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Caribbean Journal of Psychology: Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2010
Skin Bleaching in Jamaica: Self-Esteem, Racial Self-Esteem, and Black Identity
Transactions
Christopher A. D. Charles
Monroe College, New York
Abstract
This study examines the individual self-esteem (SE) and the racial selfesteem (RSE) of Black Jamaicans who bleach their skin and the expression of
the bleachers’ identity transactions in their interaction with other Black
Jamaicans about skin bleaching. It was hypothesized that the bleachers will
have comparable SE to the non-bleachers, but lower RSE. It was also
hypothesized that the bleachers will use their racial identity to buffer the self
against the Black Jamaicans who treat them badly, and conversely, to bond
and bridge with those who treat them well because they are bleaching their
skin. It was found that the bleachers had lower mean SE than the nonbleachers, but the two groups had comparable mean RSE. These results
suggest that there is a negative relationship between SE and skin bleaching,
and that bleachers have a basic Black worldview and identity, so their racial
self-esteem is comparable to that of non-bleachers. The majority of the
bleachers buffered in threatening interactions about skin bleaching, and they
bridged and bonded in non-threatening interactions about skin bleaching.
The skin bleachers’ racial identity served multiple functions in their identity
transactions with other Blacks who spoke to them about skin bleaching.
Skin Bleaching in Jamaica: Self-Esteem, Racial Self-Esteem, and Black Identity
Transactions
Skin bleaching is the use of dermatological creams, cosmetic creams, and
homemade products by some people to bleach the melanin from the skin. This practice
is a phenomenon that occurs in many countries including Jamaica (Charles, 2003a; Hall,
1994, 1995a, 1995b, 1999). Medical studies have documented the effects of skin
bleaching (see for example, Ajose, 2005; Bwomda, 2005; Ly, 2007; Petit, 2006), but
there is a dearth of research on why the practice of skin bleaching occurs. The Social
Science studies that exist are mainly theoretical approaches that posit low self-esteem,
colonialism, and White oppression as the causes of skin bleaching (Charles, 2003a; Hall,
1994, 1995b, 1999; Mire, 2001). There is very little empirical research on skin
bleaching in terms of global self-esteem, collective self-esteem, and the relationship of
these to Black identity. Therefore, the occurrence of skin bleaching among some Black
Jamaicans provides an excellent opportunity to deconstruct Black identity (Charles,
2003b). Black identity here refers to a Black person’s identification with his or her racial
group. The purpose of this current study is to examine how the people who bleach their
skin regard their racial group; how they conceptualize the self; and how they use their
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Skin Bleaching in Jamaica
Black identity in identity transactions or expressions with other Blacks with whom they
interact about skin bleaching.
Skin colour in Jamaica
Jamaicans use the term “browning” to refer to non-White peoples with light or
fair skin complexion. Preference for lighter skin tones was shown in a few studies
among different samples. Mohammed (2000) has argued that light skin complexion is
still important in male-female relationships. Mulatto women in Jamaica (the product of
miscegenation between Blacks and Whites during the colonial period) are now the
browning in the contemporary culture. These brown-skinned women are still the
objects of desire for many Black men. Two studies (Cramer & Anderson, 2003; GopaulMcNicol, 1995) have also shown preference for lighter skin tones in Jamaican children
who were asked to identify their preference for a black or a white doll. Cramer and
Anderson (2003) concluded that there was favouritism for White skin in older rural
children (mean age 11.4 years) compared to younger rural children (mean age 5.6
years). However, the older children in the urban area (mean age 10.9 years) showed a
preference for black skin. The urban kindergarten children equally selected the black
and white dolls when they were asked about their ideal self. The rural fifth/sixth grade
children showed favouritism for white dolls compared to the rural kindergarten cohort.
Rural and urban boys (as compared with girls) saw the white targets as “nice.” GopaulMcNicol (1995) also found that the majority of a cohort of Black Jamaican preschool
children preferred to play with a white doll. Gopaul-McNicol argued that the preference
for the white doll was an indication of self hate and rejection of Black racial identity.
