Evil Enlightenment 121

You were not expecting my thoughts on Michael Jackson and Beyonce Knowles.

This blog is effectively closed down during the period of yuletide festivity, during most of which I am happy to say the world gets subsumed in a warm glow of family, friends, goodwill and alcohol. The gears are grinding behind the surface and I have some explosive stuff on Adam Werritty for the New Year. But today I have escaped from the eight adults and five children watching Beyonce in the sitting room to pen some of the thoughts that it just aroused in me (actually most of the thoughts Beyonce arouses in me are best not written down, but that is another story).

For me the most interesting thing about the sorry Michael Jackson death trial was when Dr Conrad Murray announced that he had cleared out some “embarassing” creams from Jackson’s bedroom before the arrival of police. At first this sounded like it might relate to medication causing Jackson’s death; then it sounded like it might relate to Jackson’s sex life – anal lubricant? Then finally the information came out – they were skin lightening creams.

Which is what connects to Beyonce Knowles, who is beyond doubt many degrees lighter than she used to be, a fact which seems largely to escape comment. I know people in Ghana and in Nigeria who have really disfiguring marks – most commonly a series of ruched lines of skin on the body something like stretch marks – which will be with them for life, as a result of using skin lightening creams. In West Africa mercury is frequently a component.

One of my first rows with my employers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office happened in 1986 when I held the lowly position of Second Secretary (Commercial) in the British High Commission in Lagos. The sale of such creams in the UK had been very recently outlawed due to EU regulation, but it was at that time still legal to manufacture in the UK poisonous skin lightening products – including those containing mercury – for export outside the EU. I ejected from my office with little ceremony a gentleman from Birmingham wanting help from the High Commission in Lagos with his sales of mercury soaps. I recall having no sympathy at all from FCO colleagues over my stand. Why it took me twenty more years to realise I was in the wrong organisation is a tribute to my stupidity.

The pressure on black people to be as deracialised as Beyonce or Michael Jackson is a kind of racially aggravated version of the standards of physical appearance foisted on us every day by the advertising industry. It is the same process, operating in a different way, that gives us identikit politicians like Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Miliband, all striving to look like Pierce Brosnan, and devoid of deep political content.

My studies for Alexander Burnes have convinced me that the great incubus of colonial racialist baggage was largely an invention of the 1830’s onwards. Prior to that, the West largely judged people by religious affiliation before skin colour. There is no presumption in the writings of Mungo Park or Alexander Burnes of any intellectual superiority on their part on grounds of skin colour. The much underestimated presence of black people in the UK for centuries partly reflects the fact that they were viewed just as people. Of course this is broad brush, and the 18th century gentlemen with their picaresque coloured servants could have racist attitudes – and slave plantations. But it was not in general assumed that white meant superior in the way the racial construct arose during the mid-Victorian period.

It is also of course the case that prejudice in favour of the lighter skinned could be observed in Indian and African societies themselves as early as at least the seventeenth century, and that the relationship of those prejudices to lighter skinned governing elites or European contacts and mixed race people is a complex question.

But with all these caveats, it is still reasonable to assert that the mania among the fashionable young and black to have a lighter skin than God gave them is a reinforcement of the colonial and slave-owning prejudices of a couple of centuries.

I am as white as they come – almost blue like a good Scot. And pretty ugly. Colour has nothing to do with beauty.

It is illegal, but sales of skin lightening products in the UK are probably higher now that when they were still legal in the 1970’s. The real question is, what are we doing that makes people so unhappy with their own colour that they risk serious damage in this way?

121 thoughts on “Evil Enlightenment

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  • Ruth

    Maybe Beyonce has lightened her skin because she thinks it’ll bring out her other features just as I hope to do when I sunbathe.

  • John Goss

    Craig Murray. Please get your mods to check if posts are being deleted without comment subscrbers’ knowledge. All kinds of odd things seem to be going on.

  • Clark

    I don’t see the mainstream media much, but I’d sort of noticed Michael Jackson’s skin lightening; he seemed to get more ghost-like each time I saw a picture of him, and I was unsurprised when I heard that he’d died.
    I found something about him increasingly creepy, and thinking about it, it was cosmetic surgery and especially skin lightening that I was reacting to. It seems very sad to think that there was an actual person living behind the construction that he became, but that’s just my perception and I know that many people would choose such a life.

