From the 1400s to the 1900s European colonialism and imperialism exported an ideology of white superiority throughout the world, rationalizing European ascendancy over indigenous, inferior-raced peoples fit for conquest, exploitation, and domination. From this history a white-dominated sociopolitical order has been constituted, normalized, and maintained. As a result whiteness and the process of “whitening” have emerged as both ideal and practice. Significantly whiteness as an ideal communicates ideas about superiority with respect to moral or intellectual and aesthetic worth. Although conceptually distinct, there is a psychological tendency to conflate the two, and attempts at whitening, by both individuals and nations, have sought to capitalize on a supposed white superiority in both respects.
The elevation of whiteness both justifies the material and psychological privileging of whiteness and reinforces the white ideal. Unsurprisingly this has encouraged individuals to adopt a variety of strategies aimed at whitening physical appearance. Skin lightening is a prominent example, and the United States is instructive in examining how this strategy emerged historically.
The institution of U.S. slavery was undergirded by powerful rules maintaining racial differentiation, including those regarding hypodescent. According to the “onedrop rule,” individuals with any ascertainable “Negro blood” were considered black, a determination that served slaveholders’ property interests in slaves while reinforcing the ideological fiction of white purity and superiority. Slaveholders also instigated tension between lighter- and darker-skinned blacks through colorism, differentiating among blacks to prevent their alliance in potential revolts. Lighter-skinned slaves were often “privileged” as house servants relative to darker “field” slaves, for example, receiving less-violent treatment and greater opportunities for education, skilled labor, and even manumission.
In this extreme racialized context, enslaved African Americans began applying lye and other harsh cleaning products to lighten their skin. Other household concoctions included applying lemon juice, bleach, and even urine to the skin and swallowing arsenic wafers. Advancements in modern medicine encouraged more scientifically “legitimate” methods, researched and developed by the medical community. Whitening products began appearing during the nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century hundreds of unique brands were available.
In the early twenty-first century skin whitening is a global, multibillion-dollar industry that includes major cosmetics corporations, including L’Oreal, Maybelline New York, and Lancôme Paris. L’Oreal alone made $14 billion on skin whitening products in 2003. In the United States and elsewhere, consumers of whitening products include not only blacks but also other people of color and darker-complexioned whites. Typical products include soaps, creams, and ointments that often contain mercury, topical corticosteroids, or hydroquinone, each of which disrupts melanin production in the skin. Although touted as safe by regulators, side effects of such products range from permanent spots and splotchiness to disfigurement and even poisoning. Indeed whitening products are often made in third world countries, imported legally and illegally, and sold on Internet domains to avoid regulations and critical resistance.
Reinforced by popular media and persistent disparate treatment, marketing of the white beauty ideal extends beyond skin whitening to include hair straightening, hair weaving, and colored contact lenses. Increasingly popular are more permanent and medically intrusive procedures, such as plastic surgery. Consider, for example, the use of rhinoplasty among black and Jewish Americans and the growing prevalence of eyelid surgery among Asian Americans. Even strategies such as marrying “lighter” and distancing oneself from dark-skinned people and communities, both literally and through self-classification, are considered forms of whitening by some scholars.
Significantly the whiteness ideal has not only influenced individuals but has also become the basis of large-scale state policies seeking to whiten national populations. Many Latin American countries in particular—including Brazil, Venezuela, Cuba, Argentina, Uruguay, and Colombia—enacted collective whitening strategies during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such efforts typically revolved around promoting white European immigration (often while restricting immigrants of color) and encouraging “race mixing,” or miscegenation, as a way of gradually lightening the total population. Brazil offers one of the best-examined cases of a whitening ideology influencing national goals.
Portugal colonized Brazil beginning in the sixteenth century, dominating the indigenous population and instituting the importation of 3.6 million enslaved Africans over three centuries. Brazil’s racial composition was dramatically altered both directly via slavery and via the mixed-race children born of frequent unions (often violent and coerced) between Portuguese colonizers and African and indigenous women. By the end of the eighteenth century blacks and their descendants formed a majority of the Brazilian population.
Brazil’s largely mixed-race population was problematized in the nineteenth century, as Europe’s burgeoning race “science” reached the nation. Such theories validated the white political and economic domination characteristic of colonial nations by asserting the superiority of the white race, associated with progress and advancement, while deeming other, darker races as inferior and backward. The views of Count Arthur de Gobineau of France were exemplary of such thinking. For Gobineau, Brazil epitomized the perils of miscegenation, which in his view had produced a degenerate people, dooming the country to perpetual underdevelopment.
As a way out of such fatalistic predictions, Brazil turned to the project of whitening, or blanqueamiento, as a national solution. Brazilian eugenicists proposed a theory of “constructive miscegenation” based on the belief that white genes were stronger and would “dominate” and “purify” colored blood. Miscegenation was rearticulated as an assurance that Brazil could achieve a whitened population over several generations and the inferior features of African and indigenous ancestry overcome. To further hasten the process of national whitening, Brazil encouraged, recruited, and subsidized European immigration to fill postslavery labor needs while simultaneously prohibiting black (both African and American) and Asian immigration. The Brazilian government attempted to lure European immigrants, both directly and through landowners, by paying transportation costs, exempting tax payments and military service, and offering loans, grants, and other material incentives. European immigration promised to whiten the population both by literally increasing the number of whites in the country and through ensuing miscegenation.
While Brazil’s first census in 1872 documented 37 percent of the population as white, by the 1890s more than 1.2 million Europeans had immigrated, bolstering the percentage to 44 percent. Mass European immigration halted with the onset of World War II, but by 1940 fully 64 percent of Brazil’s population was white. From 1940 onward the brown, mixed-race population increased, while the black population steadily declined.
Of Latin American nations, Argentina was perhaps the most “successful” with respect to whitening, virtually eliminating the Afro-descendant racial group. Colombia offers a unique comparison. When European immigration proved unattainable, elites sought the next best thing—interregional migration as a means of whitening. For example, elites from the Colombian region of Cauca encouraged the migration of neighboring Antioqueños, emphasizing their European- and “Yankee-like” qualities and appearance.
Predominantly white countries, while not instituting explicit whitening policies, have attempted to maintain the national dominance of whiteness. For instance, the United States, Canada, and Australia all maintained discriminatory immigration policies, privileging white European immigrants and limiting or excluding immigrants of color until the late twentieth century. Historically the United States engaged in other legal efforts to firmly differentiate between whites and people of color, particularly blacks, including codifying racial designations through rules of hypodescent, limiting non-white citizenship, barring miscegenation, and enacting legalized segregation. Additionally, although some early immigrants, including the Irish and Italians, were originally discriminated against as nonwhite “races,” white elites eventually extended what has come to be known as the “wage of whiteness” to such groups in an effort to manage changing demographics and diminish the likelihood of cross-racial coalitions. Clearly practices such as these serve to entrench the racial structure that privileges whiteness both nationally and globally.
In the early twenty-first century the ideology of white superiority persists, although its expression may be less explicit. Nonetheless, as long as whiteness is maintained as a privileged status, materially and psychologically, whitening, as both ideal and practice, will also persist.
SEE ALSO Black Face; Blackness; Colorism; Preference, Color; Racism; Whiteness; Whites
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Jennifer C. Mueller