This fascinating phrase comes from the book of Frantz Fanon, “Black Skin White Masks.” Fanon, the black psychiatrist from Martinique, and author of the classic “The Wretched of the Earth,” diagnoses the neurosis of wanting-to-be-white as a product of the internalization of colonial subjugation. “If there is an inferiority complex,” Fanon writes, “it is the outcome of a double process: primarily, economic; subsequently, the internalization – or, better, the epidermalization – of this inferiority.”
What an apt description, I thought to myself, of the current epidemic of skin whiteners in the country! In Fanon’s time, women of color who wanted to rid themselves of what they perceived to be the curse of their negritude could only avail themselves of the crudest bleaching solutions. Today, there are a thousand and one lotions, soaps, and substances in the market that promise to clear, lighten, or whiten skin. Most of these products contain two highly toxic chemicals: Hydroquinone or Mercury Chloride. Hydroquinone is used in photo laboratories as well as in the manufacture of rubber. The effect on the skin is to inhibit or break down melanin which is responsible for skin and hair pigmentation. These chemicals are known to be carcinogenic.
The principal markets for skin whitening products are countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The target clientele of these products has always been the youth aspiring to social mobility in a world that assigns a high premium to Caucasian physical appearance. But I suspect that the recent resurgence of skin whiteners may also have something to do with the facial profiling of terrorists at airports and other ports of entry. The lighter your skin, the less likely will you be singled out for security scrutiny.
Fanon says that the adoption of the language and culture of the colonial power has always come easy for colonized peoples “in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality.” The colonized believes that “he becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness.” In the ‘70s and ‘80s, young Filipinos recovered the use of their ancestors’ language and transformed it into a tool of creative protest and expression. It is not by coincidence that those were also the years that saw the rise of Nora Aunor as an icon of Filipino beauty and talent, while the mestiza stars of a previous generation melted into the background
I did not think that values could change so dramatically in the span of only two decades. As national self-worth began to diminish hand in hand with the country’s rapid underdevelopment, the desire to take on other identities also became strong. Language and skin color began to be seen as markers of inferiority that could be overcome. Learning to speak English like an American and bleaching one’s skin with whiteners served the same purpose – adjustment to the hierarchy of languages and skin colors.
Today the situation is graver. A growing proportion of young Filipinos — at least one out of five, say the surveys — do not see any hope of advancing their dreams if they remain in the Philippines. Their principal ambition is to get an education as quickly as possible, and then leave the country as soon as possible. Between finishing and leaving, they learn call-center English and its idioms, get hired as contractual call-center agents, and take on new skins, literally and figuratively.
I used to think that this behavioral syndrome was confined to the socially and economically disadvantaged in our society. But recently I was astonished to meet young people from affluent families who have turned to very expensive medical substances to induce a comprehensive and dramatic alteration of their skin pigmentation. I asked their parents if they were not worried about the long-term sideeffects of these chemicals, especially on the kidneys and liver. “It’s a fad among his classmates in school, a form of self-expression,” one mother told me with some amusement. She didn’t seem bothered at all. I came away unsure if whitening one’s skin was an instance of colonial mentality or of self-creation. For indeed, if we could understand why people get face lifts, nose jobs, breast implants, and botox treatments, etc. why should we judge those who seek a lighter skin tone for themselves?
In any event, this encounter made me re-visit Fanon’s views. His ideas, I have realized, are far more nuanced than they would appear on first reading. He does not condemn the quest for whiteness for what it is, but for the acceptance and internalization of inferiority that it signifies. Neither does he romanticize negritude. “In no way should I derive my basic purpose from the past of the peoples of color. In no way should I dedicate myself to the revival of an unjustly unrecognized Negro civilization. I will not make myself the man of any past. I do not want to exalt the past at the expense of my present and of my future.”
Fanon simply refused to recognize the unequal order of colors and cultures. “There is no white world, there is no white ethic, any more than there is a white intelligence. There are in every part of the world men who search. I am not a prisoner of history. I should not seek there for the meaning of my destiny. I should constantly remind myself that the real leap consists in introducing invention into existence. In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself.”
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