Autry Discusses the Use of Skin-Bleaching Agents During Luncheon Talk for Staff

robyn autry

Robyn Autry, associate professor of sociology, spoke on “Bleach, and Other Performance Enhancing Drugs” as part of Wesleyan’s staff luncheon series Nov. 17.

While it’s considered acceptable, or even expected, for women to cover fine lines and wrinkles with makeup, creams, injectables, or undergo cosmetic procedures like facelifts as they age, the idea of altering skin tone—especially for Black and brown people who are the most likely to face colorism—is a newer, and oddly popular, skincare craze.

“For [some] Black people it’s not about whether our skin is dewy, glowing, or glassy, or whether we’re trying to conceal acne scars or minimize the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. It’s about whether we’re trying to appear closer to white,” said Robyn Autry, associate professor of sociology.

Autry, a critical sociologist, is an expert on topics related to racial identity, Blackness, and memory studies. On Nov. 17, she delivered a talk titled “Bleach, and Other Performance Enhancing Drugs” as part of Wesleyan’s staff luncheon series.

The face-whitening trend is booming in America, especially among Black celebrities. Autry showed “before and after” images of professional baseball player Sammy Sosa; model Blac Chyna; and musical artists Beyonce, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj—all of whom have been accused of transforming their dark skin to light brown or even white. Their bright faces are frequently framed by silky blonde hair.

Sammy Sosa

Sammy Sosa, then and now.

Dominican Republic native Sammy Sosa, in particular, “has always stood out to me not for his athletic ability but for his open embrace of skin bleaching and other modifications to his hair texture and eye color,” Autry said. “A couple of years after he retired in 2009 some commented on his lighter complexion, but it would be several more years before he reappeared at the 10-year anniversary of his retirement looking undeniably bleached out. Sosa admitted to using bleaching creams; he used them every night to soften his skin, and they happened to also lighten it.”

Blac Chyna

Blac Chyna models for Whitenicious’ Diamond Illuminating and Lightening facial cream.

Similarly defiant, entertainer Blac Chyna received public slack after endorsing a new product line called Whitenicious in Nigeria.

“Many of her fans and other observers felt betrayed and insulted by the blatant disavowal of dark skin as a problem to be treated or corrected. Others saw it as a money grab noting that it’ll cost you $250 to get a 3.5-ounce jar of the signature lightening cream,” Autry said.

Sammy Sosa and Blac Chyna, along with a handful of other celebrities like rapper Azealia Banks who compared whitening her skin to wearing a weave, stand out “because they neither deny nor apologize for desiring lightened complexions. And Black people are not expected to admit to skin bleaching let alone desire it,” Autry said.

Blackness, Autry says, carries with it a demand for the truth, a claim to authenticity that is wrapped up in notions of being and looking natural. She wonders if a natural skin movement will follow in the footsteps of the recent natural hair movement. “Will I one day proudly declare ‘Oh, I wear my skin natural.’ What would that mean? No concealer? No more cat eyes?”

Several of Autry’s comments brought chuckles to the 50 staff members in attendance. And she also led a Q&A following the talk. Others continued to discuss the idea of skin-bleaching after the event.

“Professor Autry was engaging and funny, and it seemed clear that she was eager to share her insights. It was such a compelling new set of ideas and I left curious to know more,” said Anne Marcotty, senior designer in University Communications. “I was interested to learn that there is a social shame (judgment) associated with skin bleaching similar to steroid use in athletes, which suggests that there’s a belief that making one’s skin lighter is akin to cheating. It made me wonder about the nature of cultural meaning, and how deeply ingrained certain beliefs/prejudices are, for instance, the way white people getting a tan has changed meaning as labor and leisure practices have changed over time.”

Autry noted that America’s desire for liquid bleach skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Clorox ranked No. 1 in the 2020 Axios Harris Poll that ranks corporate reputations. Of course, the bleaching agents used to whiten skin are different from the ones used to whiten laundry and disinfect counters and floors. Whitening face creams contain hydroquinone—a topical skin-bleaching agent, which was banned from over-the-counter beauty products in the U.S. in 2020. Nevertheless, Vogue estimates that by 2027, the skin whitening industry is projected to be worth more than $27 billion dollars.

