Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Saying no to white privilige

While lingering in the air conditioned cool of MBK, Bangkok's self-proclaimed 'most visited mall', I was accosted by a group of women in green uniforms who were selling beauty treatments. I usually avoid beauty clinics since they usually play on women's insecurities (with their posters of [most likely Photoshopped] women with almost impossibly smooth skin, big eyes with long, thick lashes, big lips and small noses, dyed and styled hair, etc), charging high prices for an effect of low importance.


That said, I am not completely free of superficiality or immune to being pampered, which is why I get a facial treatment once every 1-2 month(s). I took a look at the brochure proffered, expecting the usual array of skin services but was taken aback to discover that all of them were 'whitening' treatments. I found it insulting that "white skin" was being prioritised over the variegated Asian shades, which are perfectly lovely the way they are. I don't feel like my epidermis colouring makes me any more or less beautiful than any Asian (or African, Latin American, Native American, etc), and it's disconcerting that people should place my whiteness on a pedestal, giving me extra special treatment. It means that, somewhere else, a differently coloured visitor is getting less special treatment, or even outright abuse. People who are identified as having 'blackness' sometimes find that Thais save their smiles for those associated with 'whiteness'. So much suspicion, so much disdain, so much prejudice.

How can we change this? Speak up! I didn't have much Thai and the lady closest to me didn't have much English, but I was able to express how I offended I was to some extent. She went 'ohhh' and looked sad for a moment. Then she reclaimed the brochure and turned to look for another customer. But she got the message: whiteness is not what I associate with beauty.

So I have a message for white people: Please do you your bit to tackle racial prejudice when it rears its ugly head around you. You are perfectly suited to this job because you automatically have the attention of everyone - whites, blacks, Asians, everyone. Without having done a thing to deserve it, people give you more life chances. Use them to undermine the mindset that advantages you and disadvantages others. Use your privilege to point out how unfair it is. Explain that society has let you down because we've all been conditioned to believe that whiteness is better than the rest. Explain that you want to see more confident Asians in your social circle. Explain that you want black people to hold more and higher positions of power in government, the boardroom and the police force. Explain that you don't need white privilege because you are a valuable person in your own right, and it doesn't take anything away from you to elevate other races to the same status. Explain that it would actually add to your experience if non-whites were equally privileged to you.

I look forward to the day when the social construction of beauty does away with whiteness as an ideal, and a world where the darkest shades are as desirable as the lightest... but this isn't going to happen on its own, and change can feel awfully slow. Put yourself in the shoes of a dark-skinned Nepalese who lives in a multicultural white-majority society and has internalised the sentiments around her that her skin colour isn't as attractive as that of lighter women. Now imagine if her self-loathing were gone because she saw many positive representations of people with similar shades of flesh in advertising, or was reading a diet of books the authors of which shared her cultural background, or at least the experience of being an immigrant and/or an ethnic minority. Imagine if she mixed freely with people of every colour, not worrying what her parents might think if the person she loved wasn't of Nepalese background. Imagine if she grew up to be the CEO of Toyota in that country, because her leadership skills and love for this particular kind of transportation saw her be the ideal candidate - and that her race had never been a point of contention to anyone on her team. This is how a life might play out in a racially inclusive (not 'tolerant') society. Her satisfaction would impact that of many others - a well-adjusted person has a wide circle of friends, acquaintances and fans, as well as having special significance to their partner and family. We need more people of Nepalese (and Congolese, and Uruguayan, and Indigenous Australian) background to grow up with the opportunity to thrive in life. We need their happiness because it contributes to the overall happiness, including ours.

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