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musings on colour, power, and place 
1st-Oct-2011 03:05 am
I hadn't been at my host family's house, my new home in Cambodia, for one whole day when my host sister's friend came to visit. She held my hands and touched my nose, repeating over and over in Khmer: “Beautiful! Beautiful!” My natural, embarrassed reaction to these kinds of occurrences is to say, “No, you are beautiful!”
In America, I was never beautiful. At first I didn't understand what was happening in this strange new place, my confusion overwhelming all other feelings. Could it be true? I wondered. Am I really beautiful? No one back home had ever praised my beauty. From time to time, people had remarked on some feature of mine they thought was nice; as a child, a family friend had said, “Wait 'til she's older, she'll be drop-dead gorgeous.” “Drop-dead gorgeous” never happened, although there was this bizarre phenomenon of old men telling me I was pretty. I thought maybe my beauty was an old, outdated kind that only previous generations appreciated, though it seemed more likely they were just senile.
A 60-year-old man that I used to work with in a paint shop was scrutinizing me one day. His name was Denny; I really liked Denny. Quite suddenly he came out with, “Liz, anyone ever tell you yer a good-lookin' girl?” “Yeah,” I said in earnest, “Old guys.” Denny burst out laughing, turning to another painter; “Old guys like me!” He exclaimed.
These occasional compliments embarrassed me. I didn't believe them. Sometimes I even said thank you, but I was almost 23 when I realized I didn't, have never, believed them.
So here I was, 8,600 miles and almost exactly half-way around the world from my home, and suddenly I was a beauty? Cambodians, especially women, complimented me, bordering on praise, nearly every day. As if beauty holds some kind of merit. For Cambodian women it does, in a way; women who never look beautiful may not get married, and what a horror that would be! Slowly I realized that a Cambodian woman's self-worth, as well as the worth placed on her by others, are bound up in her perceived beauty or lack thereof.
In the city I went to a photography studio to have some pictures taken for my job. There were several computers, some with young men working at them. I stood behind one of them to watch. He was altering Khmer wedding pictures in Photoshop. He was removing all the blemishes from the skin of the bride and groom, and after that he set about changing the qualities of RGB tone and hue in various parts of the picture, using the burn tool, and so forth. I realized that he was lightening their skin, to make them appear whiter. He focused especially on the woman's face, neck, and shoulders. By the time he was done, the bride and groom on the screen were a good deal different from the bride and groom that had originally been scanned into the computer; they were also as white as a WASP.
I stopped puzzling over the compliments I received. I became annoyed. I wanted to take Cambodian women by the shoulders and look them straight in the face and tell them, “They've got you. They told you about your beauty, and you believed them! You can't believe them!”
Belief. Cambodians were a colonized people. In many, many ways, they are still a colonized people. It is de facto colonialism, de facto slavery. The Cambodian mind is enslaved to the dogma of “the West”. It has given me chronic headaches that there is a place, “the East,” and another, “the West”, on a planet that is spherical. East and West are no longer directions of movement, relative to one's position and the position of something else on the Earth; they are places bound up in the hierarchy of “good” and “bad”, just like everything else.
This hierarchy can trade dichotomies of equitable nature in order for us to understand the human Universe. Good is the opposite of bad. White is the opposite of black. West is the opposite of East. Beautiful is the opposite of ugly. Rich is the opposite of poor. Educated is the opposite of uneducated. Therefore, black, East, ugly, poor, uneducated = bad. Variations on the fore-mentioned are beliefs that Cambodians hold, relayed to them by the missionaries of the upper ranks of hierarchy; the French colonizers, the rest of the European colonizers, the Australian colonizers, the American colonizers, the Canadian colonizers, and so on. The message has been spread by word of mouth, by foreign visitors and expatriates dwelling here; it has been reinforced by all media sources, including those of other Asian countries (e.g. advertisements for “whitening” and bleaching products, TV shows idealizing “Western” technology, medicine, fashion, etc.); and finally this message has sunk straight to the heart of the Cambodian people, along with many other Asian peoples, manifesting as the trafficking of their own daughters and sons. These are beliefs that Cambodians hold.
So what do these beliefs make beautiful look like? Beauty is WHITE, above all else. Beauty is also a high-bridged nose, or having a bridge, at all. Beauty is blonde or light-coloured hair of a soft or thin texture. Beauty is youth. Beauty is large eyes. Beauty is slimness. But always, always, beauty is WHITE.
