In 2009, after appearing on a television show donning noticeably lighter skin complexion, rumors soared claiming that major league baseball legend Sammy Sosa was ill. To quell rumors he went on record stating that he was using a skin bleaching cream to lighten his skin. Eight years later, the Dominican slugger is back in the spotlight sporting a pinkish complexion – suggesting continuous, aggressive and dangerous usage of such lightening creams – the media on all platforms reacted – stunned and troubled about the transformation. It goes beyond physical health concerns and alludes to greater psychological issues. The hypersensitivity to race and white privilege is nothing new, however, more recently never more apparent than in this current administration.
While other celebrities have also been alleged to exercise this hue altering behavior (i.e. Michael Jackson and Lil’Kim) the practice is prevalent, lauded and even legal across the world in such countries as Jamaica, England and countries in Asia and Africa. A 2016 New York Times study found that a staggering 70% of West African women lighten or bleach their skin. While this may be a multi-billion dollar industry, on the flip-side there has been a huge increase in the number of skin and blood cancers as well as an increase in burns and skin damage.
Understanding the Psychology
Aside from the physical health concerns, there are the psychological issues. It is not a radical statement to say that this country stands shoulder to shoulder with other countries that intentionally celebrate white skin and take a ‘white is right,’ better and stronger approach to acceptance and advancement. It is omnipresent in all institutions that affect and [are tasked with] improve[ing] the lives of people of color including the education, penal and media industries.
Yet, what I believe is more poignant is that how you view yourself is highly correlated to how you are treated by your loved ones and the messages they filter to you. If in the personal spaces where you are supposed to be celebrated, you are instead tolerated, then that energy and those messages are going to be internalized and can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. All of these untreated negative and self-loathing thoughts and feelings are going to lead to questionable behaviors. In the case of colorism, Latinos particularly and Dominicans specifically, have a ubiquitous, systemic and unapologetic disdain for darker skin. I know this first hand.
Taking all this into account, I believe that Sosa’s deep internalization of the message(s) he received growing up from his country of birth, the U.S. and arguably his loved ones is what led to his skin bleaching.
How Do We Move Forward?
Taking skin bleaching as the anchoring concept, we all receive messages from power constructs, the media and our loved ones that are conflicting and often skewed. And I do believe Sosa’s decision to bleach his skin does have psychological implications that we will never understand as it is not our plight. And I do understand that it is his life and his body, but what he is doing is just not simply getting a new pair of tits. Changing your color is deeply troubling because it spits in the face of the civil rights advancement many have died for. But in trying to understand Sosa’s decision, we have to first recognize and validate that we too have received similar messages that have affected our personal lives and how we navigate through it. In Sosa’s case the manifestation of his psychosis is extremely overt. He can’t hide his desire to be white; while some of us can hide our maladaptive behaviors from the plain eye (i.e. sex addiction, alcoholism, adultery.) Given this, we have to: a) approach Sosa’s and similar situations free of judgment; b) understand that internalized negative messages can lead to (untreated) mental health issues and questionable behavior patterns; c) challenge intracultural and institutionalized racism and colorism when it shows up in our lives and; d) accept and embrace people where they are at and how they show up.
Everyone has a story and as sad and pathetic as Sosa’s may look from the outside looking in, by showing more compassion he may still have a change to re-write his.