Posted Monday, November 10th, 2003
Practicing Asia: The Whitest Face
“If your face is black, then you are not happy,” my Thai friend told me today when I asked her why Thais are afraid of the sun. I said, “If your face is white, then are you happy?” She said, “I don’t know, are you?”
This is a good question for someone who has spent time trying to get a suntan. I am an easily sunburned, translucent-skinned American with Russian blood. Once I squashed myself into a tanning bed and became a crustacean crimson color. I am jealous of the way darker-skinned people can stay in the sun and turn a deeper shade. I step onto a Thai bus and my skin seems to glare with a fluorescent light amidst the sepia toned passengers.
In the squinting daylight of Thailand, I am the only one in the back of the pickup truck not wearing a hat as we rumble up the mountain. My Thai friends hide under wool blankets and sun-bonnets to protect themselves from the evil rays. Pat compares her arm to mine several times and says, “You are white, and I am so black, ugly.” I look at her arm, a pale brownish yellow, the color of sun-bleached wood. I think about things like anti-racism education, integration, prejudice, and the anthropological essays I wrote in college, analyzing DuBois’ color line. Whiteness is historically equated with wealth, superiority and beauty, and this myth continues to flourish with pandemic ferocity. At that moment, I haven’t the simple vocabulary to describe these collegiate thoughts.
I try to gently explain to Pat, “We are all equal, if you are beautiful inside, then you are beautiful outside.” I say it slowly, hoping she’ll understand my words, but she doesn’t speak my culture. She nods her head and says, “You think I beautiful?” Her ears won’t hear my Americanized pleas for equality, as Thailand has a pre-packaged hierarchy built into its language and customs. People with white skin, the falang, deserve a deeper bow when greeted.
Standing on the side of the highway trying to flag down a pink bus, my boyfriend Nick and I see young men preparing the road for construction work with bright orange traffic cones. They have covered their faces entirely in wool ski masks, like a band of burglars and rebel leaders. My reddened face is covered in sweat, bared to the 90-degree blaze of the sun. We watch them work, only able to see their eyes as they peer at our awkward foreignness.
We creep into the Thai supermarket to buy some scratchy toilet paper. The first aisle I walk down is stacked with beauty products. Pausing for a moment of curiosity, I read the labels: Pretty White Genie Kids Cream, Tea Tree Young & Beauty Natural Whitening Complex, Nivea Visage WHITE Toner, Green Tea Whitener, Scruples White Body White Bright, Oil of Olay White Radience Natural Lightening Cream, Pond’s Extra White, Vaseline White Perfect Lotion. The list goes on, but I run out of room in my little notebook where I scribble all the appalling product names. Nick notices that there is not a whitening product line for men. I recall that I have never seen so many whitening creams in my life, and silently wonder if I had just been overlooking them in American supermarkets.
I write to a friend in America whose fine sugary brown skin unapologetically proclaims her complex African heritage. I tell her about the whitening products in Thailand, and ask her if they are still sold in the U.S. She responds a few days later, saying that yes, indeed, the skin-whitening industry is alive and well in black beauty magazines, online catalogs, and beauty shops. I guess I thought it was a thing of the past, dead with the Civil Rights movement. Naively, I have lived in my own country thinking that most people of color had washed off the bleach, taking pride in their natural beauty. I try to imagine putting cream on my skin to become darker, like that white man in Black Like Me who went to Alabama in 1959 pretending to be black. Then I remember skin bronzer and tanning beds, which illustrate the universal susceptibility to desire a seemingly more beautiful image.
The disease, the color game, the chameleon dermatology industry has spread beyond American borders, as have other viruses. Mad consumerism, anorexia, prostitution, violence, alcoholism and drug addiction are all right here in Thailand. Who can locate the epicenter? In a Vaseline factory? In Cosmopolitan magazine? In colonization? In television? In free trade?
I cannot tell you where it starts, but I see obsessed teenagers everywhere poking at their skinny stomachs, looking for a fat molecule or squinting in the mirror, trying to find a flaw. Here in Thailand, fat is discussed like the weather. “Look at the fat woman over there. You are getting fat, eat some more Thai food. I have a huge belly, but I used to be skinny. This is my aunt, isn’t she fat?” Seemingly inoffensive to most Thais, discussing weight gain and skin color is considered casual conversation. It is unimaginable to my American customs to be open about insecurities and differences with mere strangers. I cannot picture another American approaching me at a party and saying, “You are a little fat, but pretty.” Or looking at a picture of me and musing, “You were really fat then, you look better now.” Or grabbing my leg and saying, “Wow, you are so white and I am so ugly.” I realize my aversion to topics that everyone secretly contemplates, but refuses to admit so boldly. Initially I thought it rude, now I just find it honest.
What does my melanin say about me? That I’m better than someone else? That I’m blessed by a white-skinned god? That it is worth wearing a woolen mask on your face in the tropical midday sun just to avoid blackness? I cannot begin to analyze this phenomenon, it seems too far-reaching, snakelike in its sneaky messages, bringing feelings of inadequacy to every beautiful population of people around the planet.
Maybe if I apply enough skin whitening cream, I will eventually just disappear, leaving no color behind.
Comments [post a comment]
Posted by breezy darling [ firstname.lastname@example.org
] on Monday, November 10th, 2003 at 3:06 PM
Wow, lela. I have read so many of your words over the years. Letters, poems, those anthropological essays you spoke of... never has one of your stories sent such shivers down my spine like this one does. You are not just visiting this foreign place, taking a vacation, watching it as an outsider as most people would. you are allowing it to be an education. And sharing it so eloquently with such insight. You are allowing this to integrate into your true Lela perspective with an open mind. You are allowing yourself to question the things you are coming into contact with and without any ethnopocentric, righteous judgements, just asking the questions. What does my melanin say about me? That is one I haven't asked lately, Here i am in sunny southern California, complaining that I am not getting the tan I wanted to return to new york city with. I wanted to return looking like I just spent a month on the beach, I wanted to return looking like...I had fun here. What? Thank you for the reminder to get my head out of the vaseline factory and back on to my beautiful, strong and very fair body. Its just right.Time to stop looking like something and actually be that something.
keep up the travelin love,
Posted by jocelyn johnson on Wednesday, November 12th, 2003 at 11:27 AM
Wow, agian. This insightful, question filled writing makes me want to travel again. I love the perspectives Lela has outlined from far away, that inevitably turn back towards customs and fears that are closer to home.
Posted by emily mckinnon on Saturday, November 15th, 2003 at 2:01 AM
keep up the super writing. both you and nick.
Posted by christopher selwyn [ email@example.com
] on Wednesday, November 19th, 2003 at 6:56 PM
Hey everybody, especially Lela, NIck, and whoever else has read or written work here. My name is chris, I am 22 and I work with a young man that is 13, here are his comments... Lela is really smart and he feels there should be no racism. He wants to know about American food products and their effects also on Thai culture.
Love the work and love you kids, Chris