicals all work by inhibiting the production of melanin. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHPRA) have also warned that steroid based creams such as Dermovate should not be sold over the counter.
Michael Jackson before and after his excessive skin lightening, hair straightening transformation
BBC downplay Asian involvement
The use of skin lightening products was extensively discussed last Saturday on the community radio station, Galaxy FM. The show’s presenter, Sis Aura devoted most of the popular breakfast show to exploring the underlying issues of this emotive subject and exposing the disproportionate media coverage given to the minimal occurrences of unprincipled African people who engage in the illegal selling of these products whilst the Asian business community, who has a economic stranglehold on the illicit industry, escape criticism. This was affirmed by a debate on BBC London hosted by Vanessa Feltz which launched a discussion about skin lightening following the conviction of the Oluyemi’s but had previously remained silent on the conviction of an Asian family in October 2006 who had also pleaded guilty to selling and supplying unlicensed skin products.
The process of altering skin pigmentation also afflicts Britain’s ethnic majority who increasingly seek a darker skin appearance and a fuller figure through the processes of tanning and cosmetic surgery respectively. Despite the risks of melanoma the growth in the British skin tanning industry belies the practice as a passion of europeans. Many who seek to escape an image of banality do so by browning their skin in an attempt to project a healthy image using intense UV radiation or chemical agents. When a parliamentary colleague quizzed the British politician Peter Hain in the House of Commons about his tanned appearance as mentioned in his interview with The Times entitled “Perma-tan Hain sees light at end of dark days” he responded defensively, stating; “I am afraid I cannot do anything about [the perma-tan], but I shall pass on my African roots and see if that helps the right hon. Gentleman”. Hain of course joins George Hamilton and the racist anti-African Robert Kilroy-Silk as media personalities who are accused of engaging in excessive tanning. Scientists state that europeans who expose their skin to strong sunlight for only a brief period are at a higher risk of developing malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Cancer Research UK says that the disease is “almost entirely preventable”.
Beyonce Knowles flaunts her long, blonde hair
The issue of skin whitening is a serious and complex issue which coincide with the notion of African aesthetics and the systematic attack on African identity.
In 2007, when the government are initiating an orgy of cultural self glorification, they and the British public continue to assert that ‘slavery ended a long time ago’. However, African people reject this assertion and highlight that the Maafa and the legacy of racist ideology continues to affect the entire world. One of the enduring legacies of the Maafa is the perpetuation of a colour caste system institutionalised during African enslavement. The British used divide and rule strategy to create factions in unified groups by deliberately giving preferential treatment to one group based on superficial differences. ‘Lighter’ skinned African people, or indeed the dual heritage children born as a result of the extensive and systematic rape by slavers of African women were often afforded marginally better treatment at the hands of their enslavers.
The institutionalisation of an enduring colour caste system across Africa and Asia by the British empire is one of the most horrific expressions of this successful British strategy. The residual outcome of this is present in the western media where African women such as the music entertainer Beyonce are presented as a light skinned, blond woman to promote a cultural aesthetic which is anti-African whilst the successful African entertainer, Michael Jackson, uses chemical agents and invasive surgical operations to entirely suppress all vestiges of his African identity.
The majority of British dramas, films and adverts almost always favour casting African actors who are either light brown or dual heritage in leading roles as the ‘acceptable’ major love interest. In its dramas and soap operas, the BBC is often accused of only casting Africans with dark brown skin in roles where they aspire to ‘whiteness’ by almost exclusively choosing european partners for relationships. Performer, Grace Jones was also encouraged and rewarded for portraying herself in the media as wild, aggressive exotica to project a damaging image for African women whose skin is dark brown and wear their hair in a natural fashion.
In 1999, politician Jeffery Archer received wide-scale condemnation after he announced: “Your head did not turn in the road if a black woman passed because they were badly dressed, probably overweight and probably had a lousy job. If you walk down London streets now there are most staggeringly beautiful girls of every nationality. That is part of getting rid of prejudice and making things equal,”. His comments were defended by actress, Patti Boulaye.
The attack on the African aesthetic is unrelenting and we must therefore ensure that our defence is holistic and wide-ranging. Ligali reaffirms calls for information about shops that sell skin lightening products. Any requests to remain anonymous will be respected. You can email us at email@example.com.
Whilst we are financing these predominantly Asian owned outlets, they are reaping the economic benefits of exploiting the cultural and identity insecurities within our community. The fact that some Asian shops have now begun to employ African staff is simply to mislead the African community whilst maintaining their profits from harmful hair and skin products. We also advocate a complete boycott of Black Beauty and Hair magazine and any other publications that feature extensive advertising for skin lightening products.
We must also refrain from ostracising and condemning women and men who use skin whitening products. This is not conducive to community self recovery and will simply further entrench notions of self hatred in these individuals and allow for the perpetuation of this dangerous self hatred for another generation. It is also easier to judge these people who simply have a physical manifestation of their self hatred as opposed to an invisible emotional and psychological insecurity. Instead, we would encourage a system of education, that is preventative and also in response to those who currently use the products to raise awareness of the harmful effects of skin lighteners and chemical hair straighteners and also instil a sense of self pride in their natural appearance. Young women in particular are very vulnerable to the MTV Base notions of beauty which have become more overtly european over the decades. Concurrently, young women are increasingly suffering from receding hairlines, weakened hair and even alopecia as a result of the over use of chemical hair straighteners.
Finally, we should continue to support the great work of organisations like Adornment who, on the 8th and 9th of April 2007 at Battersea Evolution, will be hosting their increasingly popular Adornment Expo which promotes a natural and Africentric lifestyle. Not only does this event encourage ways of celebrating and enhancing our natural beauty and lifestyles but it also provides African businesses with an exclusive opportunity to reach an African audience.
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