The cosmetic use of chemical agents to lighten the complexion of one’s skin, also referred to as skin whitening, skin lightening, and/or skin bleaching, is currently a widespread global phenomenon. While the history of skin bleaching can be traced to the Elizabethan age of powder and paint, in its current manifestations, skin bleaching is practiced disproportionately within communities “of color” and exceedingly among people of African descent. While it is true that skin bleaching represents a multifaceted phenomenon, with a complexity of historical, cultural, sociopolitical, and psychological forces motivating the practice, the large majority of scholars who examine skin bleaching at the very least acknowledge the institutions of colonialism and enslavement historically, and global White supremacy contemporarily, as dominant and culpable instigators of the penchant for skin bleaching. As an introduction to this Special Issue of The Journal of Pan African Studies focusing on skin bleaching and global White supremacy, the purpose of this paper is to critically examine the symbolic significance of whiteness, particularly for and among African people, by outlining the history of global White supremacy, both politically and ideologically, discussing its subsequent promulgation, and further investigating its relationship to the historical and contemporary skin bleaching phenomenon.
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