Fair & Lovely: navigating white skin adoration abroad
- Lucille Cutting
I’m sitting on a plastic chair in the bedroom of my host families five year-old daughter in Maskeliya, Sri Lanka. For the past half hour she has been prancing around the room, showing me colourful scribbles in drawing books and painting her nails haphazardly. The polish consumes more skin than keratin.
‘Close your eyes, I have a surprise for you’.
I close them and play along. ‘What is it?’ I exclaim as I feel the cool touch of a cream upon both cheeks. I open my eyes to her smiling face and a tube of whitening cream held aloft. The words scream at me. She rubs it gently into my skin; I push her hand away playfully and quickly remove the excess. ‘No thank you’ I say, confused as to how to, once again address encouragement to lighten my brown skin in a country full of similar hues.
It’s hard to know if it’s simple coincidence that she’s chosen a lightening cream to put upon my brown face, or an action driven by cultural expectations of skin colour. Later that night the older daughter knocks on my bedroom door and immediately begins to pull my hair without invitation to touch, ‘it’s funny’, she says with a crinkled nose.
Traveling abroad as an African-Australian woman presents similar and new challenges to those faced in my own country.
People ask me where I’m from, and are visibly surprised when I say Australia. ‘But you have an Asian face’, a waiter exclaimed. “You look like an African-American” an Uber driver repeated until the sentence disappeared into silence. Locals are often confused by my appearance, particularly in the context of my nationality. So much so, that these days the statement, ‘I am Australian’ is always followed by ‘…but my mother is Nigerian’ and sometimes, ‘…and my father is white’.
Before the ‘but’ existed, people would probe further, ‘so are you Aboriginal? Is Australia as racist as some say?’ and ‘but where are you really from?’.
It is a familiar story for Australian people of colour, and for the most part is tied to Australia’s history and the formation of our identity on the global stage.
For many years, to be Australian meant blonde hair, tanned but white skin, and a larrikin attitude. It was the identity we formed following federation, the identity we advertised to ourselves and our neighbours, and our first choice in identity for immigrants moving to our shores throughout the 20th century.
While Australian tourism promotions are slowly catching up with our actual diversity, it’s yet to feed through to the daily experience of Australian people of colour; both at home and overseas. For some it’s a reaffirming experience, an opportunity to develop their own sense of identity removed from a particular nationality. For others, it’s exhausting and confronting, an experience wrought by casual racism and strange interactions.
For me, it’s somewhere between.
My initial introduction to skin whitening creams happened overseas. I was in a convenience store in the outer suburbs of Bangkok. Amongst the shelves of peanuts, chips and basic necessities was a sprawling section of bleaching agents. On the bottles were images of a mix of Anglo and Asian people, almost always women, and almost always with their hands held gently to one side - stroking their face in delighted reverie at the effect dangerous chemicals were having upon their skin.
It’s a disturbing experience and one that plays on the mind. Since that first time I’ve travelled with the knowledge that I’d be considered more attractive if I were lighter. I’m not alone in experiencing this revelation.
‘One day during my Indonesian trip, I was at the supermarket and I found a whole lot of shelves dedicated to skin-whitening products. Suddenly, I had my answer. The women surrounding me were trying to whiten and lighten their skin, using artificial means. I realised that perhaps my skin was the "wrong" colour in Indonesia.
My learned culture in a white Australia yearning to be tanned has given me a multi-faceted relationship with skin colour. On the one hand I have experienced racism because of the colour of my skin and witnessed the oppression of others for this same reason. On the other, I have a certain level of pride in having ‘tanned’ skin as it is often viewed as the holy grail of indicators of good health in Australia. Many an Anglo-Australian has spoken of their wish to have my year in, year out ‘tan’. While it can be an insultingly simplified and objectifying comment, it is in some respects a compliment nonetheless.
While the commentary is contradictory, it has granted me a strong foundation from which to be critical of skin whitening. I am protective of my hue - enough to wipe a bleaching agent from my skin without hesitation, or to ignore comments from a local that I should stay out of the sun as I was getting 'too dark’.
It is my learned culture, coming up against another. And for once, white Australia’s identity - that is it’s obsession with ‘tan’ skin - has worked in my own skins favour.