  • CanSpeccy

    @Ruth: “Maybe Beyonce has lightened her skin because she thinks it’ll bring out her other features just as I hope to do when I sunbathe.”
    Good point, Ruth, in which connection it is amusing in a way that Tommy, Rotten, Lennon or whatever his name is of the EDL, the man whose job it is to take over from Nick, Marmite, Griffin the task of smearing all British nationalists with the thug, fascist, racist, far-right-wing extremist brush, owns a tanning parlor.

  • Sophia


    This is a personal story. I was filling out a form at my GP a month ago with my teenage son next to me filling the same form. When we had to answer what is our ethnicity, my son called my husband who is European and my husband said ME people like your mother are caucasians, so my son answered ‘Caucasian’. Although my husband is right, I didn’t feel that I belonged to this ethnicity because since I have been living in Europe and Canada in a environment that is not supposed to be racist (Academia), white people made me feel that I do not belong.
    Sitting in the GP office, I thought answering ‘Middle Eastern’ but the term is fairly recent and this is not an ethnicity. I also thought answering ‘Arab’ but this is not an ethnicity neither. I ended up answering ‘Arab’ because I was unable to answer ‘Caucasian’ like my own son.

    Racism based on skin colour is relative.

  • boniface goncourt

    Sophia –
    You might [or might not] find the UK police Identity Code (IC) system helpful.

    IC1 White person
    IC2 Mediterranean person
    IC3 African/Caribbean person
    IC4 Indian, Nepalese, Pakistani, Maldivian, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, or any other (South) Asian person
    IC5 Chinese, Japanese, or South-East Asian person
    IC6 Arabic, Egyptian or Maghreb person
    IC0 Origin unknown

    It lacks a number for native Americans from north [Inuit etc] or
    south [Mayan/Bolivian etc].

    Good post by Craig. I live in Thailand and amongst the IC5s generally many women are addicted to these vile carcinogenic whitening creams as marketed by all the big European names – Nivea, l’Oreal etc. Huge piles of them in every supermarket. They are of course verboten in my home. I do my best to explain things to other women but with scant success. The porcelain skin has for millenia been the ideal in SE Asia [dark skin = peasant] so I don’t think it has to do with western attitudes.

  • parky

    …well whites are not immune from this cosmetic fascism either and spend a small fortune on skin tanning creams and subjecting themselves to ultra violet radiation either on a beach or sun-bed. It seems some people are just not happy the way they are and this could be due to personal issues and/or manipulation by industries who profit from this self-hatred. As for Craig’s uproar in 1986 with the BHC in Lagos, well this was the time of Thatcher and indeed then as now, everything’s for sale.

  • Mary

    ‘everything’s for sale’…including honours.
    Tainted indeed. Ronson of the Heron Group.
    His connections to Jewish charities such as the Community Security Trust, famous for hyping up charges of anti-semitic incidents and fear mongering. Also strangely exempted by the Charity Commissioners from naming their trustees playing on the implication I assume that they would be subjected to attack. In 2008 they were being funded by the state in that this private police force was being ‘trained ‘ by the Met. I forget the estimated cost but I think it was £half a million.
    ‘He has raised more than £100million for, and donated more than £30million to, charities such as the Community Security Trust, NSPCC, the Prince’s Trust and Jewish Care.’
    A fact filled piece by Tony Greenstein on the CST’s part in the arrest and detention of Sheilk Raed Salah.
    Clever that he gets the royal nod of approval via the Prince’s Trust and helps the poor little kiddies too. No fool.
    The CST’s latest accounts {http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/Accounts/Ends91/0001042391_ac_20101231_e_c.pdf}

  • Loftus

    The term ‘racial prejudice’ is probably not very accurate in most instances of its use, since it’s largely applied where it concerns people of darker skin tone. In such cases it would more accurately be called ‘skin-colour prejudice’; where it could be seen as comparable to, say, eye-colour prejudice, mouth-shape prejudice, hair-colour prejudice, or any other equally ridiculous distinction.

