Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Whitewashing


There is a TV commercial being aired here in the Philippines that is quite transparently and brazenly racist. Three pretty young women who walk into the scene together, all smiles. Until one of them notices, as if for the first time, that her skin is brown, compared to the other girls, who have the flesh tones of albino Scandinavian submariners, impossibly, inhumanly pale. The brown-skinned girl is noticeably upset at the contrast, so the white girls give her a bottle of a skin cream called Block & White, a schizophrenically formulated product whose name spells out its function: it simply combines bleaches and exfoliants (acids to make skin peel) to whiten the skin, and keratin-blockers and sunblocks to prevent further skin darkening. In other words, the lotion is designed to deprive brown-skinned women of their own natural sun protection and substitute chemicals to protect their raw, denuded skin from harmful UVA and UVB solar rays.

There are dozens of such products being marketed in the Philippines, as I pointed out in the post The Fairest of Them All a few years ago. Many Filipino women, convinced by the advertizing that their brown skin is ugly, buy such products and, because they cannot afford the repeated treatments that they instruct, only apply them to their faces. This results in the women acquiring a pinkish complexion on their faces, while the remainder of their bodies is brown.

In the Block & White commercial, the brown-skinned girl uses the product and her skin is shown to magically - and impossibly - grow whiter and whiter and whiter until, in the final scene, she is just as pale-skinned as her friends, and suddenly becomes noticed by passing men. The inference is clear, and outrageous: if you have brown skin you are ugly and unattractive. If you want to be beautiful and attractive to men you need to use Block & White and transform yourself into a white woman. Unfortunmately for the makers of the commercial and the manufacturers of the product (made in the U.S. by Beauty Creations, Inc.), the brown-skinned woman was, as Lady Gaga put it, "born this way".

Such products are also sold in other Asian countries in which skin color is associated with social status, like India and Indonesia, as well as in Latin American countries still suffering a hangover from colonialism. They are certainly not marketed in the U.S. the same way they're marketed everywhere else, since such marketing would cause an uproar and probably lead to arrests. In the U.S., Block & White is marketed as follows: "Bleaching cream lightens-brightens darkened skin areas and helps fade unsightly freckles. It's a greaseless vanishing cream that moisturizes and brings out natural beauty." It is recommended for use in gradually fading skin discolorations such as age spots, freckles, liver spots, or "Dark areas that can occur while using oral contraceptives."

The reason for this apparent confusion is the legacy of hundreds of years of European and American colonialism. It has resulted in a single - white - standard of beauty that is taking far too long to eradicate. Spike Lee made a film early in his career called School Daze (1988), which was, among other things, an eye-opening satire on how racism effects even its victims. Based loosely, I would guess, on his experiences at Morehouse, an all-black college in Atlanta, Lee portrayed the students and their fraternities and sororities discriminating against one another based on the varying lightness or darkness of their skin color. The lighter-skinned students, not surprisingly, considered themselves superior to the darker-skinned ones. The madness that Lee revealed in his film was brought to a - rather peremptory - conclusion by a character played by Laurence Fishburne running towards the camera and screaming to all the characters in the film to "Wake up!" Fishburne finally turns to the camera and quietly says, "Please. Wake up." The last sound we hear is of an alarm clock going off.

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