Spray tanning perpetuates racism, white hypocrisy


Illustration by Nora Miller

Saskia Teterycz, Assistant Opinion Editor

In the summertime, as some white people achieve dark tans and others burn up from sun exposure, a spectacle is made out of comparing two white arms at opposite ends of the complexion spectrum.

This summer, I began to be more conscious of how my white peers began throwing around this idea of wanting darker skin very loosely, completely disregarding the history behind it. I saw photos of white friends showing off their absurdly dark and artificial spray tans garnering horrified reactions from Snapchat voyeurs. I started thinking more deeply about this idea of white people and our obsession with wanting to achieve darker skin. 

A few years ago in 2016, a Swedish spray tan company Emmatan, was accused of selling “blackface in a bottle”. The company showed models comparing their skin before and after using the products. Pale complexions were transformed into extremely dark skin tones making the models’ skin appear to be that of a black person. For the past 25 years, particularly with the rise of social media, it seems like white people have become increasingly obsessed with black culture. Trying to “talk” black and “act” black. Now we’re trying to look black too. Stemming from cultural appropriation like wearing historically black hairstyles (dreadlocks and cornrows) and copying black art (rap and hip hop) without paying homage to its origin, acquiring a darker skin tone is just another step in the steady pursuit of being “black without the burden.”

Junior Mika Parisien comments on what being black without the burden means to her. “I think that being black without the burden means just solely having dark skin and not the history behind all of it and not feeling like you have to worry about stereotypes and how society views black skin and dark skin,” Parisien says. “[Black without burden means] Being able to wake up in the morning and not having to worry about your skin or having to face the struggles that black people face every day.”

However, white society hasn’t always viewed dark skin as the ideal standard of beauty. In an interview with The New Yorker about the Ancient Greeks’s values on beauty, Vinzez Brinkmann of Ludwig Maximilian University describes that the Ancient Greeks and Romans ravished pale-skinned girls. Endless poetry, texts and artworks make it clear these ancient civilizations found white, pale skin attractive. Not only was it thought to be more beautiful, but in the Medieval period, the lighter one’s complexion, the richer they were assumed to be. It showed that they weren’t out in the sun performing laborious work. 

During the European Renaissance, white men and women feared the sun, doing whatever they could to shield their skin and maintain their pale complexions. Many went so far as to paint their skin with whitening compounds, many of which contained lead bases that deteriorated the skin cells and  resulted in many deaths.

For over 400 years during the transatlantic slave trade, European colonizers raided the African continent and stole its people to sell them into bondage as slaves in the New World.  Degraded and thought of as profitable since the early days of our country’s founding, people of African descent were persecuted for their dark complexions and and mocked with blackface and other popular racist caricatures that transcended centuries of American entertainment and media. 

Despite a history of mocking and  persecuting Blackness, white people seem strangely obsessed with Black skin. We admire and compliment other white people for the depth of our coppertone tans and the disappearance of any tan lines to make our overall tone look more ‘natural’. 

Now, instead of lightening our skin with lead paint, white people pay thousands of dollars on the tanning industry, securing memberships at clubs and salons where we can lie on a tanning bed or spray our entire bodies brown and apply self tanning lotions without so much as a glance at the warning labels.

Parisien addresses her stance on the implications of spray tanning and what the idea signifies for her as a person of color. 

“Me being somebody who does have a lot of white peers, I do notice that there is this kind of like fetish for having darker skin especially during the summer, everyone wants to be tan everyone wants to be darker.” Parisien goes on to explain “that a lot of times for prom or special occasions, white people will get spray tans because they want to look ‘better’ so they want to look beautiful by having darker skin when society can’t even see people with darker skin as beautiful so it’s kind of as if you’re using my skin tone to make you look better when society can’t even see me as beautiful.”

Black and brown people are turned away from jobs because of their skin color. In the United States, from Oakland to Ferguson to New York, Black and brown men can be shot and killed for simply going about their daily lives in their black skin. 

So if white people have prided themselves for centuries because of their light skin tone – why do we all of a sudden have this desire for dark skin? When spray tanning is practiced, it makes it okay for white people to achieve a ‘black look’ but does nothing to address the racism that black people experience as a result of actually looking and being black. Spray tanning is one example of this kind of racial hypocrisy; this privilege that white people have of being “black without the burden” – the burden of hundreds of years of living under threat for having black skin. 

Once you give money to an industry like spray tanning or other self tanners, it’s almost as if the entire history of black face and the ridicule of black people is washed away for your own personal benefit of wanting to look darker without having to be black. You can’t help it if you get a summer tan, but going out of your way for spray tanning and self tanner has deeper roots that white people cannot simply ignore.