Sunday, August 3, 2008

Whiteness as a Virtue in China

Here sunscreen is not called “sunscreen” but “whitening cream.” The marketing people must have thought, “it will sell better if we remind people it will keep them white, or even mislead them into thinking it will actually lighten their skin.” It’s along the same lines as the full-coverage cape-like shirts and the Darth Vader-esque sun visors that cover the entire face of a woman riding a motorbike. (see picture) And the pretty parasols everyone carries? At first I was impressed. I appreciated this delicate attention to skin protection, and I think they must have much lower rates of skin cancer, but then I began to realize it had to do with whiteness as a virtue. Skin color associations with class—if your skin is dark, you are probably poor and have to work manual labor out in the sun. It’s better to be as “white” as possible and therefore privileged. I know that it’s just ignorance, that it’s not overt racism, that they don’t realize how this might appear to someone who has darker skin himself or comes from a country where there are people with naturally dark skin. But at the same time it makes me cringe a little. Add that to the gaping and staring we get everywhere as objects of exoticism, and I can’t help but value the diversity of home. I’m glad I come from a country where there are many different colors and races and cultures, and it’s not unusual or blog-worthy to see a Chinese person or an African person or a Brazilian person riding the subway.

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