The desire ‘to be black’—vividly expressed in white people’s relationship to black music and dance—may well inform the fashion for tanning, but the point about tanning is that the white person never does become black. A tanned white person is just that—a white person who has acquired a darker skin. There is no loss of prestige in this. On the contrary, not only does he or she retain the signs of whiteness (suggesting, once again, that skin colour is not really just a matter of the colour of skin), not only does tanning bespeak a wealth and life style largely at white people’s disposition, but it also displays white people’s rights to be various, literally to incorporate into themselves features of other people.
Black people’s use of skin lighteners are not so positively viewed. Like tanning, these are harmful, but unlike tanning their harmfulness is stressed as a terrible warning to black people who try to be various. As with tanning, a black person who uses lighteners does not succeed in passing him or herself off as a member of another race—but unlike tanning, this is presumed to be the aim of their use, and the failure to achieve this aim is a source of ridicule. […] Few things have delighted the white press as much as the disfigurement of Michael Jackson’s face through what have been supposed to be his attempts to become white.