Colourism in South and South-East Asia

April 29, 2016
A skin-whitening advertisement in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The first time I visited my family in Indonesia, I was 13 and I was told by an uncle that my skin was considered “traditional”. This was meant as an insult. In my family's house, whitening products sat tellingly on nearly every surface and I struggled to find products that did not contain chemical-filled, carcinogenic bleach.

Once, when I went into a store looking for moisturiser (“without whitening”, I stressed), the woman proceeded to laugh at me. More pronounced than the amusement in her voice was the genuine confusion in her eyes: my request made no sense. The idea that I would actively choose not to whiten my skin was incomprehensible.

Whitening products constitute a multi-million dollar industry in Asian countries. Colourism, or social and economic discrimination based on skin tone, is entrenched in cultures across South and South-East Asia, with products to match.

Colourism differs from racism in that it can fester among people of the same racial group, against those of certain ethnicities and castes.

The woman who laughed at me from across the counter no doubt learnt from a young age that light-skinned women married more easily, had better job prospects and generally fared better in society.

Like my uncle, she was conditioned to view my skin as ugly. Like my female relatives, the social and economic burdens of dark skin led her to seek refuge in a tub of noxious bleaching cream.

The infiltration of colourism into everyday life became clear as I spent more time with my family. I watched the careful rituals my step-mother and sister performed to keep their skin from tanning. I would stare in wonderment at the jumpers and jeans they cloaked themselves in when they left the house: how could they function in the oppressive heat?

Most of their time was spent indoors. They went from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned cars to air-conditioned Starbucks and back again.

I remember once walking the streets with my cousin under the sweltering sun. “No!”, she wailed alarmingly, “I'm going to get dark now.”

I always knew that “beauty” meant a certain category of features that I could never possess. All the media I consumed eliminated me by virtue of the features they showcased — white features.

I would fantasise about how I would change my body. This “new, beautiful” me possessed fair skin, blonde hair, blue eyes and a small nose.

It has taken me years to accept myself, to recognise and unlearn the internalised racism which was the source of so much unhappiness. It is a process I am still undergoing.

The women in my family still use whitening cream. The media perpetuates beauty standards that prize whiteness above all, and deem colour either non-existent or inferior and stereotyped with negative personality characteristics.

My Indian family often urge my light-skinned sister to work in Bollywood. The only requirement, they assure her, is fair skin.

Colourism in Indonesia pre-dates European colonisation: pre-colonial Indonesian women used plant-based treatments to lighten their skin. Historically, skin colour was indicative of wealth and class status. The workers and peasants who toiled in the fields were made dark by the harsh sun. Meanwhile, the wealthy stayed indoors and their complexions remained pale.

With the invasion of Europeans in the 16th Century, the various kingdoms and empires of the archipelago were united under a common identity. “Indonesia” was born. What did this complex mix of ethnic, cultural and religious groups have in common? Their inferior status to the colonisers.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, these old caste and class systems crystallised and were further sub-classified under Dutch rule, with the colonisers occupying the top of the hierarchy and pale-skinned Chinese merchants and business people holding middle class status.

What's more, modern Western racism attributed caste status to biological determinism rather than social structures.

According to the Europeans, lighter skinned “natives” must be distant relatives of the Caucasian race: this explained their skin colour, their high social status, their superiority.

Traditional colourism combined with racism, congealed into a toxic mix of ideas that associated European features with power, wealth and beauty.

Centuries later, these ideas still plague Indonesian society and media. Anti-blackness is rampant. You only have to look at the treatment of the East Timorese, and the genocide and occupation that continues unnoticed in West Papua.

The problem of colourism is not specific to Indonesia, but is prevalent throughout South and East Asia, particularly in India, where British-stoked caste systems, Dalit racism, anti-blackness and Bollywood meet in a deadly web of violence, slavery and discrimination.

Shuffling back and forth between Indonesia, India and Australia throughout my teenage years, I encountered a pattern of conflicting images and messages.

On my television screen at home, Dove beauty campaigns preached acceptance of “all body types” while in my father's home in Jakarta, Unilever (the same multi-national, Dutch company that owns Dove) advertised a smorgasbord of products to lighten skin.

Coming home to Australia, where my friends would remark at how “black” I looked (a compliment) was a disconcerting and alienating experience for a young girl. After all, I had just spent two weeks being told that my skin colour was undesirable.

Thinking about the way in which white Westerners prize tanned skin, and fork out money for fake tans and solariums, it becomes clear that this desire for brownness is due to another class bias. Those with tanned skin can afford to go on holiday and relax outside instead of working.

Similarly, my family's access to whitening products was due to their social status as upper middle-class Javanese. It was these two conflicting, but intrinsically linked class systems that meant my skin could simultaneously repulse my family, but be celebrated and emulated (at some cost) by my white friends.

During my most recent visit to Jakarta, I was saddened to see that the rituals I observed so achingly as a teenager were still ever-present. When I saw the #UnfairAndLovely campaign on my newsfeed at home, I could not help but wish that something like it had existed when I was 13.

Seeing dark-skinned South Asian women celebrating their colour might have made the treacherous path to self-acceptance a little easier. Those images of reclamation and radical self-love might have been enough to counter the white-washed media I was bombarded with.

[Abridged with permission from the author. Taken from ARMED, an intersectional, anti-racist media collective based in Australia. Click here to read the original.]

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