“Azealia Banks is wrong, skin bleaching is a practice steeped in racism”

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Stylist Team
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This week, Azealia Banks made headlines after she posted a Facebook video in which she openly admitted to using skin lightening products. The singer defended her right to skin lightening, likening the process to other "body modifications" such as getting a weave or even a nose job. Telling her followers that: "black women should be allowed to do whatever the f*** they want without having their blackness questioned or challenged," the post was met with controversy. Here, Stylist contributor, Kuba Shand-Baptiste, explains why skin bleaching is an indefensible and dangerous process. 

If anyone understands the art of continually embroiling oneself in controversy, it’s Azealia Banks. Contradiction incarnate, the rapper and singer flits between moments of ingenuity and inanity more often than she puts out singles.

But her latest move, the decision to use as well as justify the use of skin lighteners via a twenty-one-minute Facebook Live video despite being such a staunch champion of black culture and all that encompasses it, is perhaps one of the most confusing acts Banks has embarked on in recent memory.

Late 2014 saw a deeply frustrated Banks moved to tears as she beautifully described the constant commodification of blackness in mainstream culture, “it’s like a cultural smudging”, she said in her interview on Hot 97’s Ebro in the Morning radio show, in response to the then popularity of artists like Iggy Azalea, who founded her career on the image and sound of American black culture.

But as usual, where Banks is concerned, it’s complicated. While her (as well as anyone else’s) decision to chemically dilute her natural hue is not necessarily akin to co-signing widespread tarring and appropriation of black culture, it does paint an unfortunate picture of how she views less celebrated aspects of blackness, as well as herself.

In the video, the Broke with Expensive Taste star, now recognisably a few shades lighter than her formerly deep brown shade, equates hair extensions with the often dangerous practice. “Nobody was upset when I was wearing 30-inch weaves and tearing out my edges”, she said.

But to suggest that weave, which is not inherently intended for the purposes of emulating a tempered blackness, is comparable to skin lightening, a practise steeped in colourism, is an affront to the psychological fallout of ongoing societally enforced contempt for dark skin.

Similarly, Banks’s suggestion that it isn’t “important to discuss the cultural significance of bleaching anymore”,  because the use of skin lightening products is simply a form of assimilation for black people, indicates an unwillingness to acknowledge the weight of often normalised practices such as skin bleaching, and other manifestations of internalised racism.

Banks calls her new practise, 'body modification', a term so tame, you could easily forget the ramifications of long-term bleaching. As part of Gal-dem’s Skin Lightening Series, a collection of articles exploring skin lightening products and identity, Niellah Arboine outlined some of the damaging aspects of bleaching, writing:

“Prolonged use of skin-lightening products with [Hydroquinone] (which can be prescribed safely) can lead to a plethora of long-term problems, from skin-ageing and liver damage to a serious condition called exogenous ochronosis, which can cause hyper-pigmentation and skin lesions”.

Although Banks doesn’t claim to see “the difference” between temporary practices like wearing weave, or, as many often attempt to compare to bleaching - tanning, there is one. A huge one. Skin lightening, unlike painting one’s nails for example, or wearing fake eyelashes, perpetuates the idea that darker skin tones are inherently unappealing, and whiteness (or being in closer proximity to it), is the highest ideal to aspire to.

Dark skin, especially when it covers the entire body, is seen and marketed as burdensome in countless communities across the globe, with big companies making huge profits from lightening products in predominantly POC-populated countries.

There is a clear history of relating skin tone to class and centuries of imposing Eurocentric beauty ideals on communities of colour has turned skin lightening into a much more sinister practise than temporary and comparably less damaging enhancements.

Unlike some of her recent outbursts, Banks’s latest video speaks to something saddening, as opposed to enraging. Ultimately, skin whitening products, when used for the sole purpose of making oneself considerably lighter than they are, can only really be seen as a practice that is symptomatic of internalised racism, as opposed to a desire to try a new look, as Banks and many others who bleach, believe.

In a follow-up to the video, Banks wrote the following on her Facebook page: “I told you all two years ago that as a black woman I stand for reparations and autonomy. All of the rest of the shit is petty. Cultural appropriation, who wears what, natural hair, relaxed, bleached or not”,

An odd thing to say for a woman who once seemed to understand how constantly berating blackness, whether through the continual failure to acknowledge black artistry in creative industries, particularly at prestigious award shows, or promoting the idea that dark skin is unappealing, can have an impact on young black people.

While Banks has once again engaged in the promotion of harmful ideas however, it is no less heartbreaking that she, like a lot of people who use skin lightening products, is blind to the physical as well as psychological implications of bleaching away the part of her that makes her who she is.