Similarly, Miller (2001) showed a preference for lighter skin tones among high school
adolescents of all the skin colour groups (black, brown and white) he studied in Jamaica
and that satisfaction with their body image was based on its closeness to light skin
complexion, which is the ideal.
Skin bleaching
Skin bleaching occurs among people of colour in North America, Africa, the
Caribbean, Europe, and Asia (Charles, 2003a; Hall, 1999). Several reasons have been
given for the practice. Hall (1995a, 1995b, 1999) has argued that skin bleaching occurs
because the cultural domination of Blacks by Whites causes some Blacks to internalize
the white skin as more valued and ideal. Chisholm (2002) in a newspaper article
suggested that some Blacks bleach their skin because they want to become White. Mire
(2001) in an analysis of internet skin bleaching advertisements found that the politics of
colourism which gives social benefits and access to light-skinned over dark-skinned
people drove skin bleaching.
In the case of Jamaica, Anderson (2000) posited that the bleaching syndrome is a
function of the need to improve physical appearance because of the dysfunctional
preoccupation with body perfection. Shepherd (2000) has stated that skin bleaching
occurs because of an identity crisis among people of African descent and the disrespect
they experience. Hickling and Hutchinson (2000) have argued that the prevalence of
skin bleaching products in the market place suggests that the attainment of whiteness is
a symbol of social acceptance. Moving beyond the studies above, Charles (2003a, 2003b,
2004) found that the participants in Jamaica who bleach their skin and those who do
not bleach had the same average self-esteem score. In another study, Charles (2005)
found that the majority of skin bleachers argued that Jamaica should always have a
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Caribbean Journal of Psychology: Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2010
Black Prime Minister. This finding suggests that the skin bleachers hold a basic Black
worldview (which is Afrocentric but not in the strictest sense) although they have
modified their black physicality.
The majority of the skin bleaching research has looked at the relationship
between self-hate and skin bleaching in the context of White oppression, but only a few
studies have looked at the relationship between skin bleaching and identity. It is
therefore important to build on our current understanding of skin bleaching by
including in this present study, an evaluation of the racial identity and identity
transactions as they relate to skin bleaching.
Identity
There are several means by which the identity of the individuals who are
bleaching their skin can be understood. For instance, individuals construct their
identities by narrating life stories of the self that integrate past and present experiences
and the anticipated future that gives meaning, purpose, and coherence to their lives
(McAdams, 1988). This sense of authorship to freely create one’s self is especially
important in urban cultures (Strenger, 2003). Theoretical perspectives also add to the
understanding of identity processes. Individuals also identify with groups based on
some common attributes like religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, skin
colour and occupation (Deaux, 2000). A person’s self-concept is comprised of his or her
personal identity or unique personal attributes, and the knowledge of his or her
membership in social groups. Groups strive to achieve positive social identity by
engaging in intergroup comparisons that lead to ingroup favouritism and outgroup
discrimination, which enhance group self-esteem and interest (Luhtanen & Crocker,
1992; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). The salience of one’s identity is an important factor in
judging identity-related stimuli. Momentary identity salience results from identity
primes, which trigger information that is related to one’s identity and the
distinctiveness of the identity in the social environment (Forehand, Deshpande & Reed,
2002).
The various theoretical perspectives above give a general understanding of the
basic identity processes experienced by individuals who bleach their skin. The skin
bleachers alteration of their black physicality is a part of their life story that can be
captured in the skin bleachers discussion about their identity transactions. The skin
bleachers manipulation of their skin colour may make their racial identity salient.
Therefore, race and skin colour are important identity categories that Black Jamaicans
who bleach their skin have to deal with when they are negotiating their identity.
Black identity transactions
Black identity, in the current article, refers to a Black person’s identification with
his or her race. The attachment to one’s race will vary among individuals. Identity
transaction implies that identity is expressed in social interaction and is a universal
psychological process that is not unique to any particular identity category like culture,
race, occupation, religion, gender, ethnicity, or nationality. The phrase “Black identity
transactions” suggests that Blacks express their racial identity through social
interaction with others. Some Blacks in the United States use their identity to negotiate
their daily interactions through “buffering” or protecting the self against racism and
discrimination, “bonding” with other members of the Black community, and “bridging”
which is the use of their interpersonal skills in social interaction with Whites. Blacks
27
Skin Bleaching in Jamaica
may also engage in “code switching” by becoming less Black if the situation demands it,
or by engaging in “individualism” where they highlight their unique personality
characteristics and act in a race-neutral way (Strauss & Cross, 2005).
