When will we learn to love ourselves just as we are, including the color of our skin?

Gil Noble | Host of ABCs Like it Is

On Sunday morning, I watched a public affairs program, Like it Is, hosted by Gil Noble. Noble’s guests were former NYC councilman and activist Charles Baron and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, editor and author Les Payne.

In opening the discussion, Noble asked his guests, Baron an activist who fights for justice within the black community everywhere, and Payne a journalist and author who chronicles the lives of many black leaders through interviews and books, what motivated them to do what they do.

In his response, Payne first shared the impact he experienced early in life of what he termed “psychic conditioning.”

Les Payne | Newsday Asst. Managing Editor

Payne grew up in Tuscaloosa AL in the 1950s and 1960s and at the age of 12, his family moved to Hartford CT. In Tuscaloosa, he attended all black schools (including teachers and staff) where he was well-exposed to black history on an academic level. Despite that exposure, because of the segregated life style, Payne said he was psychically conditioned to believe that because he was black, he was inferior to white people.

He talked about hearing and watching his grandmother refer to white boys obviously half — or more — her age as “sir.” He witnessed his mother using the same reference to young white boys who were no more than teenagers.

Payne tried to resist this kind of conditioning but at first was unsuccessful. As an honor student in high school, he recalled receiving a grade of 92 on a geometry exam. He noticed the grade of a white student next to him who got a 78 and automatically assumed that the teacher must have mixed up the papers. He really believed that there was no way he could get a higher grade than a white student. [Watch this portion of the interview near the end of this clip].

I believe that kind of psychic conditioning still continues today. Consider the fascination with “straight” hair — particularly with black women. I read a comment online that black women contribute 90 percent to the beauty products industry. I have not verified that statistic but I believe that if not 90 percent, we spend close to that — and hair and nails are at the top of the list.

Monique Jarvis | Poet, Journalist, Singer | a L.E.A.P. Program Dir.

Chris Rock’s Good Hair Movie is an example of how black women in celebrate our physic conditioning with straight hair by spending $1000-$3500 for “straight” hair weaves. Add to that the cost of regular maintenance or, after a few months getting a “new” weave. [My daughter, in the photo to the left, prefers a more “natural” look.

In this video clip taken in a black beauty shop, Chris rock is surprised to find that black women willingly spend so much to get a straight hair weave. The hair stylist giving the weaves noted that black women do so because they “want to look good and look as natural as possible.” So now we have come to believe that black women have straight hair “naturally.”

Photo for Skin Whitening Products

But it doesn’t stop with getting one’s hair straight. Skin lightening products are popular in Jamaica and seem to be gaining a growing popularity within the US despite serious health risks of using any product that contains hydroquinone.

Mother Jones’ recent article, Why Are Toxic Skin Lighteners Still Legalfocuses on the dangers of skin lighteners that “are made with hydroquinone, an organic compound that can cause ochronosis, a condition where skin becomes tough and, ironically, dark.” Ironically, despite the discord between the races, we seem to immerse ourselves in unwittingly becoming the other; even at risk of our health and well-being.

The health risks posed by hydroquinone are well known. In fact, it’s banned in Japan, the EU, and Australia. But here in the US, it’s still available over the counter, and it’s on the FDA’s list of “generally regarded as safe and effective” (GRASE) ingredients. Strange, considering that the FDA acknowledges that hydroquinone causes ochronosis and even that it’s a potential carcinogen. In light of these concerns, the agency proposed taking it off the GRASE list in 2006, but little has happened since then. (Sound familiar?) “In the interim,” says the FDA on its hydroquinone website, “we believe that hydroquinone should remain available as an OTC drug product.” Naturally, industry groups are downplaying the ingredient’s health threat with their usual zeal. For a list of cosmetics that contain hydroquinone, check out the Environmental Working Group’s guide here.

As a woman, I get it when you want to get rid of or cover up those pesky age spots (and with products that are safe). We all want flawless skin. What I don’t get is someone deliberately bleaching their natural skin color for no other reason other than lightening their skin tone.

Beauty products and regimes should be about enhancing one’s natural beauty and not about changing one’s natural identity. And its not just black women or men who engage in such practices. No matter how many reports are released and studies by highly reputable and distinguished institutions, scientists, etc., about the damaging effects of prolonged exposure to direct sunlight, white people fry themselves on beaches everywhere.

I love the beach and when I’m there, I make certain to reserve a couple of umbrella’s and carry (and use) lots of sunblock. My beach time is precious to me as it is my time to be absolutely free of all things constricting. t-Shirts, shorts and flip-flops (if too hot to go barefoot). I don’t comb even comb my hair unless I absolutely have to (when I get back on the plane to go home).

What is truly an odd scene on the beach is me sitting away from direct sunlight and covered in sunblock — consistently. Meanwhile, I see many white people sit away from their umbrella’s protective shade, apply tanning oil — not sun block — in hopes of getting a deep tan. On one such occasion, I thought to myself, you don’t necessarily want me on this beach because of my color but you’ll risk getting cancer to look like me. Go figure!

If only we could re-condition our collective physic to celebrate our differences. Perhaps the first step is to celebrate who we are just as we are. a little wisdom from Nina Simone is in order here.

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