“What’s more important to me is that the word ‘bleach’ and ‘bleaching’ is used to talk about skin lightening,” Autry said. “Many people view bleach as the ‘gold standard’ for household cleaning of all sorts, and not just during pandemics. Bleach has corrosive properties and has also been linked to a number of health concerns from skin irritation to respiratory illness.”

Skin “bleachers,” then, are in a way “enhancing their performances by scrubbing themselves clean,” she said. “Or that’s the idea anyway.”


Fifty staff members attended Autry’s talk.

Blumel, Nam Write Paper on Quantum Physics

Reinhold Blumel, Charlotte Augusta Ayres Professor of Physics, recently co-authored a paper in Nature called “Power-optimal, stabilized entangling gate between trapped-ion qubits.” Yunseong Nam, one of the other co-authors, worked with Blumel as a graduate student.

Blumel’s contributions to this paper stem from his connections to IonQ, a technology company for quantum computing. Nam is now the company’s chief theorist.

Papers by STEM Faculty Padilla-Benavides, Bryant Published

Raquel Bryant

Raquel Bryant

Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Raquel Bryant and Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Teresita Padilla-Benavides are two women in STEM whose work has recently been highlighted in national science journals.

Bryant, who will join the Wesleyan faculty in July 2022, co-wrote a paper titled “Microfossil and geochemical records reveal high-productivity paleoenvironments in the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway during Oceanic Anoxic Event 2” that will be in the December volume of Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. Her work has also been featured as a Research Highlight in Nature Reviews Earth and Environment.

Padilla-Benavides recently co-wrote an article titled “The mitochondrially-localized nucleoside diphosphate kinase D (NME4) is a novel metastasis suppressor” alongside Alyssa Carlson ’21. Their work was published in BMC Biology on October 21. Carlson, who graduated in the spring, won the 2021 Wesleyan Butterfield Prize and the 2021 Wesleyan Hawk Prize.

Teresita Padilla-Benavides

Teresita Padilla-Benavides

In addition, Padilla-Benavides worked with students Lily Barnes ’22, Joshua Grajales ’24, and Jocelyn Valasquez Baez ’23 on an article about STEM education. The article, titled “Impact of professional and scientific societies’ student chapters on the development of underrepresented undergraduate students,” was accepted for publication on Oct. 15 by Frontiers.

“Undergraduate students from historically underrepresented groups (URG) in institutions of higher education with a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers often lack the support, resources, and community necessary to succeed in their desired fields,” the abstract reads. “Through mentoring, webinars, seminars, and various research presentation opportunities, national societies and “locally-based” institutional student chapters provide atmospheres in which URG undergraduates can develop the skills required for academic and professional careers in STEM. In addition, national societies and student chapters contribute to outreach activities aimed towards the public in order to foster interest in STEM, as well as to primary and secondary school students to help them develop competency in skills and areas that lead to successful STEM careers.”

Padilla-Benavides and the students also delve into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on community building through such societal chapters.

“Though the conditions were challenging, they allowed for new perspectives on problem-solving in the face of adversity,” the abstract reads. “The pandemic promoted the development of creative ways by which institutions and national societies could continue to educate students virtually.”

Poulos Authors 3 New Environmental-Themed Papers

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Helen Poulos recently co-authored three new papers:

Wildfire and topography drive woody plant diversity in a Sky Island mountain range in the Southwest USA,” published in Ecology and Evolution on Oct. 5.

Choked out: Battling invasive giant cane along the Rio Grande/ Bravo Borderlands,” published in River Research and Applications on Sept. 20.

And “Mixed-severity wildfire as a driver of vegetation change in an Arizona Madrean Sky Island System, USA,” written alongside Michael Freiburger ’21 and published in Fire on Oct. 20.

Poulos’s research focuses on plant distribution patterns as a result of the influences of natural and anthropogenic disturbances on the levels of local, landscape, and regional. She also studies these patterns through plant ecophysiology, biogeochemistry, and community ecology.

Researchers Create New Collaborative to Guide Effective Health Communications

Erika Franklin Fowler is professor of government and the director of the Wesleyan Media Project.

News media, advertising, and other messaging can be important tools in promoting a healthy and equitable society. The COVID-19 pandemic shows just how catastrophic the consequences can be when a communication crisis is added to a health crisis.

