When Amira Adawe learned about the toxic chemicals in skin-lightening products, while studying at the University of Minnesota, she flashed back to the damage she’d seen radiating across the skin of friends and family members back in Mogadishu, Somalia. In 2000, Adawe had moved to Minnesota, where she realized “whiteners” were still widely and secretively used among immigrant communities. She now teaches public health at the U of M and has advocated against skin lightening for about 10 years.
With a Bush Foundation grant, Adawe recently visited Dubai to interview dealers and manufacturers. “They’re still using a narrative that, if they’re dark-skinned, they’re not good enough,” she says. Their main target: low-income communities rife with colorism—whether Black, Asian, Latinx, or Middle Eastern. Discrimination against darker skin is “inherited from the colonizers,” Adawe notes, “but it’s become part of the culture.”
As founder and executive director of the Beautywell Project, Adawe successfully petitioned Amazon last summer to take down more than a dozen skin-lightening creams in egregious violation of the country’s parts-per-million mercury limit. (Some contained almost 100,000 parts of the harmful chemical; the legal allowance is 1.) As host of a no-holds-barred, deeply vulnerable radio program about skin lightening, on Minneapolis’ KALY station, Adawe has also revealed the stakes beyond physical health: the self-actualization and self-love of young people of color.
What is your own experience with colorism?
Colorism is very impactful, especially when you’re young and everybody around you is commenting on your skin color all the time. I’m a different shade than the rest of my family, so when I was young, people visiting us would always comment on my skin color and say [to my mother], ‘Where did you find her? She looks so different.’ I remember my mother jumping in and saying, ‘Oh, don’t say that about my daughter. She’s very beautiful.’ My mother made sure that I saw better things in life than just skin color, so she always made us love education, and learn, and become good humans that contribute to society. I was so lucky that I had such a protective mother. Colorism did not leave me with lasting damage, but it really impacted me in how I view the world.
For three years, you’ve hosted a radio show on the KALY station, interviewing people about skin lightening. What has surprised you?
I remember one day, a woman called and talked about how it’s so hard for her, when she’s cooking—that she can’t even cook anymore, because of how her skin has become so sensitive, by using this skin-lightening product, that her face becomes so red. And I told her, ‘Have you thought about any plan of stopping this, so you heal from this? Not only your skin, externally, but also internal?’ And she said—she said this in Somali—‘My biggest fear is that my husband might leave me for a lighter-skinned woman.’ And that really stayed with me. It was such a sad thing, for a human to risk their life using these toxic products, thinking that their spouse might one day leave them.
Tell me about your work with young women.
One of the things I learned through research is that young women of color, especially young East African girls, experience so many identity issues. People bully them based on their skin color—and their religion, as well, so they have multiple types of bullying happening. Some of them even told me their mother would say, ‘Oh, you are so dark, who’s going to marry you? You need to start using these products early.’ Because of the self-esteem impact, it engages some of them in risk behaviors, like substance use, or, for some of them, even sex trafficking.
We’ve designed a program called the Young Women’s Wellness and Leadership Initiative. We recruit young girls between the ages of 14 and 18, from public schools and charter schools. And they go through 18-week, designed sessions. We match them with women of color who look like them, who are in a leadership position to mentor them. For their final project, we have them present to leaders. With our last cohort, we had them present to city council members, and then we introduce them to their legislators. Basically, it’s a comprehensive program to build their identity, teach them their history, and build their wellness and leadership.
What is the link between the George Floyd protests and activism against skin lightening?
I’ve been doing this work for 10 years, but I have never seen the global attention that this issue got this past summer. Because of Black Lives Matter and what’s happened to George Floyd, cosmetic companies started reflecting. They have been hearing from us for many, many, many years. They know that skin lightening is a problem, colorism is a problem. The Black Lives Matter movement has amplified our voices for the last 10 years, and now that it’s international, that triggered these companies to think about what they have been doing. Some companies, like Johnson & Johnson, were very proactive in deciding to end this altogether. However, some other cosmetic companies, what they did was, ‘Yes, there’s racial inequity, so we want to tell the world and our consumers that we care about them, so now what we will do is tell you that we will just change the name—from Fair & White to Whitening,’ which basically is the same concept.
So, some of them are continuing to sell these products, and are just a little bit changing the name, but the concept of colorism is still in there, and that’s how they’re making money. Some of these companies have been manufacturing these products for more than 40 years. And so, for them to really stop altogether, it’s going to take many, many years. And that is why this issue is not a one-approach issue; it has to have multiple approaches. Healing communities, educating communities, and also dealing with governments, to regulate these products, but also teaching these cosmetic companies their social responsibility.