The Thais are criticizing an ad for a whitening pill. "Just being white, you will win," states Cris Horwang, a fair-skinned actress and endorser of Snowz, the product by Thai brand Seoul Secret. Without the pill, "the whiteness I have invested in will just vanish," she continues. Then her skin digitally turns charcoal-black and her smile slowly falls and gives way to a worried expression as she looks at her new skin. She claims that Snowz will prevent the user to "not return to being dark." And why is that important? "Eternally white, I am confident," says Horwang.
Yukti Mukdawijitra, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Thailand's Thammasat University, told CNN that this ad proves racism still exists in Thailand. For "centuries," fair skin has been a mark of privilege and high status in their society. While the country may be the only one in Southeast Asia that was never colonized, it wasn't protected from Western influence that now affects many of its citizens especially when it comes to looking good, succeeding, and discrimination.
"Thai society wants to be a part of international society, so ideas of beauty are transferred from the West to Thailand as well," explains Mukdawijitra. "Those who look Western, those who are white, those who have bodies that look like Westerners', become preferable—in a way, people in Thailand internalize a colonial attitude into themselves."
Does it sound very familiar?
Skin-whitening products are popular in many other Asian countries like the Philippines. We see them every day from when we step out of our homes—Billboards after huge billboards of creams and treatments border EDSA. When we watch TV, we're blasted with 15- or 30-second commercials about whitening ourselves. Even the morena actresses we love who have become big stars now whiten their skins, and we know it because we see their ads or see it on their Instagram grid. And how many of us want to be white or wish we looked like so-and-so artista or have so-and-so's sharp nose just to be beautiful?
Believing that Western features are more beautiful than ours or that they're the only ones that are beautiful is not okay. We should care when we're being judged based on the color of our skin or our race or ethnicity. The fact that many of us continue to associate fair skin with power and influence and act on it is outrageous. I'm sure you've seen it happen: In fancy bars or clubs, Westerners or Western-looking people can go in even if they're just wearing a shirt, denim jeans, and sneakers, while the rest of us have to dress up and wear heels or else we'll be forced to stay out.
More recently, Facebook user Noelle Dolor narrated her experience with a J.Co employee who served foreigners (aka "mga puti") first and made other customers (locals like Dolor) wait even if they were first in line. Dolor confronted the employee, a cashier: "Bakit mo inuna 'yung mga customer na 'yun?"
The cashier replied with "Kasi po baka magalit yung mga puti."
"Excuse me? What do you mean 'baka magalit 'yung puti'? Mas important ba order nila kaysa sa 'min?"
A number of other Filipinos have probably experienced similar instances of social inequality or something with much, much graver effects. Still, it's inequality and discrimination all the same no matter how you look at it. Dolor couldn't have said it better when she wrote, "What annoys the sh*t out of me is that we are treated like second-class citizens in our own goddamn country, where most Filipinos treat foreigners like friggin' gods in our own land."
What's frustrating about the Thai beauty ad and all the other whitening ads out there isn't just that it tells us that we should be white to win at life and be privileged. What's frustrating about it is that our experiences and those we've heard of, as well as the society we live in, tell us that it's true—one big mad truth—that we will be prioritized over others, looked up to and admired if our skins were fair like those of Westerners. Seoul Secret just had the gall to tell us what the hell's been going on in our society.
So who's to blame? Of course our colonial history has a big hand in how we perceive the whites up to today. (Some even say that we aren't even really free yet.) You can pit it on one's own ignorance. But it's also a chicken-and-egg problem. Beauty ads tell us of white privilege, so we believe it; or we've already been believing it that's why companies make those beauty products—to sell them to us and profit big time from our issues.
There has to be a way out of it, right? It might work for you to look at yourself and other people hard in the face and ask things like "What's so ugly or bad about brown skin or a round face? Is it really ugly? Why do I think that having whiter skin or possessing more angular features is better?" You'll need a fresh perspective that'll let you see that we and the rest of our countrymen aren't uglier or less worthy than Westerners—that we're beautiful just as we are.
Seoul Secret has taken down its Snowz ad and issued an apology: "[We] would like to apologize for the mistake and claim full responsibility for this incident. Our company did not have any intention to convey discriminatory or racist messages. What we intended to convey was that self-improvement in terms of personality, appearance, skills, and [professionalism] is crucial."
(Cue: "How is being fair or trying to be fair an improvement?")
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