In a two-week daily diary study of identity transactions/expressions, AfricanAmerican college students buffered themselves in stressful race related situations in
which they felt threatened, and they indicated on the emotion checklist that they felt
surprised, nervous, and sad during the interaction. There was code switching in race
related situations that generated very little stress, and they reported feeling
enthusiastic, peppy, and happy. There was bridging with European-Americans when
there was positive affect or curiosity, and the students felt relaxed and satisfied with the
situation. The students bonded when many African-Americans were present and the
situation had very little stress, or there was positive affect and they felt peaceful,
aroused, enthusiastic, relaxed, and happy. The students acted as individuals when they
held neutral feelings toward European-Americans and they felt peaceful, calm, satisfied,
and quiet during the interaction. The college students also transacted their identity with
other Blacks through buffering, bonding, bridging and individualism (Strauss & Cross,
2005).
This current study seeks to understand identity transactions among Blacks in
Jamaica who bleach their skin and those who do not bleach. We do not know how the
individuals who bleach their skin in Jamaica interact with other Blacks who compliment
them or verbally abuse them because they are bleaching their skin. The social
interaction between Jamaicans who bleach their skin and those who do not provides an
empirical opportunity to understand Black identity transactions within the Jamaican
context. It is also important to understand how the altered physicality of the skin
bleachers is related to their total self-concept.
Self-esteem and collective self-esteem
Self-esteem and collective self-esteem are related and both are important in
social identity because they are important in the individual’s overall self-concept. Selfesteem falls in the personal identity domain of the self-concept, which deals with how
the individual regards the self. Collective self-esteem falls in the group domain or the
individual’s reference group orientation, which involves how the individual regards the
groups of which he or she is a member. Self-esteem and collective self-esteem are
related to psychological adjustment (Cross, 1991; Luhtanen & Crocker, 1992; Tajfel &
Turner, 1986). Tapping into the self-esteem and racial self-esteem of the study
participants who bleach their skin and those who do not bleach their skin allows us to
determine if the skin bleachers are experiencing an identity crisis (Shepherd, 2000) and
if they suffer from self-hate (Gopaul-McNicol, 1995).
Self-esteem is defined as the individual’s overall negative or positive attitude
toward the self. Persons who have high personal self-esteem think they are individuals
of worth, while those with low personal self-esteem have contempt or hatred for the self
(Rosenberg, 1979). Several studies using different self-esteem measures found no major
difference in level of self-esteem between Blacks and Whites (Rosenberg & Simmons,
1971). Collective self-esteem is defined as the overall negative or positive attitude a
group member holds toward one of his or her ingroups. Persons who have high
collective self-esteem have a high regard for their social group, and those who have low
collective self-esteem have little regard or positive attitude toward their social group
(Luhtanen & Crocker, 1992).
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Caribbean Journal of Psychology: Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2010
The evaluative component of the self is important because women with low
levels of self-esteem who perceived discrimination experienced greater depression
(Corning, 2002). Women who have lower levels of collective self-esteem experienced
greater levels of anxiety, somatization, and depression, as their perception of
discrimination increased (Corning, 2002). It was also found that self-esteem was not a
good predictor of how racism was construed (Rahimi & Fisher, 2002). After
experiencing threat, people with high self- esteem became independent and were rated
by a dyad partner as unlikable while people with low self-esteem became
interdependent after threat, and were rated as likable. Therefore, interpersonal
appraisals are a function of the fact that the relationship of threat and self-esteem
changes peoples’ focus on different aspects of the self (Vohs & Heatherton, 2001).
