Beauty is only Skin Deep

Three shirtless men with smudged eye makeup and lipstick

The following article was written by fourth year Media, Information, and Technoculture student Erin Levitsky for our November 2013 issue “Western Inc.”  The Arts and Entertainment feature is one of our highlights from November.

In 1983, Vanessa Williams became the first ever African-American winner of the Miss America Pageant.  Thirty years later, Indian-American Nina Davuluri holds the crown.  These achievements would appear to be triumphs over the adversary of racism, if only these women had enjoyed their titles with ease.

A scandal triggered by nude photos which appeared in an issue of Penthouse magazine caused Williams to step down. She dutifully passed on her position to the pageant’s runner up just a few months following her crowning.  Davuluri’s victory, on the other hand, was met immediately with a demoralizing array of racist remarks, particularly in the online sphere.

The hateful reactions toward Davuluri’s victory reveals an undercurrent of racism that exists today, concealed by a veil of tolerance. A woman of Indian descent may participate in the Miss America competition, but allowing her to represent American beauty is simply out of the question.

Mistaking Davuluri’s Indian descent for Middle-Eastern, many American’s expressed their dismay that her crowning took place so close to the anniversary of 9/11. They claimed that she must be part of al-Qaeda, and the very least a terrorist.  Others simply mocked her for being of a minority status, slurring her as “Miss 7-11,” among other terms. Illuminated by these horrifying blows, the overt racism ethnic minorities face in the United States is a problem too often concealed under the tolerant guise of the Western world.

However, the dichotomy of white and black as representative of purity and evil, respectively, is not an exclusively North American phenomenon. Indian culture contains an inherently racist logic of its own. The caste system is a normalized hierarchy rooted in India’s ancient history, and still functions to this day. The system essentially ranks an individual’s social worth according to their inherited membership in a particular caste. As a result, socioeconomic conditions come prepackaged from birth, and the opportunity for individual advancement beyond these constraints is nominal. If you consider the history of the caste system, which was imposed by Aryan occupation around 1500 BC, you’ve got the basis for modern day, illogical racism in India. Darker skinned Indians are systematically oppressed today because of distant European imperialism, just as African-Americans are for being forced into slavery centuries ago.

It might be useful, then, to remind ourselves of North America’s white supremacist nature . Many prefer to take the naïve stance that we are, in fact, are existing in a post-racial environment.  There will always be those who believe racism can be fixed with a few large-scale public displays of acceptance – but this acts only as band-aid on a gushing wound.  Case in point: the election of an African-American president for the United States. What is important, yet often overlooked, is that Obama is only half black.  In North America, lighter skin is considered superior.  Obama is black, but not too black.  This is not to negate Obama’s leadership abilities nor deny his cultural significance.  Rather, behind this illusion of acceptance is a culture which still believes that lighter is better. Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek is dedicated to challenging false ideas surrounding tolerance. Zizek argues that upon deeming ourselves tolerant, we no longer feel the need to fight against the evils of inequality, exploitation or injustice.  In keeping up an appearance of multiculturalism, we tolerate those who are different, just as long as they are not too different.

Not satisfied with the current structure in India, activist group Women of Worth launched the Dark is Beautiful campaign in 2009. The campaign “challenges the belief that the value and beauty of people (in India and worldwide), is determined by the fairness of their skin.” This campaign recognizes that ideologies must be shattered, binaries deconstructed, and hierarchies overthrown in order make any real change in the world.

Like North Americans, Indians are exposed to the dangerously omnipresent influences of the advertising industry.  Universally, advertisers manufacture desire in order to sell products, a process Marx referred to as the creation of “imaginary appetites”. This trend is often synonymous with a universal neglect for the social inequalities advertisers manipulate in order to reinforce these “needs”. Indian advertisers take advantage of the nation’s extensive history of social inequality rooted in racism to sell their beauty products. Advertisements  Indian consumers “a radiant, pinkish white glow”. They do so by depicting a woman who makes a magical transition from unwanted to utterly desirable after using skin whitening creams.  Products are said to whiten not only faces and entire bodies, but private areas as well. Women are told that they must be lighter – everywhere – if they ever wish to become a wife. When considered alongside American advertisements riddled with racist ideology, it is clear that in both regions, white privilege and systematic oppression have yet to be eradicated.

In this corner of the world, we see racism in terms of our own isolated malady. What we regularly fail to recognize is that other countries are inflicted by a similar prejudice based on skin colour. Apathy for racism in a country thousands of miles away relieves American media producers from being held accountable for disseminating racist messages.  This same apathy has North Americans happily purchasing their Unilever products such as Dove and Axe, while the same brand that manufactures skin whitening products such as Fair and Lovely and Ponds’ White Beauty for Indian markets.

As we venture deeper into the 21st century, it is hard to believe that certain skin colours are still more desirable than others.  That skin colour can be instrumental in determining social and economic status is even more shameful.  Comparing and contrasting inherently racist systems worldwide can shed light on a common struggle of all those disenfranchised.  Perhaps then, we can band together to shift the focus from tolerance to a revolution of skin.

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