Saturday, May 2, 2009

Buying Beauty: The lighter, the better...(pt. 2)

In contrast to the skin-bleaching phenomenon, Angelina Jolie, in her movie, A Mighty Heart, played the Afro-Cuban/Dutch wife of journalist Daniel Pearl, critics bashed Jolie on practically going blackface in order to “pass” as a woman of color. While the entire idea of blackface still being done every so subtly from time-to-time is problematic, what is even more troublesome is that thousands of people each day are trying to whiten or lighten their skin because they are told through various mediums that their dark skin is not desirable.

What is it about skin color that denotes power? The dichotomy of white and black is further racialized within the context of worth, especially when power and privilege of a majority is added. How is one “race” is able to tie in status and wealth with tanning, while the other is poor or a manual laborer if they are darker?

Just as how race is a socially constructed identity, beauty is relative and is therefore, another social construction that is heavily enforced and policed by society between racial communities and among different communities of color. The impact of eugenics in the creation of a universal standard of beauty is at times, sometimes not directly referenced, but ever-present. In his research paper, “Skin Bleaching in Multi-ethnic and Multicolored Societies: The Case of Suriname,” Jack Menke makes the argument that “the darker one is the lower one’s position in social hierarchy…’color’ is not something that can be altered in the individuals life, but it is something that can be put right in the next generation (Menke, p. 10).”

Menke’s point making something right in the next generation is especially poignant because after India was colonized by the British, the impacts of racial purification and legalized racism due to one’s caste (and usually color of one’s skin) is still present. White women were seen as more beautiful in the 17 and 18th century India because British women were seen as the most feminine, had class, status and some power (at least over those who worked for her). After India gained its independence in 1947 from Britain, the effects of racism and eugenics had not disappeared. Bollywood still carries out the task of showing lighter skin, whiter-looking celebrities in the favorite and most coveted roles, while darker actors and actresses are rarely if ever seen.

Human beings are the subject in Michel Foucault’s study of power. Foucault argues in his because of three modes of objectification: inquiry, dividing practices and sexuality. He writes that humans are transformed into subjects because they objectify themselves with the work that they do in the name of progress - socially, scientifically, economically and biologically (inquiry). Additionally, humans are subjects because they also constrain themselves to dichotomies (dividing practices). Foucault says humans are subjects because of the lifestyles they have chosen for themselves (sexuality), which inevitably transforms them into a subject. The F&L brand transforms people of color into objects of profitability – by making entire communities of color base their worth on the shade of their skin, is not only an impact of oppression, but of racism and self-hatred as well.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Buying Beauty: Bollywood, Women and Skin

This is part one of an essay I wrote for a Fall 2008 GWSS class.

“Bethany, I used to have skin just like yours, but now look at how fair I am. Really, you could be so much more beautiful…I mean, you are…but just try this cream.”

That was what my aunt said to me as she handed me a tube of Fair & Lovely Fairness Cream. I was 16 years old, and my face felt like it was burning as I thought to myself how much lotion it would take in order make every single part of my skin lighter (and more beautiful). How is such a product still being made and marketed around the world? And how is it possible that an Indian actress is seen as more beautiful just because she has lighter skin? How can scientists develop a safe product, which must contain some sort of bleaching component to aid with lightening the skin?

In his essay, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” Thomas Kuhn argues that science is ever evolving and made from circumstances, which raise a need, and the possibilities of scientific tests, which produce a product. With Europeans and white Americans being in the forefront of the media and being active colonists of the “developing world” or “third world,” the idea of Whiteness being a mark of beauty impacted communities of color so much that scientists came up with a skin bleaching cream in order to make a profit and meet a need. The effects of skin lightening on women of color throughout generations have been devastating, social and cultural stigma of being darker colored reaches from the workplace to marriage. The idea that this cream has become a fundamental part of an Indian, Indian-American, Arab, Arab-American’s daily beauty routine and is found in the drawers of a woman of every brownish skin shade is unfortunate and destructive to the mental and body health of the women who uses it or encourages other women to use it.

Fair & Lovely (F&L) is quite an established line of beauty products, which all use “fairness” in some way to describe what the cream, soap or serum does for the user. F&L, a Hindustani Unilever Limited brand that was patented in 1971, is made in India and then sent to the United Arab Emirates, which stocks the products and then redistributes internationally. F&L used to market solely to women, but with their new Fair and Handsome Menz Active line, the next generation of users are recruited. The women’s line of F&L is sold in almost all pink packing, while the new men’s line is packed in white, black or red. According to Synovate, a market research company, Four in 10 Asian women use a “lightening” cream (Synovate, 2004).