Individuals who have a weak bond, an individualistic cultural heritage, or low
collective self-esteem for their group are more likely than others to respond in a
favourable way to threat when they hold a high position in an unsuccessful group than
when they hold a low position in a successful group. Individuals with high regard for
their group are more likely to use their group’s performance to evaluate themselves.
Individuals with high collective self-esteem react more favourably when their group
does well than when it does poorly (McFarland & Buehler, 1995). Ingroup members
who have high collective self-esteem are more likely to derogate the outgroup when
there is a threat to collective self-esteem. This derogation is done to enhance the
ingroup and maintain a positive social identity (Luhtanen & Crocker, 1992; Tajfel &
Turner, 1986). Individuals who are low in collective self-esteem are more likely to
construe racism in an ambiguous situation that involves a member of the ingroup than
those who possess high collective self-esteem. In addition, individuals with low
collective self-esteem compared to those with high collective self-esteem are more likely
to attribute a higher degree of racism to the same incident (Rahimi & Fisher, 2002). This
brief review is illustrative rather than exhaustive, and suggests that the regard for one’s
social group also serves to protect the social self. Since the skin bleachers are altering
their skin, it is useful to know how they regard their racial group.
The research discussed above suggests that personal identity (PI) and reference
group orientation (RGO) are important parts of the self-concept and they are related,
but not correlated. The majority of the participants who bleached their skin in the skin
bleaching studies conducted in Jamaica had mean self-esteem scores comparable to the
participants who were not bleaching. However, the participants who were bleaching
may have had low racial self-esteem (Charles, 2003a, 2003b, 2004). The self-esteem of
the Jamaicans who bleach their skin tells us nothing about how they regard their racial
group (RGO). Therefore, the purpose of this current study is to understand how the skin
bleachers regard their racial group, and how they regard the self and the functions of
their “brown skin” identity in their daily identity transactions or expressions with other
Blacks.
It is important to see if: (a) the findings of the self-esteem and skin bleaching
studies in Jamaica can be replicated using a larger sample; and (b) understand the
relationship between skin bleaching and racial self-esteem to see if the skin bleachers
are rejecting their race. It is therefore hypothesized that the individuals who bleach
their skin compared with individuals who do not bleach their skin will have comparable
self-esteem and lower racial self-esteem. Additionally, it looks at how Black Jamaicans
transact their identity with each other. No study on this phenomenon was found in the
Caribbean literature. It is hypothesized that the individuals who bleach their skin will
29
Skin Bleaching in Jamaica
use the modified Black self to buffer against the Black Jamaicans who treat them badly,
and will bond and bridge with those who treat them well because they are bleaching
their skin.
Method
Participants
A convenience sample of 54 participants was selected. They were 28 females and
26 males. There were 31 participants (18 females and 13 males) in the bleaching group
and 23 participants in the non-bleaching group (10 females and 13 males).
Measures
Demographics. Participants responded to items about education levels, age,
community of residence and gender.
Self-esteem. The participants also completed the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale
(Rosenberg, 1979), which is a 10-item Likert scale that measures global self-esteem. An
exemplar is “I take a positive attitude toward myself.” The response choices were:
strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. In five of the items the response
choices ranged from 0-3 and for the other five items the response choice ranged from 30 because they were reversed in valence. The minimum score was zero and the
maximum score was 30. Higher scores indicated higher self-esteem (Rosenberg, 1979).
The scale’s internal consistency among the study participants was fairly high
(Cronbach’s α = .73).
Racial self-esteem. Participants also completed the race-specific version of the
Collective Self-Esteem Scale (Luhtanen &Crocker, 1992). There was no difference in the
psychometric properties between the general scale and the race-specific scale. The race
specific version is a 16-item Likert scale that measures how individuals regard the racial
group to which they belong. There are four subscales: membership self-esteem which is
the extent to which people believe they are good members of their reference groups;
private collective self-esteem which is the extent to which people hold their social groups
in high regard; public collective self-esteem which is the extent to which people feel that
others hold their social groups in high regard; and importance to identity which is the
extent to which people believe that their social groups are an important part of their
sense of self. An exemplar of the items on the racial self-esteem scale is “The racial
group I belong to is an important reflection of who I am.” The response choices were:
strongly disagree, disagree, disagree somewhat, neutral, agree somewhat, agree, and
strongly agree. The response choices ranged from 1-7. Answers to 8 of the 16 items
were reversed scored. A tally was taken for each subscale and then each subscale score
was divided by 4. The minimum possible score was 4 and the maximum score was 28.