    Clark, wrt Frank Zappa, have you heard this:
    Joe Pyne, a confrontational US radio host, and an amputee, is said to have insulted Zappa by saying, “So I guess your long hair makes you a woman.” Zappa replied, “So I guess your wooden leg makes you a table.”

  • Azra

    For years I thought MJ had Vitiligo and that is why he was looking so different, little did I know it was all those skin lightening creams! Hopefully Miss B will stop before she looked as scary as MJ.

    Sophia : I have the same problem when it comes to origin and ethnicity (being of Iranian origin), Now I either tick “none of the above”, or just make a note at the bottom that I am Persian.

  • Archie

    Why do you play the game?
    The inherent racist connotations of declaration of ethnicity introduced by the New Labour operatives, is not a mandatory part of any questionnaire. Therefore, either put “White” despite sporting a fabulous shade of ebony, or cross it out and print in capitals N/A (Not Applicable).
    Stopping racism starts by denying the race hate mongers any further progress, even if it is the government wot does it.
    No one can force you to fill; that particular bit out, and if anyone dared to do so, make sure to kick up an unholy fuss and see how quickly the whole notion is kicked into the appogge orbit.

  • TK

    Slightly off topic, but apparently we are seeing a revival of rickets among the middleclass children in the UK, due to an extensive use of sunscreen, great indoor lifestyle and poor diet. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/8128781/Middle-class-children-suffering-rickets.html Before that it was the skin cancer horror. Our obsession of health, safety, beauty, security and hygiene is deeply rooted indeed.
    Hope 2012 is going to be the year that makes a change to everyone of you.

  • Rob Royston

    I’m beginning to think that all prejudice is a form of fear. Race, colour or whatever, it is always around us.
    Humans have a problem in that most of us do not have a high intelligence quotient. We make up for this in various ways, knowledge, skill, orderliness etc. so that we can engage in well paid work to keeep us and our families from want.
    Some people can handle this well but others are forever in competition to maimtain their hard won positions in society. Everyone else is a threat to them and it is not uncommon for them to engage in plotting and back-stabbing of the competition. Some turn to bullying as they are not clever enough to get the best out of their teams.
    Any prejudices are seen as useful tools they can employ against others, knowing that there are many others like them who will readily agree with them.
    I have worked in Africa for many years and work with people from all over the world. A lot of ex-pats talk the local workers down at every oppurtunity, it makes me laugh sometimes to listen to them as some of the people they denigrate are worth two of them. Maybe I was fortunate in that I had spent a career in industry at home before going out there, but I never see anyone as being of different race, I only judge them on ability and willingness to work and learn.

  • havantaclu

    I do so want to comment, but feel that anything I say, as a sallow-skinned Celt, is going to sound patronising to other skin-colours, as well as my own.

    What I wanted to say was – ‘Why do we put such an emphasis on appearance? It’s the character, the capacity of each individual for empathy with others, that matters’. In Kenya we knew an Albino Kikuyu who was shunned by others from his tribe – he developed a huge inferiority complex but in fact was an able, gentle person with a delightful sense of humour – when you bothered to get to know him. Fortunately, we did.

    John Goss – indeed Robert Bage is worth reading, as are many other of the late eighteenth century/early nineteenth century novelists who have now disappeared from the literary canon. The Chawton House Library in Hampshire is resurrecting some of those by female novelists on its website – and I can recommend the library as being open to men as well – my husband is at present reading works by Caroline Herschell, the sister of the man who ‘discovered’ the planet Uranus. for those of you who are interested in these old masterpieces, check out Marilyn Butler’s ‘Jane Austen and the War of Ideas’ to get a good start.

