Several months ago, my eldest daughter Athena Azlee, who is six years old, came to me and said something that really took me by surprise. I had no idea a young girl like her could think of something like that.
“I wish my skin was a little bit fairer, like Alethea.”
“Why would you want that? Your skin looks great to me,” I said.
“I know. But Alethea’s skin is fairer and that is beautiful.”
Then it hit me. I have heard some distant relatives commenting on how fair Alethea’s skin is when she was born. Alethea is Athena’s younger sister and she is almost two years old. And yes, her skin is slightly fairer than Athena.
Hearing my daughter say this really broke my heart. My immediate family and I have never put any importance on physical beauty. And I definitely have never put that kind of pressure on my children either.
So it makes me angry at how certain segments of society can still uphold archaic perceptions of beauty where one has to be fair skinned to be seen as beautiful. And it makes me furious that that segment of society exposed it to my daughter!
It is ridiculous that in this day and age, when the world is so global and borderless, when we are exposed to so many different people and cultures, that we can still have people who think that beauty is defined by the colour of their skin.
The idea that people with dark skin are ugly, and also considered inferior to those who have fair skin, is just plain and obvious racist. Athena has strong Malay genes and she will definitely have brown Malay skin. But she is the most beautiful six-year-old I have ever seen.
It is even more ridiculous when a global company like Watsons could actually endorse such an archaic perception of beauty by producing an online video advertisement that had a black face character similar to those from minstrel shows back in the 19th century.
If you haven’t been following the issue, Watsons (the pharmacy chain) released a 15-minute Hari Raya themed video on their Facebook page. It is about a rich man who dreamt of a woman with a beautiful voice.
So he made a call for all the maidens around the world to come to his palace so he could find the one he was searching for. All those who came did not have the voice that he was looking for.
Then he heard it and he pushed his way through the crowd to see a woman singing. Initially, he couldn’t see her face because it was covered up with a shawl. He pulls it away and was shocked to see a black-faced woman. He even makes stupid jokes like “Where are the lights?”
Outdated and archaic
Watsons has since taken down the video, but through the magic of the Internet, you can still find the video online. They have since made two apologies.
What I would like to know is how come there was no one at Watsons or even at the creative agency that produced the video who noticed that this is a racist and offensive video? I find it hard to believe that there is not a single person with decent common sense in these two organisations.
Watsons’ apology statement also said that all they wanted to do was to highlight an old Malay legend called ‘Dayang Senandung’, about a princess who was born black skinned due to a curse (again… does black have to mean a curse?).
It is alright to be proud of Malay heritage and to want to tell classical Malay stories. But why still tell it in such a way that is so outdated and archaic? Couldn’t they have made improvements to the story to suit the sensibilities of society today? It is not alright to base it on a racist folklore.
Informed content creators would choose to take the opportunity to build commentary to subvert the subject matter in present-day context. Instead, they just chose to run with the racist theme and think that is all okay.
So, my response to Athena after she told me she wished that she had fairer skin was very simple and straightforward.
“The colour of your skin does not matter, Athena. Do you know why?”
“I love you very much because you are so smart and funny. You talk a lot and are always asking questions. When we are together, we have so much fun and you make me so happy. That’s what makes you beautiful to me.”
Athena looks at me with such a wide smile that I had to smile too. She gave me a big hug and kiss, and went off to continue playing with her sister in their playroom. I really believe that she understands now.
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