A popular F&L commercial showing a young woman who wants to get a job as a TV reporter begins with her very na├»ve when she was several shades darker. “Four is my lucky number. I graduated after four years, but just before my fourth interview I realized that the obstacle to obtaining my dream job was my skin.” The scene cuts to her interviewing for a news anchor job, with the interviewers dismissing her with a wave, seemingly because she was too dark. “Fair & Lovely, for total fairness in four weeks.” Now she is lighter, has the job and is reporting to you from Egypt. “Great job, what are you doing at four? Asks the handsome young producer who has been watching her, she glances back at the camera, “I told you that four was my lucky number!”

Commercials like this one are made in Arabic, Hindi, Tamil, English, Chinese, Japanese and so much more, and are played repeatedly all over the Middle East, India and Asia. Bollywood, India’s Hollywood, is a firm believer in the lighter you are, the more beautiful you are thought and action process. Major celebrities are always lighter, or wear lots of body makeup and shoot under intense lightening so that they look whiter. Darker actors and actresses are always the villains, poor people or prostitutes. In another F&L commercial, Shah Rukh Khan, India’s Brad Pitt, helps a darker young man out when he sees that the poor guy is having no luck with women. Khan gives him a bottle of the new F&L Menz Active fairness cream and then after he uses it, the girl’s flock to him. Khan was widely criticized for his role in this commercial, but there are still hundreds of men and women who buy F&L and continue to pass it on to their children in hopes of having lighter, more beautiful family members.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Ethnic drugs"

In his essay, “How a Drug Becomes ‘Ethnic’: Law, Commerce, and the Production of Racial Categories in Medicine,” Jonathan Kahn argues that the claims that BiDil is a drug made especially for African Americans is “built around assertions…[that] hypothesized underlying genetic differences between blacks and whites (p. 3).”

I was surprised to read that such a recent drug was touted by the press as a breakthrough as the first ethnic drug. Here I was thinking that race and ethnicity were social constructions. How is it possible that a drug made originally for general heart disease is repatented with almost nothing changed, other than some studies being done which proved that African Americans have more heart disease than others, and is widely accepted? Shocking. Kahn writes that the studies concluded: "Observed racial disparities in mortality….in black heart failure patients may be due in part to ethnic differences in the underlying pathophysiology of heart failure (p.2)." Really? Or is it just that mostly poorer African American folks have to eat unhealthy greasy food because it’s cheap and readily accessible? Or because they are stressed out because of racism?

Kahn theorizes that BiDil was reinvented as an ethnic drug for legal and commercial reasons rather than biomedical. Legally, every 10 years or so a drug’s patent runs out, so in order for the pharmaceutical companies to keep making a profit off their investment they must remarket the same drug a different way, after slightly modifying the drug in some way that probably doesn’t even change the drug’s effect or intent in the slightest. Commercially, heart disease is a big problem within communities of color, African American men and women are an important demographic that pharmaceutical companies have chosen to market this drug to.

The risk of using race as a scapegoat to explain differences between populations is dangerous. Not until recently has there been a movement to discredit old ideas that people of color were genetically inferior – these laws influenced laws, policies and built structure that are still in place which accept race as a biological instead of social identity. Kahn argues, "Ethnicity may be leading the federal government improperly to endorse the use of race as a biological category in classifying its citizenry (p.4)," and this is just what happened all over again, for the millionth time.

It’s so disappointing to see that scientists are so stuck in their field that instead of looking at an issue as a social inequality, they just see flawed DNA or bad genetics. This is even represented my class sometimes, the IT students make me feel like us GWSS majors and minors are reaching for explanations, because obviously, they study this field and know what really happens – this feminist theory shit and is not backed up by science at all…how convenient.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

"The White man's disease"

In his essay, “Impure Science: AIDS, Activism and the Politics of Knowledge,” Steven Epstein argues that some part of homosexuality has always been medicalized resulting in AIDS becoming “the gay disease.” Epstein writes about the extent to which society used homosexuality as a scapegoat for the AIDS and HIV by making gayness the “other.” “…the issue was framed in particular ways that influenced medical perceptions of homosexuality…such stereotypes obscure the fact that researchers…characterized with rather sweeping generalizations. (p. 51).”

