“The Bleaching Syndrome” of Ronald E. Hall

Referring to my article on skin bleaching in this weblog series (see: http://www.colorfoundation.org/; weblog: november 12, 2008), I want to point out that skin bleaching is directly linked to problems related with skin color and racism. Departing from the dermatologist’s medical- biological viewpoint, Colorfoundation has called attention to this worldwide phenomenon of skin bleaching (see for additional information and our view on several aspects of skin color: http://www.colorfoundation.org/;  its weblog, archives and activities) and stressed the importance of side effects of the (mis)use of skin bleaching agents. Furthermore we also pointed to the lack of sociological and psychological research into this phenomenon.

            Ronald E. Hall ( Associate Professor in the School of Social Work, Michigan State University USA) places skin bleaching within a broad sociological, psychological and even historical concept which he designates “the bleaching syndrome”. He has first published his ideas in 1995.[1]  A recent outline of his interesting and thought provoking ideas can be found in chapter 2  of a book published in 2008, edited by Hall himself in which he has compiled papers by a diverse group of contributors to examine racism from an interdisciplinary perspective, however with the emphasis on the situation in the USA.[2]     

Getting a lighter skin is – according to Hall- not the only symptom of “the bleaching syndrome”, but just one of the symptoms or manifestations of a complex process. In terms of the driving force behind it, this syndrome can be seen as an attempt to assimilate. It is a self – denigrating process of orientation that requires a disparity of power of people. It is an essential fact of human experience anywhere in the world at any time in history, where a less powerful group must assimilate in a more powerful one, also at present time point in history, in post colonized societies. When applied to people of color, its existence is substantiated in a most dramatic fashion, for it is they who have had to idealize norms, which are often radically inconsistent with outward appearances. “The bleaching syndrome”, as said a wide concept, is regarding its manifestations not limited to (trying to get) a lighter skin color. It may exhibit itself in people of color also in their values, interaction styles, behavioural responses, language use and so forth. So because of its universality the term “the bleaching syndrome” as used by Hall can be seen as a metaphor.

            The scientific gain of the theory of Hall is that it places the whitening of the skin within a broad psychological and sociological framework, which is irrespective of time in history or place on earth. He confines himself to the description of the situation in the United States of America (probably because of the self imposed limitation of the content of his book). But it is indeed interesting to note that whitening of the skin is a common phenomenon nowadays in most if not all parts in the world where people live with a dark,  pigmented skin. This can be illustrated by 2 publications of Gomes and Westerhof (from Colorfoundation)  about the reasons behind the misuse of bleaching creams of women of color in Bangalore (India) and Amsterdam (Netherlands).[3] [4] These interesting papers, also discussing Hall’s view, can be found on the website of  Colorfoundation (see: http://www.colorfoundation.org/;  page: archives)

            Finally it is interesting to note that in his book Hall  also points out that skin color is relevant across the entire lifespan, as is known by all African –American social workers who are informed of issues significant to people of color. He further says that, despite this fact, according to the Social Work Abstracts database 1977- 2007, a minimum of articles has been published on “skin color” in the last thirty years. This statement can be considered no less than a provocative stimulus to enter the field of research on skin color, to fill up this scientific gap, and moreover to suggest practical solutions. But this is not an easy task, because the negative connotation of dark skin has a long history, possibly rooted in pre-historian time.[5]

Henk Menke




[1] Hall, R. (1995) The bleaching syndrome: African Americans´ response to cultural domination vis-a-vis skincolor. Journal of Black Studies, 26, 172-183.

 [2] Racism in in the 21st century, an empirical analysis of skin color. Ronald E. Hall, editor. 2008. Springer, New York. (see page 38 – 42 for “the bleaching syndrome”).

 [3] Gomes, P.D. and Westerhof, W. (2002) het gebruik van huidbleekmiddelen onder Indiase vrouwen in Bangalore.  Medische Anthropologie, 14, 353-374.

[4] Gomes, P.D. and Westerhof, W. (2000)  Het gebruik van chemische huidbleekmiddelen onder Ghanese vrouwen in Amsterdam-Zuidoost. Tijdschrift voor Genderstudies, 4, 20-33.

 [5] Westerhof, W. (2007) Evolutionary, biologic and social aspects of skin color. Dermatologic clinics, 25, issue 3, 293 -302)


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