Higher scores indicated higher racial self-esteem (Crocker, Luhtanen, Blaine &
Broadnax, 1994; Luhtanen &Crocker, 1992). The internal consistency for the scale
among the study participants was .78 (Cronbach’s alpha).
Qualitative interview guide. There were also questions asking the participants if
they bleached their skin, why they did so, and what product they used for bleaching. The
identity transaction questions stated, “Give me an example of how you respond to
people who treat you in a good way because you are bleaching your skin” and “Give me
an example of how you respond to people who treat you in a bad way because you are
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Caribbean Journal of Psychology: Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2010
bleaching your skin.” These qualitative questions tapping into identity as expression in
good (non-threatening) interactions or bad (threatening) interactions were informed by
the exploratory daily diary study of Black identity transactions of African-American
college students in the United States (Strauss & Cross, 2005).
The reasons the participants gave for bleaching their skin in response to the
qualitative interview guide were coded and grouped according to similarity. For
example, responses dealing with removing facial pimples, spots, and blackheads were
coded as “remove facial bumps”. Responses that suggested that bleaching was done to
attract a girl, a boy, a man, or a woman were coded as “to attract a partner.” The
responses were coded by the author and two independent coders. The intercoder
agreement was .75, .77 and .79.
The responses dealing with Black identity transactions in threatening and nonthreatening interactions were coded as buffering, bonding, or bridging. A threatening
interaction was one in which a participant perceived the interaction as a personal
attack. Any statement or behaviour reported by the participants that was protective or
defensive of the self in their interaction with other Blacks about skin bleaching was
coded as “buffering”. Any statement or behaviour reported by the participants that
suggested positive affect and very comfortable and very enjoyable interactions was
coded as “bonding”. Any statement or behaviour reported by the participants that did
not suggest affect or very comfortable and enjoyable interaction, but rather basic
everyday social courtesy, was coded as “bridging”. Any statement or behaviour within
each mode of transaction (buffering, bonding and bridging) that triggered this mode of
expression was coded as a “strategy”. The responses were coded by the author and two
independent coders who were unaware of the hypotheses. The intercoder agreement
was .82, .85 and .80.
Procedure
The author collected the data in Jamaica. Participants were recruited by
advertising the study in two high schools (after receiving the permission of the school
principals) and in one inner city community. The high schools selected were a
traditional (church-affiliated) boys’ high school in the Kingston Metropolitan Area, and a
co-educational upgraded high school in St. Catherine. The inner city community selected
was a low-income garrison community in South St. Andrew. The criterion for selection
of the schools and the community was ease of access. Participants who were interested
in the study sought out the investigator. The informed consent of the parents, the assent
of the students, as well as the consent of the community residents were received before
the study was conducted. The bleaching group was comprised of the participants who
said they were bleaching their skin. The non-bleaching group was comprised of the
participants who said they were not bleaching.
After administration of the measures, qualitative interviews dealing with skin
bleaching and black identity transactions were conducted. The author addressed
concerns and questions of the participants after the data collection process. The average
length of each interview was 30 minutes. The interviews in the high schools took place
at the guidance counsellor’s office, and the interviews in the community took place at
the community centre.
Data analysis
31
Skin Bleaching in Jamaica
The quantitative data were analyzed by t-test to determine the difference
between self-esteem and racial self-esteem among participants who bleached and those
who did not bleach. The qualitative data of the study were processed and analyzed
using content analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Denzin and Lincoln, 1998; Massey,
Cameron, Ouellette & Fine, 1998). The interview transcripts were read in an openended way, and the emerging themes were documented. The data were further engaged
in two ways. First, nested meanings and sub-codes within the documented data codes
were sought. Second, comprehensive themes were searched for, as grouping elements
for the coded data. The comprehensive themes were then used to construct an
organizing framework to recognize analytical patterns of convergence and divergence
within the data that gives cultural meaning and social relevance to the practice of skin
bleaching.
