Jamaicans 'go white' in the painful pursuit of success

With A Rasta Barbie doll on sale for the first time this Christmas, one might well think black pride's work was finally done. The growing popularity of an altogether different product in Jamaica tells another tale.

Convinced that the only way to get on is to "go white", growing numbers of Jamaicans are using powerful creams to bleach their skin. Good jobs and social status are held up as the rewards fair skin can secure, and the risk of permanent skin damage or even blindness is not enough to stop the craze spreading from the poor to all sections of society. Horribly disfigured faces are becoming a common sight. There is equal concern for the damage being done to black identity.

A short stroll from the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston stands a billboard advertising Ambi, one of many products on sale over the counter in small stores and pharmacies; home-made mixes are available on the roadside. The creams promise to smooth blemishes away. In practice, they are being used as a crude short cut to the Michael Jackson effect, by people for whom being black spells failure.

Karen Brown, 25 and unemployed, has been applying the cream daily for months. "I have nothing to lose," she says. "I'm black and poor, and if I don't use the cream, I'll stay black and poor." The burning sensation is painful, the process is costly, "but now I have the cream, I might end up light-skinned and make a success of my ." This view has been common in South Africa, where the creams have long been used. But it has not afflicted Jamaica before.

Joy Crooks, a psychiatric nurse in Montego Bay, says: "Patients describe a successful person as 'European' or 'fair'. Ask them to represent failure and they see black."

More than 90 per cent of Jamaicans are black, but the country only elected its first black prime minister at the last election. Most successful businessmen, such as the flamboyant Gordon "Butch" Stewart, are white. Successful men usually marry lighter-skinned women.

"We are still riding on racial stereotypes that have existed since slavery," says a sociology lecturer at the University of the West Indies, Barry Chevannes.

"The girls, they just love you," shrugs Roger Campbell, a young Kingston man who has recently begun using the cream. "They see light skin, they think you got money."

The skin creams work by bleaching out pigmentation. Few are licensed in Jamaica, yet they are on sale on every street. Dermatologist Dr Neil Persaudsingh, reports a dramatic rise in the number of cases where the bleach has left faces permanently blotchy and disfigured.

One beauty salon owner reports customers "looking like the walking dead". Their idol is not Bob Marley, but the young black queen of popular dancehall culture, Carlene. She has fair skin and bleached blonde hair.