  • Mary

    ‘In 2011, Israeli forces killed 124 people in Gaza including 20 children and two women, al-Qidra said. Over 600 people were injured in Israeli attacks, the health ministry official added.
    Meanwhile, residents and hospitals had to cope with 8-hour power cuts most days in 2011 due to diesel shortages.’
    2011 ‘toughest year yet’ for Gaza medics
    whereas ZBC say nothing except the endless Palestinians are militants chant. {http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16361869}

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Ed L, very sorry, I was working, rushing, hence the typos as well. I missed out the ‘T’ in ‘Frantz’. Of course, you are correct, it is ‘Frantz Fanon’ and not, ‘Franz Fanon’ (perhaps I got mixed-up with ‘Franz Ferdinand’!) – thank you for pointing that out. Actually, I read his work many years ago, so in truth I had forgotten the correct spelling of his first name. Profound apologies to you and the Estate of the late Dr Fanon and thank you also for helping me cross my ‘Ts’. I shall ensure I also dot my ‘Is’ in future.
    Just being funny, you know – seriously, though, thanks.


    Sophia, Azra, Clark, fascinating, thanks.

  • Ed L

    Hi Suhayl,

    No problem. On another note, in some photos Fanon (from Martinique) bears an astonishing resemblance to the footballer Thierry Henry (I believe his mother comes from Martinique as well). I’ve often wondered if they are related.

  • Apostoli

    Colour changing goes both ways.
    Suntans, fake tan cream, sunbeds.
    Maybe one day you’ll be able to incorporate octopus dna and become any colour at will.

    Craig, wish you and la familia health n happiness for the new year

  • crab

    Canspeccy hazarded: “It is an empirically established fact that white people instinctively relate better with other white people and that black people instinctively relate better with other black people”

    If there were such an isolateable instinctive factor of how well people relate, it would be utterly dwarfed by humankind’s capacity for communication, empathy, adaption, acceptance… never mind Love. Humans physical features are almost completely eclipsed by the expression and effect of humand Minds which dwell within -and your mind always looks very ugly on this topic Canspeccy.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Apostoli. Perhaps you may wish to read what I (and others) wrote earlier on that very point. People visit tanning salons/put on fake tan because they want to look affluent. This has been a feature of Western society since the 1920s. Of course, nowadays, such tans are usually a sign of the opposite. But it’s to try and emulate the celebrities. It is partly also a reflection of socio-economic inequalities, but that is not the major driver, in my view. It’s dangerous and futile, sad in many ways.

    However, skin lightening carries with it much deeper psycho-pathology to do with self-hate, internalisation of racism – I mean, look at Michale Jackson, with his nose-jobs, his whitening, his repeated denials that he was using skin lightning creams (‘vitiligo’ was his explananation). But vitiligo doesn’t usually present with sudden, even, progressive skin lightening, it tends to be patchy and in the patches, the skin is totally white.

    There are big cultural/political differences b/w the use of tanning salons and the use of skin whitening creams. Crucially, also, the playing-field is not equal, it is extremely unequal. History and contemporary inequalities are of prime relevance. One is a sign of the society of the spectacle and of the victory of image over substance; the other, of deep-seated internalised racism now miraculously re-packaged and presented as simply a cosmetic consumer ‘choice’. They are not simply opposite sides of the same coin.

  • arsalan

    Craig may not be stupid, but he is ugly.
    Come to think of it, as a heterosexual male, I might not be qualified to judge whether males are attractive or not?
    Oh well then Craig, if Mary finds you attractive, you must be.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    TK, I agree. In Scotland, for example, where (I hear) we’ve had the wettest year on record (and believe me, that is saying somehting!) kids esp. need sun exposure, not in a daft, lying in the sun for 10 hours straight way, but in a normal, T-shirted, playing, etc. way. Otherwise, people here will get even more Vit D deficient than they already are. There’s also a problem among eg. some Muslim women in northern – or any – climes, covering-up and being indoors a lot. Yes, the Fear instrument takes many forms, most of them seem to be about social control and (again) image over substance – The Daily Mail is a good (bad) weather-vane for this kind of emotional, fight-or-flight, attention-grabbing dominance. So, less fear, less living-up-to, and more simply living!

