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Sammy Sosa hasn’t played pro baseball since 2007, but he trended on Twitter for much of Sunday. No, the sportsman didn’t die, join the Trump administration, get arrested, or get accused of sexual assault. He was photographed, as he has been periodically during his retirement, with skin several shades lighter than the deep chestnut hue he had during his career.
Sosa first made headlines for altering his complexion in 2009, revealing the source of his lighter skin tone on Univision’s Primer Impacto. “It’s a bleaching cream that I apply before going to bed and whitens my skin some,” he said.
Although nearly a decade has passed since the public caught a glimpse of Sosa with a chemically lightened countenance, Twitter users gleefully piled on him for his appearance over the weekend. In addition to his bleached skin, Sosa’s outfit — a Western shirt, ribbon necktie, and cowboy hat — earned him comparisons to norteño singers and a Toy Story character. He made the sartorial choice because he was attending a cowboy-themed birthday party for his wife, Sonia. But his evolving skin color isn’t as easy to explain, so many of the people and mainstream media outlets that reported on Sosa’s appearance skipped discussing it altogether. Talk show host Wendy Williams, in her typical blunt fashion, came closest, remarking, “Sammy Sosa — he was once black, but now he’s white... When you bleach, how does that work? This looks crazy. Wow, he really hated himself.”
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It’s profoundly irresponsible, however, to ridicule the Dominican-American for bleaching his skin without discussing how colorism likely factored into his decision. Simply put, colorism is discrimination based on skin color; it privileges lighter-skinned people while disempowering darker-skinned people. The term is often used to describe skin color bias among people of the same ethnic or racial group, but it is the direct offshoot of white supremacy and colonialism. The closer one is to white, the more one benefits from colorism, which has been tied to higher incomes, employment, and marriage rates for lighter-skinned people, not to mention less severe criminal sentences.
The beauty sector has directly profited from this form of discrimination, advertising skin bleaching creams to dark-skinned people who fear they will suffer in love, the workplace, and life in general without light skin. The skin-bleaching industry is worth at least $10 billion and expected to reach $31.2 billion by 2024, according to a Global Industry Analysts report. The findings list multinational cosmetic companies such as Unilever (Dove) and P&G (Olay, Herbal Essences, Pantene Pro-V) as key players in the skin-lightening market. The report also identified skin-lightening injections as a rising trend. While consumers in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East drive global demand for skin-bleaching treatments, Sosa’s dramatically lighter skin and the reality show Love & Hip Hop: Miami have recently drawn attention to skin color bias in the Latino community in particular.
Like Sosa, Love & Hip Hop: Miami star Amara La Negra is a Dominican-American. In January, she earned praise for standing up for herself when a music producer on the show derisively referred to her as the “Nutella queen” because of her skin color and advised her to look “less Macy Gray and more Beyoncé” for embracing her natural hair texture. When she visited Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club shortly after the controversial episode aired, La Negra discussed the challenges she’s faced as an Afro-Latina in the Spanish-language market.
“Your hair needs to be straight and silky in order to be pretty, or if you’re Latina, you have to look like J.Lo, Sofía Vergara, Shakira, but when you look like me, ‘Oh, you don’t look Latina enough,’” she said. “What does that even mean? There isn’t a Latin country that doesn’t have people who look like myself, so why aren’t we on magazines, why aren’t we on movies, so it bothers me.”
The entertainment industry isn’t the only arena where blacks are marginalized in Latin America. In 2007, then-Miami Herald reporter Frances Robles visited the Dominican Republic to chronicle colorism there. She found that many dark-skinned people, despite their obvious African ancestry, insisted on identifying themselves as anything other than black. And many Dominicans, known even in the US for their legendary blowouts, eschew natural hair to such a degree that it’s taboo to wear one’s natural curls and kinks, she said. Two activists she encountered with natural hair said they had been harassed and heckled for daring not to straighten their manes. One of the Dominican Republic’s first natural hair salons, Miss Rizos, opened in Santo Domingo in 2014, but owner Carolina Contreras told Remezcla that she and her have friends have been barred entry into clubs for wearing Afros.
The pressures black Dominicans face don’t stop there. Robles described how the dark-skinned are urged to marry light, or “mejorar la raza,” so their children don’t inherit their complexion. This practice, known in some Latin American countries as blanqueamiento, can be traced to the European colonizers who arrived in the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries and instituted a racial hierarchy based on skin color and racial mix, with whites at the top. The island of Hispaniola, home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, stands out as the first place in the Americas that many conquistadors settled on, spreading not only deadly diseases but also their genocidal white supremacist ideology.
Today, black Dominicans face blatant discrimination in public and private spaces alike. The same happens in the United States, but La Negra points out that the Dominican Republic, while neighboring the country that launched history’s most successful slave revolt, has not seen a widespread social justice movement on behalf of black people. The fact that Haiti briefly occupied the Dominican Republic may even contribute to the negative associations some Dominicans have with blackness.
“We don’t have Black Lives Matter movement,” La Negra told The Breakfast Club. “We don’t have Dr. Martin Luther King. We don’t have Malcolm X. We don’t have the voice.”
Dominicans, though, certainly don’t have a monopoly on colorism. In 2016, African-American rapper Azealia Banks admitted to bleaching her skin. Rap rival Angel Haze once referred to her as a “charcoal-skinned bitch.” While both women and men, including Lil’ Kim and Michael Jackson, have been linked to skin lightening, the colorism debate all too often centers on women because of light skin’s association with beauty, yet men with dark skin also suffer from colorism’s effects.
Saul Williams has used music to chronicle his experiences with skin tone bias, penning a 2004 song called “Black Stacey” in which he recalls using bleaching cream to stop his peers from tormenting him because of his sable skin. And in a 2013 Huffington Post essay, Claudio E. Cabrera, now a digital strategist for the New York Times, described internalizing the racism he’d experienced as a dark-skinned Dominican-American. He used to deny that he was black, refused to date anyone dark, and relaxed his coarse hair. (Sosa appears to have manipulated his hair texture as well.) Cabrera also made a point to dress well to be called a “morenito fino,” a compliment Dominicans give to sharply dressed black men to suggest that they aren’t “typical blacks,” he explained.
“But what I always understood was that I couldn’t change my skin,” Cabrera wrote.
Sammy Sosa, to an extent, has found a way around that hurdle. And the multibillion-dollar skin-bleaching industry indicates that he’s hardly alone. For altering his complexion in a world that places a premium on light skin, he does not deserve laughter or scorn but compassion. Ridicule doesn’t serve the dark-skinned boys and girls dreaming of light skin because white supremacy has told them they should. Fighting beauty norms and deconstructing the colonialism that inspired them does.