Results
For the total sample the mean for self-esteem was 22.5 (SD = 4.48) and 20.8 (SD
= 3.51) for collective self-esteem. The mean age of the participants was 17.6 years (SD =
3.3). The participants ranged in age from 13-33 years. Participants who bleached their
skin had a significantly lower mean self-esteem score (M = 21.3) than the participants
who did not bleach their skin (M = 24.1), t(52) = -2.31, p < 0.05. There was no significant
difference in collective self-esteem between the bleaching group (M = 21.1) and the
comparison group (M = 20.4), t(52) = 0.66, p > 0.05. A t-test was also done for the
collective self-esteem subscales. The participants who bleached and those who did not
had comparable mean scores on the membership self-esteem, the private collective selfesteem, and the public collective self-esteem subscales. The participants who bleached
had a significantly higher mean score (M = 5.10) on the importance to identity subscale
than those who did not bleach (M = 4.4), t(52) = 1.93, p < 0.05.
Table 1 outlines the nature of the interaction (good and bad) between the skin
bleachers and other Blacks, the mode of identity transaction (buffering, bridging and
bonding), the strategies used in each mode of transaction and the frequency of
responses. It was found that the majority in the bleaching group buffered themselves
(Table 1) by ignoring those who treated them badly. The exemplar was “I don’t pay
them any mind because at the end of the day they would like to bleach but some can’t
afford it because it is expensive.” One participant laughed, and the exemplar was: “How I
respond is to just laugh.” Other participants cursed during the bad interaction and the
exemplar was “If they say ‘you ugly and you a bleach,’ I say it not stopping me from
eating and I don’t feel anyway. I [also] say to them ugliness a sell. I say my ugliness pay. I
pay to use things on my face.”
Some of the participants in the bleaching group bridged (Table 1) with those
who treated them in a good way by smiling. The exemplar was “I just smile;” For
flaunting the exemplar was “I just model,” and for talking to them the exemplar was “I
talk to them.” The participants bridged by saying “Thanks”. The exemplar was “When
they say I look nice on the street, I say thank you.” Some bonded with those who treated
them nicely, and the exemplar was “I deal with them on a good level like friends.” Some
of the participants responded with more than one transaction. The exemplar was “I talk
with them (bridging), and I treat them good because they treat me good (bonding).”
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Caribbean Journal of Psychology: Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2010
There were no differences in the identity transactions based on age, gender, or social
class. The participants’ community of residence was used to determine their social class.
The participants in the skin bleaching group said they bleached their skin for
several reasons such as their complexion was too dark, they bleached to remove facial
pimples, to look beautiful and attract intimate partners among other reasons (Table 2).
The participants reported using several products. These products were Symba Cream,
Lexus Cream, Raw Nadinola, Neoprosone Gel, IKB Cream, Idole Soap, Ultra Cream, Ambi,
and Cake Soap, similar to the findings in Charles (2003a, 2004). In the present study, the
bleachers also reported using Bio Claire, Michael Jackson, Volume 40, Hotmovate Gel,
Blue Soap, Revlon, Black and White Cream, Carrotis Cream, Mercury Top Cream,
toothpaste, Extra Clear, and Immediate Clear. The majority of participants in the
research group said they bought these bleaching products in shops, stores,
supermarkets, and pharmacies. Downtown Kingston was one of the popular places
where the products were bought. One participant got the creams from the United States.
Two of the participants said they got the creams from friends and three said they got
them from their mothers.
Discussion
The purpose of the current study was to understand how Jamaican Blacks who
bleach the melanin from their skin regard their racial group vis-à-vis their regard for
the self. It also investigated the functions of their altered physicality in their daily
identity transactions with other Blacks who complimented or verbally abused them
about the bleaching of their skin.