Wesleyan’s Erika Franklin Fowler, Steven Moore and Laura Baum are launching the Collaborative on Media & Messaging for Health and Social Policy (COMM) to help. In summarizing their research—including more than a decade’s worth of health-related advertising and news coverage on childhood vaccinations, the Affordable Care Act, education, paid leave, and health equity—they find some broad takeaways.

For example, according to COMM, the federal government’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic was a textbook example of what not to do when talking about complex health issues. The early missteps in communication and politicization of messaging created an environment where the safety and efficacy of life-saving vaccines was called into question.

Jacobsen Honored for Furthering the Status of Women in Economics

Joyce Jacobsen

Joyce Jacobsen, Andrews Professor of Economics, Emerita, is the recipient of the 2021 Carolyn Shaw Bell Award presented by the American Economic Association.

For her efforts furthering the status of women in the economics profession through example, achievements, and mentoring, the American Economic Association’s Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession (CSWEP) is honoring Joyce Jacobsen with the 2021 Carolyn Shaw Bell Award.

Jacobsen, who retired from Wesleyan in 2019, is the Andrews Professor of Economics, Emerita. She’s the current president—and the first woman to serve as president—of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

“When I think of Joyce’s presence and impact at Wesleyan, the words ‘energetic,’ ‘disciplined,’ ‘innovative,’ and ‘supportive’ come immediately to mind,” said Gil Skillman, professor and chair of economics. “She was astonishingly productive and effective here as a teacher, scholar, and colleague, and later, as an administrator. She also was consistently supportive of both colleagues and students, acting as an ombudsperson for students (especially female economics majors) and investing considerable time and effort in encouraging and assisting the research endeavors of colleagues.”

Jacobsen completed an A.B. degree in economics at Harvard University, an M.Sc. degree in economics at the London School of Economics, and a PhD in economics at Stanford University. She spent most of her career at Wesleyan, joining the faculty in 1993 after five years at Rhodes College.

Ohmann Remembered For Transforming University Life and Culture


Richard Ohmann. (Photos courtesy of Special Collections & Archives)

Richard Ohmann, Benjamin Waite Professor of the English Language, Emeritus, died Oct. 8 at the age of 90.

Ohmann received his BA from Oberlin College and his MA and PhD from Harvard University. He arrived at Wesleyan in 1961 and, until his retirement in 1996, served in many roles and helped to shape the future of Wesleyan.

Joel Pfister, Olin Professor of English, sketched Ohmann’s trajectory: “He was promoted rapidly to full professor; was appointed vice president and provost; protested on national TV against the Vietnam War; was elected vice president of the Modern Language Association (MLA) on an antiwar platform; founded with some other lefty luminaries the fabulous journal Radical Teacher; completely freaked out English departments everywhere with his powerful and hugely influential Marxist critique of the reigning constructions of the field in English in America (1976); and went on to write several more field-changing books (one with his friend Noam Chomsky), including Politics of Letters (1987) and Selling Culture (1996).”

Henry Abelove, Willbur Fisk Osborne Professor of English, Emeritus, commented: “No one did more than he to guide Wesleyan in absorbing the best of the lessons of the social movements of the 1960s.”

Tan Authors Book on Chinese Power Development During Revolution and War

tan book Assistant Professor of History Ying Jia Tan authored a new book titled Recharging China in War and Revolution, 1882-1955, already available as an e-book and soon to be available in hardcover, beginning Oct. 15. The work, published by Cornell University Press, explores Chinese power consumption and electrical development throughout seventy-three years of war and revolution.

According to the book’s abstract:

Tan traces this history from the textile-factory power shortages of the late Qing, through the struggle over China’s electrical industries during its civil war, to the 1937 Japanese invasion that robbed China of 97 percent of its generative capacity.

Along the way, he demonstrates that power industries became an integral part of the nation’s military-industrial complex, showing how competing regimes asserted economic sovereignty through the nationalization of electricity. Based on a wide range of published records, engineering reports, and archival collections in China, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States, Recharging China in War and Revolution, 1882-1955 argues that, even in times of peace, the Chinese economy operated as though still at war, constructing power systems that met immediate demands but sacrificed efficiency and longevity.

