The Politics of Sunblock

By Renée Sylvestre-Williams

I recently tweeted that I wore sunblock for three reasons: Vanity, health and post-colonialism. Then I took a moment to actually read what I wrote and then I looked at my coffee table and saw the following:

Roc’s Soleil Protexion+ in SPF 60

Neutrogena UltraSheer Dry Touch in SPF 45

Clinique Body Creme in SPF 30

and Lubriderm Moisturizer with Sunscreen in SPF 15

To say I’m slightly obsessed with sunblock is a bit of an understatement. I’ve been wearing sunblock religiously since I was 18 years old. Prior to that it was only when I was going to the beach and then my mother would slather it on us before letting us run wild on the beaches of Mayaro or Maracas.

Even now, as some friends hit the shelves for self-tanner or the beach for the actual tan, I’m checking my shoulders after a day out to ensure I didn’t get tan lines.

I started wearing sunblock for three reasons. The first is thanks to magazines that said that the sun ages you. I’m vain enough to not want to be wrinkled so I slather it on every day – even in winter.

The second reason is skin cancer. My grandmother told me that she was a redhead – which is slightly suspicious as she also told me she didn’t remember her original hair colour. My mother and brother were strawberry blondes when they were children and my sister used to burn and peel if she got too much sun. While it is less likely that people of colour will get skin cancer, it does happen. (pdf file)

Somewhere in my mind that meant I had to protect myself just in case. After all, you never know.

I also eyeball my moles suspiciously every time spring rolls around.

The third reason, and I’m not proud to admit this, is that I don’t want to get any darker. I’ve never consciously thought of this, but I’ve realized I’ve absorbed some colonialist (post-colonial?) thinking while growing up in Trinidad.

I once tried to explain to a friend that it’s not just black/white/indian/etc. It’s the shades of colour that matter as well. The lighter you were, the better jobs you could get or the better social connections – ie. marriage – you could make. Of course, money and class played a role, but the shade of brown helped as well.

My grandmother grew up during the British colonization of Trinidad. She was half-black and half-Portuguese. My grandfather, her husband, was of East Indian descent. While I wouldn’t call Granny racist, she was definitely affected by colonialism. I remember one Sunday I was driving to my uncle’s. We were on the road, I was doing 80 km and we were chatting – probably about dating, I’m not sure. Granny  turned to me and said, “I don’t want you dating a black man.”

My immediate response was, “Ok, you realize you’re half-black, right?”

“That’s neither here nor there,” she said as we drove down Derry road on our way to Mississauga.

“Uh. I don’t know what to say and right now I’m driving. Let’s not discuss this,” was my weak response.

Was it racist? Yes. While I hesitate to sound like I’m justifying why she said what she said, I understood  where Granny was coming from. Here was an 80-something (at the time) woman who had grown up when the British ruled the country which meant a colour hierarchy was in place. In her own way, Granny was trying to ensure that any children I had would have the ‘advantage’ of having light skin.

It was a small moment in an enclosed space but it summed up the convoluted history of Trinidad, race and the colour hierarchy.

So what does that mean now? Well, I still wear sunblock primarily because I don’t want to get wrinkles, but every time I slather myself that conversation pops into my head.

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