Contrary to other studies (Charles, 2003a, 2004) participants who did not bleach
their skin had higher individual self-esteem than those who did. This finding does not
necessarily suggest that low individual self-esteem (a form of self-hate) causes skin
bleaching, and further research is needed to demonstrate such causality. Since the skin
bleachers were lower on self-esteem (a PI variable), and higher on racial self-esteem (a
RGO variable), this means that in terms of the skin bleachers’ self-concept, self-esteem is
not necessarily an indication of how they feel about their race, and vice versa.
The lack of significant difference in racial self esteem between bleachers and
non-bleachers suggests that bleachers see themselves as representatives of their racial
group, and have a basic regard for their race. The skin bleachers high racial self-esteem
also suggests that race is an important social identity category that gives meaning,
coherence, and purpose to the lives of the skin bleachers. The salience of race in their
RGO should therefore be used to judge race-related stimuli. Also, when the skin
bleachers find themselves in contexts that make race salient, these contexts will trigger
their racial identity. The skin bleachers identification with the Black race suggests that
they will display ingroup favouritism toward Blacks to enhance group interest and
esteem, and will display outgroup discrimination toward non-Blacks. This does not
suggest that there is only one kind of Black identity or experience of blackness. Black
identity in Jamaica is differentiated because within the Black group, higher status is
accorded to progressively lighter shades of black. Additionally, some persons have
higher regard for darker skin tones than others, increasing the complexity of the
identifications.
33
Skin Bleaching in Jamaica
The participants who bleached their skin identified themselves as Blacks, but
they altered their physicality for a higher/lighter shade of skin that gave them higher
social status. In other words, the participants in the bleaching group identify with
blackness, but not in the strict Afrocentric sense. These participants embrace their
version of Black identity because they are identifying with Blacks who have “brown
skin” - a common identity attribute. The skin bleachers viewed brown skin tone as a
lighter shade of black. This may be one possible reason the participants who bleached
their skin had a mean racial self-esteem score comparable to that of participants in the
non-bleaching group.
The bleachers had a higher mean score on the importance to identity subscale of
the racial self-esteem scale than the non-bleachers. This finding suggests that the skin
bleachers to a greater extent believe that their racial group is an important part of their
self-concept compared with the non-bleachers. There are at least two possible
explanations for this. Given that skin bleachers’ racial identity should give coherence,
meaning, and purpose to their lives, one possible explanation is that the bleachers are
altering their physicality for a lighter shade of black within their racial group so their
Black identity becomes salient for them. In other words, these participants are
preoccupied with their racial identity, which is expressed in the manipulation of their
skin colour. However, alternatively, high importance to identity may be a defensive
response to mask the low regard in which these participants hold their racial group.
Therefore, these participants reported positively on the items that indicated their racial
group was an important part of their self-concept.
The bleachers reported reasons for altering their black physicality which suggest
that they are making use of the perceived benefits of colourism, specifically the
perceived social advantages of having light skin tone in Jamaica. The skin bleachers
believe that skin bleaching makes them beautiful and attractive to their partners, unlike
their pre-bleaching physicality which was too dark and therefore socially unacceptable.
The skin bleachers with their low self esteem are more likely to be influenced by the
colourized norms in the society. It is possible that the skin bleachers respond to these
social norms in order to feel good about self.
Whenever the participants experienced criticisms about skin bleaching in their
identity transactions with other Blacks, they defended their sense of self. Although the
skin bleachers were not asked about how they felt in the threatening interactions with
other Blacks that triggered buffering, some of them reported a range of emotions that
included being calm, upset, or humiliation. Similar emotions were reported by the
college students in the identity transaction study in the United States (Strauss & Cross,
2005). The participants in the bleaching group responded positively when they were
interacting with persons in non-threatening identity transactions. In addition to the
support from some strangers, some of the participants reported getting the bleaching
creams from their friends and their mothers. This provision of the products highlights
the social support the skin bleachers receive from important members of their social
group which legitimizes the practice of skin bleaching. The skin bleachers reported
using a range of skin bleaching products, which suggests that these products are widely
available in Jamaica—a fact that supports the social practice of skin bleaching. The
participants who are bleaching their skin can find solace in relating to the persons who
treat them well because participants reported experiencing positive emotions they
defined as “happy” and “feel good” in the non-threatening identity transactions. These
findings in Jamaica corroborate the findings of the exploratory daily diary study of
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Caribbean Journal of Psychology: Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2010
African-American college students in the United States in terms of the relationship
between the modes of identity transactions and emotions (Strauss & Cross, 2005).