At Wesleyan, Tan’s research primarily focuses on the history of energy development in China. He studies this subject in relation to environmental history, technology, and cartography. This semester, Tan is teaching HIST 223: Traditional China: Eco-Civilization and Its Discontents and HIST 362: Issues in Contemporary Historiography.

Wesleyan Participates in Efforts to Protect Visiting Scholars

Henry Meriki

Henry Meriki

One day, back in 2019, three armed men came to Henry Dilonga Meriki’s house. He knew why they were there—they needed money to keep the fight against the Cameroon government going, or, they’d resort to kidnapping him. Anticipating the worst, Meriki put on warm clothes and shoes that would allow him to walk miles into the bush to their camps.

They were separatists, a group of English-speaking fighters who have been battling with the government of Cameroon for over five years.

He gave them about $180—down from $1,100 they asked for—to let him go. “We had to negotiate, and it’s better to negotiate with them because if you report them to the military, they can become violent,” said Meriki.

Academics like Meriki are a desirable and lucrative target. “So many of my colleagues have been kidnapped. Others have been killed for not respecting the rules of not teaching or not going to school,” said Meriki, a visiting assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry.

People from both sides were watching. Meriki had been warned not to teach on Mondays or to work at the local hospital, where he served as a laboratory scientist. The Anglophone separatists had called a “ghost town” for Mondays—in solidarity with their leaders in detention and to showcase the crises to the international community.

Residents of the Anglophone regions in Cameroon are careful to respect “ghost town” days. No social or economic activities are allowed. Disobeying these orders can attract retaliation from the separatist fighters. For many of the supporters of the resistance, it was presumed that people who traveled or disrespected these orders sympathized or were working with the government.

It was, for most residents, an impossible situation. “You have to sit on the fence because you must mind who you have a conversation with. That is how people survived in that area,” Meriki said.

In order to escape the danger, Meriki joined the Wesleyan faculty this Fall through the Scholar Rescue Fund, an international organization committed to protecting intellectuals. The Institute for International Education (IIE), an independent non-profit organization, started the fund in 2002 to formalize its commitment to protecting the lives, voices, and ideas of scholars around the globe.

Since 2002, the program has placed 925 scholars from 60 countries into 425 colleges and universities across the globe. Meriki will be at Wesleyan for at least a year. This is Wesleyan’s first time participating in the program.

Stephen Angle, Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies and director of the Fries Center for Global Studies, approached the University administration two years ago with a desire to participate in this program. “What we do, fundamentally as an educational institution is to promote the ability to speak, write, and research freely. Academic freedom lies at the core of what we do,” Angle said.

Some academics are persecuted based on their beliefs or the nature of their research. Many others, like Meriki, are harassed because of their ethnic identities. “It is not ideas that they are always after. It can literally be the individual,” Angle said.

The conflict between English-speaking Cameroonians and the French-speaking government dates back to the end of colonial rule six decades ago. Over time, the French-speaking government sought to remove what was left of Anglophone culture, putting unjust laws in place.

The latest violence stemmed back to 2016 when lawyers went on strike to prevent the changes to the judicial system that would conduct all court cases in French, regardless of whether the accused and judicial officers speak the language. Teachers joined the strike shortly afterward to protest similar prohibitions in the classroom. “In the beginning, it was a peaceful protest,” Meriki said.

Government troops attacked protestors, killing an undetermined number, sparking further armed conflict. Meriki’s neighborhood quickly became a war zone. It was one of the few areas through which the Anglophone separatists could strike at government forces and retreat back into the bush. Machine guns were poised directly behind his home. He routinely heard gunfire and saw bodies in the street.

Meriki applied to the program in 2019, but the global pandemic and the closure of consulates and embassies around the world made it extremely difficult to get a visa. Now that he’s on campus, he will be given opportunities to teach, continue his research, and network with other academics.

Despite Wesleyan’s intervention, Meriki’s future is uncertain. At the moment his family is safe, away from the violence but threatened given the uncertainty. He misses them, but chats with them every day. “I am only praying that they continue to remain safe until the day they can join me here,” he said.

