"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Want To Look Whiter? Blame It On The Aryans

There is some debate about when the Aryans rode out of the steppes of Central Asia to the Indus Valley; but whether it was in 3500 BC or much later in 1500 BC, it was a long time ago. Gradually the indigenous population of the Valley, the Dravidians, began moving southwards. Whether or not they were pushed, conquered, and forced to move by the invading Aryans, or whether they migrated on their own is still debated; but the consensus is that at the very least the Aryans ‘helped’ the Dravidians to find and settle their eventual home in South India.  If not conquerors, the Aryans were powerful rulers and administrators who imposed their religion, philosophy, and social system on  those under their authority.  The caste system was a unique and successful way of controlling and monitoring the conquered Dravidian population; and racial distinction was another.  While the Aryans were light-skinned (they considered themselves ‘wheat-colored’) the Dravidians were dark, if not black; and color became a convenient marker identifying the subjugated. 

The concept of racial or ethnic superiority was not restricted to the Aryans.  In the ancient Western and Eastern Zhou states, clear distinctions were made between them (Chinese) and ‘barbarians’, those tribes to the north who were racially and culturally distinct from them. The Han Dynasty (206 BC) consolidated the concept of racial and cultural superiority.  Skin color for the Han, as in the case of the Aryans, was an easy marker to delineate cultural and ethnic superiority. This early racial/cultural segmentation became widely accepted in Chinese society and became codified in the caste system  of the later Yuan Dynasty (1271).

Racial superiority was evident in  Roman civilizations, largely because of its territories in Africa from which were brought black slaves.  The conflation of racial and cultural superiority was understandable, for there was a vast difference between the highly evolved Romans and the largely Stone Age Africans. This concept of ethnic superiority spread widely throughout Europe and the Middle East as the Roman Empire expanded its borders.

The point is that the idea of light-skinned racial superiority has been around for a long, long time; and has been prevalent in the ancient civilizations of India, China, Japan, Korea, and Rome.

Nineteenth Century scientists and early anthropologists, conditioned by the views of ancient Rome and influenced by Darwinian theories of evolution, concluded that Africans were of a lower order of civilization, that their culture had not yet evolved to the levels of Europe.  While this was certainly true in social, economic, and political terms, there was no reason to assume, as the Europeans did, a genetic component.  Yet conclude innate racial superiority and inferiority they did, thus continuing and deepening the color divide.

The persistence of slavery in the United States simply confirmed the European view.  Africans were subhuman savages, unequal to whites, and thus slavery could exist within a Christian world view.  Reconstruction, which raised black slave field hands to delegates in State Legislatures slammed the lid on considerations of racial equality for decades. Within the black community color consciousness is not just an insignificant vestige of slave days, it is an obsession.  The whiter you are, the more attractive you are.

It is not surprising, therefore, that women all over the world want to whiten their skin.  Whether Japan, China, Africa, or the Philippines, women purchase billions of dollars of skin whiteners.  Asians want to have more European-looking eyes and facial structure and invest billions more in cosmetic surgery to look white.

It is remarkable, then, that Teresa Wiltz, writing in The Guardian (9.11.13) expresses dismay that people of color still want to whiten their skin; and cites the example of a popular Brazilian singer, Anitta who has recently done so.

Brazilian music star Anitta

Brazilian music star Anitta. Photograph: Mauricio Santana/Corbis

While in this age of multi-culturalism and inclusiveness, one may lament the fact that women are still so race-conscious, the fact remains that money is – in Brazil and most of the Western World - by and large white. Anitta wants to whiten her image because she wants to reach an audience far beyond and above those living in her native favela ghettos.

BeyoncĂ© cried foul when H&M wanted to ‘downsize’ her curves and booty, very appealing to African American men; but few doubt that she knew quite well what they were doing.  She and they wanted to expand her audience. Looking more white meant appealing to the tight-assed, thin-lipped, croaky-voiced white boys that Eddie Murphy parodied; and there more of these white boys and more white money around than black. 

Wiltz goes on to tell of other celebrity whitenings:

Of course, Anitta's hardly the first brown-skinned wannabe to survey the pop culture landscape and come to the conclusion that a whiter look would ease her way to stardom. Michael Jackson famously got whiter and whiter over the years (thanks, he claimed, to a skin condition known as vitiligo); rapper Lil' Kim is a ghost of her former self; Dominican baseball great Sammy Sosa jarringly went from black to white to black again after using skin bleaching creams.

What surprises me is that Wiltz is shocked and amazed that women in Africa, of all places, are whitening their skin.  One would expect that in all-black, independent Africa, decades removed from colonial rule, that white skin would still be prized.

I remember the first time I visited Senegal, my virgin voyage to the continent. As a post-Civil Rights African-American, I'd romanticized Africa, fantasizing about a place overflowing with black self-love and acceptance. Instead, what I found in Senegal shocked and saddened me. More often than not, billboards regularly featured models sporting cafe au lait complexions while real-life women walked around with ashen grey faces, a telltale sign that they'd gotten hooked on bleaching.

The marriage columns in newspapers in India are filled with references to fair skin as a commodity.  Bollywood movie stars are all light-complexioned with very European features.  I remember when I lived in India in the late 60s, the female movie stars were pudgy, round-faced, and dark; and looked little different from the women I saw in the countryside.  Now, the movie stars are international beauties and other than an alluring burnish to their skin they are, for all intents and purposes, white. Rather than move far from a colonial heritage, Indian women are returning to it, or so it might seem.

In reality these movie stars are no different from Anitta or BeyoncĂ© – they are whitening their image. Actually they are internationalizing it, and their skin lightening is more a nod to the Americanization of popular culture. Neither they nor the Senegalese women observed by Ms. Wiltz, actually want to be white.  They may simply want to be beauties in the international style.

Racism will disappear once the incomes of people of color approach those of whites.  We would be happy to have Barack Obama, Colin Powell, or Condoleezza Rice living next to us because they are acceptable ‘white’ professionals, despite their skin color.  The same will be true in India, China, or the Philippines.

For the time being, however, skin color still equals social, economic, and political superiority.  After 5000 years.  It would not surprise me if we have another few hundred at least to go.

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