  • Jon

    Hi John Goss, trust you’re well.
    As a mod, I don’t have a lot of ways to check whether comments are going missing deliberately – my admin powers are quite limited. I am able to delete comments completely, but it is my usual practice to edit a comment and put a [mod] note in instead, so it is transparent.
    There are ways we could improve the security of the site – a better anti-spam system for one, and SSL sessions for another – but both cost time and money. Hopefully we’ll be able to get some incremental improvements from Tim in 2012, but for the time being it is not my view that stuff is being maliciously deleted. (If you post something, you could always screenshot it, and then if it goes missing, email it to Craig. But most unlikely to happen, imo).

  • CanSpeccy

    Sophia you asked Dr. Saadi how to respond to a question about ethnicity on a medical form.
    I awaited the response with interest, and so am disappointed that none has been forthcoming.
    Perhaps an answer has been avoided because your question presented the politically correct doctor with a conundrum:
    For if it were acknowledged that the racial aspect of ethnicity has a medically relevant biological reality, that would be politically incorrect, whereas if the opposite were asserted, that would be medically incorrect.
    In fact, the question of ethnicity is of interest to a doctor only insofar as it relates to a patient’s health. For example, the child of an Ashkenazi Jew has an above average risk of various hereditary illnesses including the lethal Tay-Sachs disease, whereas an African-American or Carribean islander has an elevated risk of stroke and certain types of heart and vascular disease. There are a vast number of other such ethnically related health issues, a fact that leaves beyond doubt the biological reality underlying ethnicity.
    The cultural aspect of ethnicity is also medically relevant. For example, identification with a culture that practices, widespread cousin marriage or genital mutilation raises the possibility of various congenital defects or psychological problems.
    In declaring ethnicity for medical purposes you need, therefore, to indicate your true racial identity, i.e., the group from which you are of long descent. If you are of mixed race, an exact statement of racial origins might mean stating the ethnicity of both parents or all grandparents.
    Broad terms, such Caucausian may be fine for a census return, but have little biological meaning — unless of course one is from the Caucusus, a Chechen, for example. But still Chechen is better than Caucasian since the Caucusus is an ethnically complex region.
    You mention that, in an academic environment in Canada, white people made me feel “that I do not belong.”
    I am sorry that you felt that way. But I wonder if you correctly interpret your impressions.
    I have held academic appointments in Canadian universities — briefly, three simultaneously — and I never found the environment particularly warm. In fact, after resigning my last appointment, a tenure-track position at the University of Toronto, several colleagues confessed to me their hatred of just about all and sundry, one even disclosing that he had at one time waged a costly law suit over tenure against the University.
    I would say that coolness is a Canadian characteristic, not solely due to the climate. Canada is probably the World’s most ethnically diverse melting pot, which means that social relations tend to be more difficult and less spontaneous than in culturally homogeneous communities.
    In general, I would say that Canadians depend more for emotional support on the family than people in other societies. For new immigrants who are on their own or possessed of only a small nuclear family, the strain can be considerable.
    In fact, I would say that racism in Canada is remarkable slight, except at the Quebec-Ontario border and perhaps in the backwoods where the immigrant society may sometimes interact badly with the First Nations.
    However, because Canada is a society almost entirely of immigrants, there is virtually no tolerance for the white self-hatred pushed here.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    From what I can see, Sophia was not asking a question of me and she certainly did not seem to be requesting medical advice – the latter, I would not be able to give on this public forum as it would be unethical to do so. I have no more expertise in filling in forms than the next human being. As far as I could see, she was relating a personal experience, one with which many of us have been faced when filling in forms.
    The key point is this: Genetics is an aspect of our being and is a valid and important part of the corpus scientific enquiry. ‘Race’ is not.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    Whether we define ourselves as ‘Pakistani’ (there are white Pakistanis and there are very dark Pakistanis) or ‘white Scottish – other’, or ‘Anglo-Iranian-Innuit’ on these forms has nothing to do with science. These are cultural and political constructs whcih do have relevance in our societies. They are also useful for various forms of social science research. Some people won’t fill them in on the census forms because they object to having to do so, and that’s fine, that’s their right. These are self-idenifiers wrt various aspects of our reality. They do not imply that there is any scientific basis for ‘race’ in the human species. As has been stated on numerous occasions on this site – this is becoming really tedious, Alfred – there is no such scietific basis.

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