Ideally, he hopes the violence calms down and he can return safely to Cameroon. He wants to help rebuild the country. He wants to perform research that would help improve the health of his fellow Cameroonians, for example, he is already learning COVID-19 protocols at Wesleyan that would be helpful back home.

“This has been a welcoming place. Donald (Oliver, chair, molecular biology and biochemistry) has been helpful from the first day I got in. So has every other member of the department and human resources. They have helped me settle in,” said Meriki.

Meriki will hopefully be the first of many visiting scholars coming to Wesleyan from the world’s hotspots. Angle said the university is currently working with the organization Scholars at Risk to bring an Afghan academic and their family to Wesleyan. The timing of their arrival on campus is unknown, Angle said. “We are in a place of privilege and should be trying to do what we can in collaboration with similar institutions,” Angle said.

Cho to Join Washington Research Consortium on Korea

Joan Cho

Joan Cho

As a newly-selected non-resident adjunct fellow for the Washington Research Consortium on KoreaJoan Cho hopes to showcase South Korea’s democratization through a new scholarly book tentatively titled, Dictator’s Modernity Dilemma: Development and Democracy in South Korea, 1961-1987.

Cho, assistant professor of East Asian Studies, will participate in the multi-year laboratory research project until 2024 through the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The project, titled “The South Korean Pathway: Understanding the Theoretical and Policy Significance of Korean Democracy and Foreign Policy,” will conduct an in-depth analysis of South Korea’s democracy and foreign policy to fill an important gap in the U.S. and European political science literature.

“Current literature overlooks the importance of Asian cases and to the extent that the political science literature uses Asian cases, these are overwhelmingly focused on using the China case to explain why Asia does not fit into mainstream theorizing,” Cho explained.

Feller Pens Article Analyzing New Jewish Museum in Israel

Jeremy Zwelling Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies and Assistant Professor of Religion Yaniv Feller penned an article over the summer titled “Too Good to be True?” for the Tel Aviv Review of Books.

In the piece, Feller discusses the Museum of the Jewish People (ANU), which first opened March 2021. One of the museum’s main exhibits begins with a segment called “Mosaic: Identity and Culture in Our Times” before moving into the historical roots of Judaism, exploring different forms of Judaism in contemporary and historical contexts, as well as the diversity of the Jewish people and the way they observe their religion.

“The question of whether there is such a singular object of research called Jewish history—indeed, whether the history of the Jewish people is unified—has confronted every historian of the Jews. In implicitly answering it, the new exhibition at ANU offers a different historiography to that of its predecessor,” Feller writes.

He argues that the museum could have been constructed anywhere in the world but its specific location within Israel calls into question the role of Israeli politics in the Jewish faith. Feller cites various Israeli politicians who have fought against the LBGTQ+ community, contending that such people inherently affect the religion of the country they seek to represent.

“It is about who gets to define Jewishness,” Feller states.

Feller then analyzes the relationship between politics and Judaism, concluding that Judaism cannot be defined by any one place or identity.

“ANU is everything its creators hoped it would be. A cutting-edge, beautifully executed, comprehensive museum of the Jewish people. And precisely because of that, it feels at odds with its location. As the Museum of the Jewish People, its permanent exhibition is inspirational, but also aspirational. It is increasingly at odds with the diverging paths of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in which the museum is located.”

Rubenstein, Taylor ’68 Collaborate On Essay Collection

ImageProfessor of Religion Mary-Jane Rubenstein recently co-authored an essay in collection titled Image: Three Inquiries in Technology and Imagination alongside Mark C. Taylor ’68, professor of religion at Columbia University.

The book, published in September 2021 by the University of Chicago Press, explores how visual elements function in relationship to humans and technology.

“Modern life is steeped in images, image-making, and attempts to control the world through vision,” the book’s description reads. “Mastery of images has been advanced by technologies that expand and reshape vision and enable us to create, store, transmit, and display images. The three essays in Image, written by leading philosophers of religion Mark C. Taylor, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, and Thomas A. Carlson, explore the power of the visual at the intersection of the human and the technological.”

Rubenstein also is the author of Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe (2009), Worlds Without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (2014), and Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters (2018). Taylor, too, has written several books, including Disfiguring: Art, Architecture, Religion (1994), Mystic Bones (2007), and Abiding Grace: Time, Modernity, Death (2018).