Instead of figuring out how to treat or cure AIDS and HIV, early doctors focused most of their attentions on cementing what lifestyles spread AIDS and that promiscuity amongst gay men was the “lifestyle choice” that led to AIDS some sort of punishment. The media, the medical community and society bought into the “idea of a linkage between homosexuality, promiscuity, and illness…(p. 55),” thereby increasing the stigma of AIDS and forcing doctors who had any inkling of opposition to keep quiet or risk guilt by association.

The media is one avenue of information spreading that I really am so disappointed in. Now, I realize that the relationship between the media and the medical community was reciprocal: one gave information while the other disperses it, but the knowledge that “the academy” and the media injected so much confusion and misinformation into society is just so sad. “Scientists and reporters in the West picked up on the notion that Africa ‘could have been the breeding place’ for the epidemic. (p. 56).”

I think about the stories about AIDS that I heard growing up: the fear that people stab random people with HIV-positive needles in crowds, Africans having sex with monkeys, Africa being the source of AIDS and that it was their problem – so much of this I grew up hearing, and I’ll bet my parents still believe a lot of this. I guess it’s interesting for me to learn about all these different viewpoints on this topic, and really, when I see what the media and the medical community has done in the past, is it so far-fetched for Reverend Wright to claim that the C.I.A. had some hand in the creation of AIDS to kill off Africans or Black Americans? Maybe….or maybe not.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The bell curve and talking about race effectively

Henry Giroux and Susan Searls argue in their essay, “Race Talk and The Bell Curve Debate: The Crisis of Democratic Vision,” that the analysis of race in “The Bell Curve” by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray was inaccurate, racist, socially unjust and was a major contributor to the rise of racism after the study was published in 1994. Giroux and Searls state that the popularity of the study increased the justification of racism in the minds of privileged White America and added to the misconception that people of color were the lesser breed of humans due to genetics and natural law.

Giroux and Seals make the argument that The Bell Curve is completely detrimental to the progression of democracy and the formation of a socially just society. In regards to the extent that The Bell Curve had on educational policy and practices, Giroux and Seals said: “In the name of excellence [administrators and politicians] argue that public schools simply waste their resources on those subordinate groups, especially blacks, who are too dumb to be educated (p. 19-20).” This way of thinking is unforgivable, but yet not unbelievable.

I have heard people tell me that they think that African Americans and Black Americans obviously have some kind of genetic inferiority because the majority of “them” are not succeeding on standardized tests, not getting in or going to college and working blue collar jobs…and there is a scientific study to back them up! The revelations of this so-called “scientific study” really makes me remember to question science always and not forget that it wasn’t too long ago that science was also used as a justification of slavery.

I agree with Giroux and Seals that The Bell Curve is not the problem, but it is rather “symptomatic of a larger and more dangerous crisis of democracy in the United States (p. 24).” I actually think that the privileged, White America is a big part of the problem in regards to racism and social injustice.

I find it to be problematic that now that the American people (read: White people) are more comfortable about talking about race, it’s still under very strict and unprogressive terms. “Race Talk,” as defined by Toni Morrison, has now come into the public sphere as an important topic, but it’s still presented under the premise that race is an explosive dichotomy which is unpleasant and uncomfortable. If we cannot talk about race correctly and effectively, we are doing the same amount of damage of not talking about it at all.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Racism...in the elevator



Haha. This made me laugh! But, seriously. This is so true. I sent this to an old friend from high school and we had a good laugh, but when I ran into him on campus on our way to class, we had a quick reflection about how true this is before we parted ways.

My friend, who is a young Black male, told me that he gets this feeling all the time when he is in an elevator with a White woman, and I thought that was so surprising, especially in a college setting - a man with a backpack on a university campus - probably a college student and has more to lose by robbing you of your belongings.

Also, just in deconstructing this stereotype of Black men who commit violence and take what is not theirs. Does this happen to White men who get in an elevator with a woman of any color? Probably not as often, I would think. This also brings to mind issues of sexual assault and feeling safe - it sucks that our world has become this way.

I am not innocent by any means. I continually struggle to remember that I have brothers who are men of color, and I hope that other women aren't afraid of them because they would never hurt a woman. At the same time, I sincerely hope that as I try to remember authentically as I can that these men are brothers, I hope that these brothers remember that I am a sister.