Sammy Sosa is a Dominican former baseball player most famous for his time with the Chicago Cubs. He became the fifth player in Major League Baseball history to hit 600 home runs. He is also the only player to have ever hit at least 60 home runs in a single season for three different seasons.
He has had a pattern of odd stories throughout his public career, including having to miss games over a toenail and sneezing himself into back spasms. He was once ejected from a game and suspended for 8 more for using a corked bat, which are forbidden. He claimed he only used it for practice and had accidentally used it during the game.
He sort of retired at one point and then supposedly officially retired in 2008/2009. Then, in 2009 the odd took a turn.
Sosa showed up to an awards show looking pale, in a way that drew serious attention. This was not pale like he wasn’t feeling well, this was pale like, well, something else.
After his appearance drew significant attention he appeared on a Spanish TV show to set the record straight. He was not sick, he claimed to not have a problem with self-loathing (responding to accusations that his skin lightening was a result of colorism, a major problem in communities of color and in the Dominican community) and his appearance was not a result of his steroid use—oh yeah, he used steroids, too.
“It’s a bleaching cream that I apply before going to bed and whitens my skin,” he said, claiming that the cream was used to “soften” his skin. “I’m not a racist,” he added, “I live my life happily.”
He also claimed that the show’s lights exaggerated his appearance, making him look paler than he actually was.
Sosa has remained out of the spotlight since 2009, even remaining there when his former team, the Cubs, won the World Series in a major event last year.
Now, however, he’s back; and he’s, well, paler.
Sosa appeared on ESPN’s broadcast of the home run derby, looking not only paler than he ever has, but also sporting an entirely pink outfit that gave his now white skin a pink-ish tint.
The brilliant minds of Twitter were quick with comparisons to Pepto Bismol.
Sammy Sosa out here lookin like Pepto Bismal. pic.twitter.com/1xdKo84Bko
— OXTAIL GAWD (@ThatDudeMCFLY) July 13, 2017
While the immediate reaction from some is bemusement and amusement, the reaction from others is quite different.
Skin bleaching and lightening has long been a contentious subject in communities of color. In 2015, The Huffington Post reported that skin-bleaching was becoming a multi-billion dollar industry, in the US and around the world. In a similar category to perming one’s hair to straighten it or wearing a weave, skin whitening reminds us of the complex racial situation in our world, adding even more complexity as we evaluate not only the experience of being non-white, but the experience of being dark-or-light-skinned.
According to The Boston Globe, “the practice of whitening is prevalent in places where slavery and racism have deep roots…everywhere it is marketed, the proposition is the same; Darker skin is a problem and fairer skin the solution.”
The Globe adds that it is not, in reality, that darker skin is a problem in and of itself, but that it presents problems because of the legacy of racism and the inheritance we’ve gotten from slavery and oppressive social structures: Euro-centric beauty standards and the criminalization and demonization of darker skinned people.
Skin color, not just on the black and white bisection, but on the spectrum of hues, affects people all across their lives. Research has shown a wage gap between darker-skinned black people and lighter-skinned black people, with lighter-skinned people tending to make more money. Lighter-skinned black women tend to receive less harsh sentences in the justice system, including shorter sentences. Magazines continually face criticism not only for over-doing it when “thinning out” women’s bodies, but also for lightening people of color. And the people of color represented on television and in film, which is already at an uneven ratio with the representation of white people, tends to favor lighter-skinned performers.
It’s not as simple as beauty standards, however, with myths like the one from the trans-Atlantic slave trade claiming that darker-skinned people were stronger and therefore better suited for harder labor, leading to the common practice of having lighter-skinned slaves work in the houses and darker-skinned ones work in the fields. “If you were lighter than a brown paper bag you obtained light-skin privileges, and if you were darker, bore the social disadvantages of being darker-skinned.”
Other parts of the world where European colonization and slavery have not necessary affected racial and color ideas, have a different relationship with skin-tone. In some parts of East Asia like Japan or China, historically those with paler skin were known to be higher class because they did not have to labor outdoors in the sun.
In 2016, rapper Lil Kim also drew attention and criticism for her new appearance, pale white skin and bleached blonde hair. She was unrecognizable when you added in some extensive plastic surgery.
She came out pretty directly in breaking down exactly what about our society led her to make her decisions to change her appearance so drastically. “All my life men have told me I wasn’t pretty enough—even the men I was dating…it’s always been men putting me down just like my dad…Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How can I compete with that?’ being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.”
Her explanation is reminiscent of Sosa’s, in that she’s almost describing an act of self-care or self-love, in that she identified what she believed would make her happier and she made it happen. Sosa’s statement about his skin was adamant that it wasn’t about self-hatred.
Stars like Michael Jackson have faced similar controversy, often with the murky explanations revealing the deeply divided mentality surrounding skin-lightening. Though many believe Jackson was intentionally lightening his skin, in addition to whittling down his wide-set nose, he claimed that it was due to a dermatological illness. It’s possible it was; but, it raised the same discussion that Sosa and Kim have brought into the spotlight.