Huge portions of reality, maybe all of it, are based on belief. When a Cambodian girl is repeatedly told by those closest to her, her friends, schoolmates, relatives, and parents, that she is stupid and lazy, that she has an old face, that she is fat, or that-- worst of all in the Cambodian female imagination-- she has black skin, she will believe it. Slivers of doubt rack her mind as she rages against the “truth” being forced upon her by these insidious, sometimes jealous and always controlling forces. CAN IT BE? The inadequacy bogs down her mind. She must study even harder to prove them wrong, but the depression clouds her thinking, dilutes her interest even in things she once found interesting, and inhibits her logic. Her logic once allowed her to see “the point” in her education, but it is degraded. She no longer sees the point. She wants to stay at home all the time. Her parents threaten to remove her from school, but secretly she invites it-- school is taxing, all the bullying, and she is tired, so tired. “Teacher, I'm so tired, just so tired,” She tells me, almost imploringly. She slumps down in her chair and lays her head on the table, and appears to be instantly asleep. I'm lost and bound up at once. I want to pull her out of this cruel joke, away from her father's belt and her mother's pernicious berating. I say her name firmly and she looks at me; I don't know what else to say. “Don't believe them.” My voice is as sure as it has ever been. “You are not stupid. Don't believe them.” I reach for the sliver of doubt that I have heard her express before. “You know that, don't you? You are very smart. Don't believe them.”
A Cambodian woman's reality is confirmed by me, when I come to their country with my white skin and my bridged nose. It exists. They understand that this is what their parents, their schoolmates, their neighbors, their husbands, the people on TV and in the magazines are talking about: white, Anglo, Aryan, French, European, white, light-skinned, light-haired, barang, rich, American, pink-breasted, Western, WHITE beauty. What they are is not beautiful: black, dark-skinned, flat-nosed, dark-haired, course-haired, black, working-class, poor, dark-eyed, dark-breasted, Eastern, black, black, BLACK.
My mind is swimming with black and white. Even the greyscale is gone. My vibrant, technicolour vision of the Universe is reduced to this division of me and them that is NOT REAL. I want to TEAR IT DOWN. I can see it happening on a black-and-white television set, the Berlin Wall falling in 1989. But this is a wall in any place, in any time. The wall is coming down in pieces, and the colour is returning like shards of light through a prism, and suddenly there is no “East”, nor “West”, no US and THEM.
In the supermarket there are row upon row of hand and facial creams. I look for one to accommodate my bad skin. (Even Cambodians tell me my acne is ugly; they will be quite forthright with you.) But all the washes and lotions have whitening agents in them. Disgusted, I move on to find a deodorant. But these, too, are full of whitening agents. All the “beauty sections” of Phnom Penh supermarkets are like this.
Sometimes to hide my frustration and to stop myself from arguing with them, I tell Cambodian women my favourite oversimplification: “You know, in America, they think black skin is beautiful. Americans want to be black. In America, you would be the most beautiful.” There is no word for “tan” in Khmer. The women, so self-effacing and self-demeaning, laugh; they are embarrassed. They continue to say they want to be white, like me.
White like me. I can't comprehend my own rage when I have to confront this. IT IS NOT FAIR. No one ever asked me, “Do you want to shape your identity around the colour of your skin? How about your age? How about your gender? Especially your gender.” This, at least, is what pulls me and Cambodian women into the same gravitational field: the black hole of gender. Our inferiority is the same, in this regard. All men are better than all women. Good/bad, white/black, men/women. The black hole is pulling us down, compacting us all into a homogenous, lifeless pudding.
A man at the Cambodian NGO where I volunteer tells me he wants to study abroad. “England,” He says, “is my dream.” He also confides that America is a close second. I tell him how American universities get very excited to see “ethnic” applicants-- his chances may actually be improved by his being Cambodian, not something that can oft be said on this side of the world. He smiles and changes the subject, and I realize he doesn't believe me.
I also realize that my being white neutralizes my identity. I am nothing, I am from nowhere. I am, as a fellow American here once berated one of our peers, “VANILLA”. I always hear that “minorities” and “ethnic peoples” are “the spice of America”. But I am flavorless. I am ordinary. And on top of that, I am a woman, and therefore not as smart, nor strong, nor creative; I don't belong here because this place is for men, “This is the BOYS' table, the GIRLS' table is over there. Go sit over there.” I go sit over there. I am defeated, humiliated, ashamed of myself.
In Cambodia, I sit with the Cambodians. There is no one who “looks like me” to sit with. But they are happy that I am sitting with them. They want to hear me speak Khmer, even when it is wrong. They want to know if I “know how” to eat rice. They are overjoyed when I tell them Khmer food is so delicious. They are happy I am trying, even when I botch things. They are happy that I want to know their language, rather than urge them to learn mine. I am relieved they don't reject me, that they are so patient and eager to teach me. Maybe they are relieved that I don't reject them? Maybe they see me as validating their culture, its right to exist, when colonialism and neo-colonialism have stomped all over it or turned it into cute souvenirs for decades.
