Color-Struck

You may recall this not-altogether bygone American cultural oddity even though aeons have lapsed since the 1960s.

     You may recall thinking, How Ironic!  after a day at the beach or the summer club watching white people slather on the Coppertone, white folks who’d no sooner fraternize with black people than they’d volunteer for the first moon shot. And yet they wanted to tan as dark as they might.

     I certainly remember. I remember in particular a day at the club when I was in my early teens and my sister wasn’t yet five–this would’ve been, say, ’65. Our father, watching us swim at the pool’s edge, was asked by a woman if he’d allow my sister to “…marry a Negro.” I don’t know in what context she asked him the question. I just remember being stung by her accusing tone and I remember what I wanted my dad to say. My father’s reply, “…if she loved him and if he were a good man, of course…” didn’t so much infuriate the woman–though it did–as it struck her as ludicrous, impossible. She said, with an air of smug assurance if not contempt, that, No; my father would definitely not permit it. Dad tried again and got the same response. I’m pretty sure we didn’t return to that club the following summer.

     I’m reminded of the incident as I recall, too, a New York Times piece, “An Herbal Alternative to Creams for Pale Skin”, was test-marketed in Taiwan. It interested me because among the many cultural oddities I found in China when I taught on the mainland was the fairly well standard sense that most of my grad students had that for women, the paler the better. They’d freely share their conviction that darker Chinese were inferior to lighter comrades. I heard numbers of conversations about this because among my top students was a Ms. Zhang Ying, from Xin-Jiang Province in the west of the country. She was often teased by young Han men and women. Han, the dominant Chinese ethnicity, tend to be much lighter-skinned than was Zhang. She, no pushover, would often handle such men with her fists and yet the talk would persist sub-rosa.

     The Taiwanese researchers want an herbal remedy to darker skin because commercial creams, still very popular, can cause itching and worse, particularly those containing steroids or mercury. Don’t Try This At Home:  mercury’s a poison. The Times reported that an ancient Chinese herb used in traditional Chinese medicine might allow those in search of snowy white skin a way to inhibit the production of melanin. Melanin, of course, is what naturally darkens skin. The herb is a cousin of cinnamon and blocks tyrosinase. Tyrosinase  “generates melanin”. The researchers have tested the chemical–on zebra fish–and find that melanin production is cut by half in four days.

                       Stripe-less Zebra Fish!

     The scientists are quick to add that just because zebra fish (even embryos!) turn white doesn’t mean humans (or their embryos) will. Nor do they say it’s at all safe. Testing went forward, though, with funds from the Taiwanese government and, of course, from major cosmetic companies.

     See: I should somehow find that color-struck woman from that ancient ’60s summer, give her (and her progeny) the Good News, and convince her, even now, to volunteer for the human-testing. I’ll tell her it’s both an anti-aging cream and a new and improved Coppertone.

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