The skin bleachers’ self-reports about the threatening and non-threatening
identity transactions in relation to skin bleaching are a part of their narrated or storied
self. The skin bleachers integrate these narratives of their experiences and interactions
about their altered physicality with the past experiences about their black physicality
and the anticipated future benefits of having brown skin. The skin bleachers incorporate
these narratives in their sense of self to make sense of who they are as Blacks in the
Jamaican social environment. The threatening interactions make the skin bleachers’
brown skin identity salient because they have to defend the altered physicality. The
non-threatening interactions also make the skin bleachers’ brown skin identity salient
by validating it.
There is a need for further research in order to understand the range of reasons
for skin bleaching and its relationship with self-esteem and racial self-esteem, and how
skin bleaching is related to other forms of body modification. In addition, it is also
important to understand how individuals who bleach their skin transact their Black
identity daily (over time) with other Blacks, rather than at a particular time with the use
of self reports. Researchers in the future should also examine the relationship between
self-esteem, racial self-esteem, and the modes of Black identity transactions. It is also
important to research the range of emotions that are associated with Black identity
transactions in Jamaica.
The contribution of this current study to the field of psychology is that it has
moved beyond the earlier studies of self-esteem and has tapped into the racial selfesteem of the skin bleachers. This study has also revealed how skin bleachers express
their identity with other Blacks who engage them about skin bleaching and the
emotions they experience in their daily interactions. One limitation of this article is the
small convenience sample. Therefore, the results should not be generalized to Jamaican
society. Additionally, the self reports provide a particular type of data, where the
reasons given for bleaching may be perceptions rather than actual. Similarly, the
behaviour of the bleachers may be due to reasons of which they are actually unaware. In
addition, there is the possibility of a social desirability bias influencing the participants
in that they endorse their racial group in order to avoid controversy and to obtain the
approval of others.
35
Skin Bleaching in Jamaica
Table 1
Identity Transactions of the Skin Bleachers
Nature of
Identity
Interaction
transaction
Bad
Buffering
Good
Emotions
experienced
Calm, upset
Bridging
Bonding
Happy, feel
good
Strategy
Ignore them
Indifference
Curse
Laugh
NA
Total
Talk to them
Say thank you
Indifference
Flaunt
Treat them
good
Treat like
friends
Smile
NA*
Total
Number using
strategy
18
8
2
1
2
31
9
8
3
1
4
2
2
2
31
*NA = no answer
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Caribbean Journal of Psychology: Vol. 3, Issue 1, 2010
Table 2
Reasons for Skin Bleaching
Reasons
Exemplars
No. of Responses
Too Dark
I want a lighter complexion to look brighter
14
Remove facial bumps
To get rid of the blackheads in my face
14
Look beautiful
When I bleach I think others see me as beautiful
6
Make face cool
To keep my face cool and smooth
5
Attract a partner
To get more girls
5
It is popular
It is the style that is going around
3
To feel good
I feel good about it
3
Like how it looks
I like to see it
2
Total
49*
*N = 31. The larger total is due to multiple responses
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Author Note: I would like to thank William Cross Jr., Kay Deaux, and the members of the Seminar on
Identity at the CUNY Graduate Center for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks also to
Richard Quarless and Hollie Jones for their assistance. Research assistance was provided by Brittney
Blakeney. I take full responsibility for the limitations and shortcomings of this article. An earlier draft of
this paper was presented at the Identity, Worldview and Religion: Beyond Caribbean Cultural Norms
Conference, which was held in honour of Professor Barry Chevannes at the University of the West Indies,
Jamaica, January19-21, 2006. Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Christopher A. D.
Charles, King Graduate School, Monroe College, 2375 Jerome Avenue, Bronx, New York, 10468 or by email
to: [email protected]
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