Everyone is afraid of inadequacy and its subsequent rejection. INADEQUACY is one wall of her Prison of Color, according to Virginia R. Harris. Some people experience this inadequacy more vividly and more violently than others, but it is, itself, a universal experience. Well, except for in the case of white, upper-class males, of course.
“The birthright of every American male is a chronic sense of personal inadequacy,” Michael Kimmel quotes in his essay, Masculinity as Homophobia. I snorted when I read that, dismissing it out of hand. But I forced myself to read it again, and again, until I could empathize with the notion. The slow-growing horror about the truth of inadequacy began creeping up on me. I must acknowledge the power of difference and its manifestation as inadequacy as all-pervasive, all-powerful forces acting on the human psyche. The irony is that these phenomena are also creations of the human psyche.
A friend whom I quite admire used “innate, pattern-and-difference-seeking thought” in humans to argue for why we need concepts like gender. I was crushed, because he thought nothing of a) being sexist and b) bolstering his sexism with “scientific” or “biologically-based” justifications. It was “natural”, to him. How might he have reacted if I asked him to apply his “theory” to the association of intelligence with skin colour? Nazis and modern-day scientists, alike, have used this argument to demonstrate the “innate”or “biologically-based” lesser intelligence of “coloured peoples” and the “innate” superiority of “non-coloured peoples”. He would have balked, I have no doubt. White men are generally terrified of appearing racist, but they still find it utterly commonsensical to degrade anything they classify as female. Sexism is still keenly in fashion. The irony is a kick in the gut.
Inadequacy is also what creates in some groups of people, like women, the urge to fashion themselves as helpless, weak, as victims. Society expects us to be powerless victims in need of rescue, and so to have some form of validation, some women try to appear this way. “I am the princess in the tower, come rescue me.” But some women are repelled by this idea. My 13-year-old student wants control over her own life. She doesn't want her parents to act out their frustrations upon her. She does not want to succumb to her father's beatings, because she is not a victim. She protests and denies every unjust claim her peers at school make to the teacher. When her friends (“friends”) are “in a mood”, they scapegoat her, as well. They “frame” her for crimes that get her assigned hundreds of lines. She goes home and spends hours writing these lines, after being discouraged from eating dinner by her mother, because she is “fat like a cow”. She has no extra time for studying, let alone play. Then she goes to school again, where she hands in her lines. The teacher throws them away right in front of her. Her teacher does not defend her if other students call her fat or “old-faced”; I suspect, she, too, wants to scapegoat our mutual student for being “freakish”-- “tall for her age”. In spite of all of this, my student still protests, tries to defend herself.
This student is not stupid, as many would have her believe. She recognizes that people control her, want to control her. She feels powerless, trapped. What can I tell her? “Grow up and go far from here,” perhaps. But whatever age she is, and wherever she goes, she will still be inferior. She will be multiple levels of inferior, in fact, because she is not male, not white, not Western. We grieve together. There is no end in sight for me, and maybe not for her. But she is young, she should not have to despair like this.
Then I remember the despair I felt at the age of 13. I remember being degraded, disparaged, in the lunchline, in class, during recess, at soccer practice, for being small. “Dynamite comes in small packages,” my 6th grade teacher assured me. She, too, was short. She seemed to feel for me. But no one else seemed to see me as anything like dynamite. My hurt and despair and humiliation turned to anger. I misread her remark; I decided to see what would happen if I acted on that anger, if I EXPLODED. It was partly a choice, and partly I was out of control. I became violent in my language and sometimes in my actions. I cursed anyone who looked at me “the wrong way”. I was full of hatred for my tormentors. They became a huge, faceless, homogenous group that almost anyone could fall into. There was no way out except through violence.
This is the inadequacy that Kimmel was describing, to which American men are subjected. It is the inadequacy that leads to violence. Strength and power are associated with physical action, defense, retaliation; no “real man” wants to look weak or powerless. To keep his power when it is threatened, he must act out violently, or be diminished forever. Without power, one is not a man. One is not a person. Lose your power, and you lose your personhood.
I have seen my student act out violently. She yells at kids at her school. She makes fun of the friend who drives me to her house, and not in a playful way. She defaces books and destroys papers and pens. When her family still had maids, she used to hit or push them.
She compares herself to me, and it comes full circle back to WHITE. She wishes she was WHITE, not BLACK. We both wish we were MALE, not FEMALE. But not really. Not at all. What we both truly want, I imagine, is to be accepted and loved, for WHO WE ARE.
3rd-Oct-2011 04:04 pm (UTC)
I want to post something intelligent as a reply but I'm having trouble coming up with a response other than your post is incredibly interesting and thought provoking.
4th-Oct-2011 12:20 am (UTC)
haha, Cathy, i always love to hear your thoughts! thank you for the comment, it makes me feel connected to know that there are people out there reading my novels.. ;)
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