It’s 2021 but some Malaysians seem to be stuck in the 1800s.
Why such a claim? Well, a recent advert for whitening products has been raising the ire of many Malaysians for its use of “blackface” and the implication that “white/fair is beautiful” while being dark, isn’t as attractive. The brand, a local cosmetics company, released a music video promoting their whitening product. The story follows a girl who walks to school every day, under the sun and thus becomes “tanned” in the process. She is then bullied for being tanned, but an admirer gives her the said whitening products in secret to help her achieve her goal of wanting to be accepted/liked. The video is meant to be a “cute love story” but the fact of the matter is that the video: a) has a young actress sporting “blackface” makeup and b) promotes the idea that you will only be liked/adored/accepted if you are fair.
The ad/music video starts with the lead girl enjoying the sunshine and fresh air at school. Now, the girl is very obviously someone who has been “blackfaced” (made to look darker than they originally are with makeup). As she walks, we see two other girls giggle as they stick a note on the lead’s backpack. The girl realises that there’s something on her bag and picks it up. The camera zooms in and on the note is written:
“You are so black. Does your mother know?”
Now, a little disclaimer here. The Mandarin word for “tanned” and “black” is the same ( 黑 / hēi) so while the note could be translated to mean “You are so tanned,” it would more commonly be read/directly translated into, “You are so black.”
As the video continues, we see her being ridiculed by the same two girls who stuck the rude note on her backpack. She is then seen sitting in a classroom and lamenting the fact that she is being bullied over her skin. On the table, is an eraser. The girl picks up the eraser and proceeds to attempt to rub the “darkness” of her skin off with it.
This is where the whitening products come in. She finds the items under her desk (put there every day by her admirer) and she proceeds to use them. Lo and behold, after a while, she “magically” (no joke, there are CGI sparkles and her skin is brightened x1574359 for that “glow”) loses her “tan”. Because she is now “fairer”, she has fans surrounding her and admiring her skin.
Many netizens who have seen the ad have been quick to slam the brand for the video and its implications.
The video has since been deleted and removed from the brand’s social media site following the backlash. The producer of the video has since spoken up about the criticism, commenting:
The producer is not wrong about the history of blackface – it is defined in the Meriem Webster dictionary as “dark makeup worn (as by a performer in a minstrel show) in a caricature of the appearance of a black person,”. Vox does a great job of explaining why ‘blackface’ is wrong but to sum it up, the history of “blackface” is that it was used to mock Black people back in the 1800s through to the mid-20th century:
“White actors would routinely use black grease paint on their faces when depicting plantation slaves and free blacks on stage. Taking place against the backdrop of a society that systematically mistreated and dehumanized black people, they were mocking portrayals that reinforced the idea that African-Americans were inferior in every way.”
However, blackface – in any context – is unacceptable. Arguably, what was done in the video can be deemed “brownface” (a variant of blackface involving ethnic impersonation of people with brown skin) – but that doesn’t make it any better and really, isn’t an excuse. He has also taken to his Facebook page to issue an apology and has even released a video to explain his side of the story.
At the core of the issue, blackface made Black people seem different, laughable, less than their fairer counterparts for the mere reason that their skin colour was different. This idea that darker skin equals inferiority has fed the beauty industry for centuries, allowing them to make billions off “whitening” and “fairness” creams. ‘Lighter’ and ‘fairer’ skin has been almost fetishised in Asia, where most countries were taught that ‘white skin is supreme’ after having been colonised by the West for years. From this is born the problem of colourism:
This belief is especially prevalent in India, where the caste system and idea that ‘dark is dirty’ is deeply rooted in its society and in countries like China, where people with ‘fairer’ skin are viewed as ‘beautiful’, ‘elegant’ and ‘rich’. However, globally, almost 60% of women in India and 40% across Africa use products marketed for lightening skin, including bleach (as reported by AJ+). Nearly 6,300 tonnes of skin lighteners were sold worldwide last year, according to Euromonitor International, including products marketed as anti-ageing creams targeting dark spots or freckles while in China alone, marketing research shows that whitening products reached a whopping RM267 billion in sales.
Of course, this does not even begin to scratch the surface of the effect colourism has on young men and women who are growing up with this pressure to be “fair” and “lovely”. Colourism embraces lighter-skinned people over their darker-skinned counterparts, often leading the former to be viewed as more intelligent, noble, and attractive than darker complexioned people. In multiple parts of Asia, fair skin is linked to “wealth” and dark skin is seen as a sign of “poverty”, as people who do hard labour are more often in the sun. A-list actresses like Lupita Nyong’o, Gabrielle Union, and Keke Palmer – all gorgeous, beautiful women – have spoken about how they desired lighter skin growing up because they thought darker skin made them unattractive. Now imagine the impact of such thinking on the general masses of young men and women: if someone as highly lauded as Lupita Nyong’o can be made to feel inferior and ugly because of her skin colour, what about the rest of society?
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The idea that being dark equates to being less deserving of love, respect or friendship is one that needs to be struck down. Your value does not and never will lie in how “fair” or “skinny” you are. At the end of the day, your worry should be about being respected, not liked and this will be apparent in how you treat others with equal measures of kindness, respect and love.