This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Blac Chyna decided to kick off the holiday season by promoting a skin lightening cream with a cartoonish name—“Whitenicious”—in Lagos, Nigeria, where 77 percent of women use skin lightening products. Many use it in the hopes that they'll have an easier time ascending in their careers, finding husbands, or simply for a self-esteem boost in a society that looks at lighter-skinned women more positively.
The former stripper used her marketing savvy to launch her own beauty lines and cozy up with the Kardashians, being briefly engaged and having a child with Rob Kardashian. But she has raised eyebrows for using her platform to endorse products marketed toward women's' insecurities like a detox tea to achieve a flat stomach.
Chyna faced fierce backlash over the Whitenicious brand collaboration from both Americans and some Nigerians, who pointed out that she’s feeding into Nigeria's colorism issue. She declined to address the criticism, though claiming that she has used other Whitenicious products to fix discoloration. One week and one viral Lagos street fight later, it’s clear Chyna has no intention of jumping ship. She's continued to promote the product on social media and flaunting the perks of spokesmanship, like the posted photo and video of a lavish reception thrown in her honor on a private plane as well as images from a visit to a Lagos orphanage.
The Whitenicious controversy highlights how prevalent and deep-seated skin lightening is in communities of color in the US and abroad. In February, Ebony interviewed Whitenicious founder and Cameroonian pop singer Denicia, who said her product sold out in the first three weeks, with 80 percent of sales going to African-Americans. She claimed that many of her customers were celebrities and TV personalities at “stations like Fox,” who were spending more than $1000 on the skin cream for the promise of a safer way to lighten hyper pigmentation. “People are saying [my customers] are Africans, because they think I live in Africa, but I live [in the US],” Denicia told the magazine, shedding light on why an endorsement from an American celebrity like Blac Chyna would behoove the brand. Whitenicious could seemingly advertise to Nigerians, while knowing that black Americans would also be watching.
Chyna was already selling a more under-the-radar lightener in the US through her company, Lashed. That product did not cause an uproar, highlighting the coded ways such products are marketed in the States. Just a month before traveling to Lagos, Chyna promoted her Vitamin C cleanser which works to "prevent the appearance of dark spots and blemishes,” a phrase customers often interpret to mean a product works as a skin lightener. The caption mentions the cleanser contains “carefully chosen ingredients,” implicitly distancing it from lighteners that use mercury and other toxins. This type of subliminal messaging is partly why it’s been difficult to have an honest conversation about the scope of skin lightening in America.
In 2016, Azealia Banks admitted to and defended bleaching her skin, but instances like that are rare. She later reversed her stance, writing in 2017 that she’s “back to [her] natural tone,” and adding that she’s “figured out a good exfoliating/brightening treatment that doesn’t make [her] look bleachy.” Those comments implied that her struggle with colorism is deep-rooted. Perhaps it’s even ongoing, considering that lighter skinned female rappers as well as singers still have an easier time ascending in the industry. Without discussions about skin lightening in the mainstream, it’s a struggle people largely grapple with alone.
Because of the secrecy and stigma surrounding skin lightening, the topic is still in need of engagement from cultural figures. Nine years after Michael Jackson’s death, prominent black journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates penned an essay reviving the largely unspoken emotional toll that Jackson’s transformation had on black people, without mentioning the singer’s vitiligo or mental health issues that are usually used to validate his changing appearance. It was a cathartic essay, because the excuses fans are presented with, however valid, prevent black people from having the other conversation about the glaring symbolism that’s still in front of them. It’s important for cultural figures to not simply explain away accusations that they’re lightening their skin for mainstream acceptance, but to really speak about why they feel the need to change their skin tone in the first place and how this cycle perpetuates colorism. Insight from celebrities who have used lightening creams could empower others to reflect on these private journeys.
Lighter skinned celebrities like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lil Kim, and Nicki Minaj have been called out online over images that seem drastically lighter than their actual complexion, but their responses (or lack thereof) have been unsatisfying at best. When a photo of Beyoncé from a 2008 L’Oreal campaign cased enough of a stir to warrant a response, her representative mildly urged the company to “be careful” with lightening the singer’s skin in the production process. Similar questions came up in 2012 over the art for her album 4, but this time there was no response from her team, and no third party to take the blame.
Fans of Lil Kim harped on the artist for posting a lightened Instagram photo of her and Kim Kardashian, which she explained as a stylistic choice. Rihanna and Minaj have largely stayed silent amidst accusations that they’ve lightened their skin, perhaps because such accusations are inevitable for lighter skinned people whose pigment can appear completely different just from lighting alone. But without of a clear record of speaking out against lightening, websites that sell whitening products use these figures as success stories, and celebrities in other countries, like Kenyan model Vera Sidika, also point to them as inspiration for lightening their skin.
Rihanna and Beyoncé have certainly emphasized inclusivity in recent projects—Rihanna’s brand Fenty is giving darker skinned women bold new makeup options and Beyonce’s darker-skinned backup dancers complete her visual world in music videos. But people like Blac Chyna are also affecting our cultural moment. Her unapologetic cash grab and lack of accountability is a necessary wake up call that not every emerging voice is interested in promoting socially conscious messages.
As companies use influencers to get closer to their target customers, and those influencers embrace the money-over-everything ethos of online brand building, issues like skin whitening could be getting worse in the shadows. Considering how hard it’s been for African-Americans to get to a point where it is even a topic of discussion, it seems like now is as good a time as any to start talking.
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