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Looking White: Racial Discrimination on the Supermarket Shelf

This week's editorial is written by By: Fr. Shay Cullen.

hirley, 16, hid in her bedroom lying on her face and crying. She refused to go to school.Advertisements in print and broadcast media are a testament to the society's obsession with skin-whitening products Her mother, Maria, with gentle persuasion, got her to sit up and take her hands away from covering her face. Maria gasped, her child's face was a blotch of angry red blotches.

"What happened, what caused this?", asked Maria with sympathy. "There, I hate it", Shirley cried and threw a tube of "skin white" bleaching lotion on the floor, her face a flame of fury. It was a foreign-made product and no one could read the ingredients. The child had been influenced by the television and the poster ads telling everyone to bleach their skin white and they will be beautiful, attractive, and be like a film star. The ads suggest that dark skinned people are not as acceptable as white. Shirley fell for it and now had a reaction to the chemicals in the cream. Many of these products contain dangerous levels of mercury that can cause skin rashes, brain damage, and kidney failure among other side effects.

Even though the Philippine government banned a few brands of these dangerous products, they are still found in many stores. The non-enforcement of laws is perhaps the single most devastating and crippling cause of poverty, crime, and harm to the Filipino people. Shirley is just one more victim among thousands.

The marketing of skin whitening creams and lotions is a billion peso industry in the Philippines and even more in the rest of Asia. Millions of Asian people are beguiled into believing that the western standard of white skin connotes beauty to which all should aspire.

Such products and their promotional advertisement, bill boards and magazine ads are insulting to all non-white people. What are they saying in effect to people of darker skin color? "If you are not white-skinned you are not beautiful", or worse "you are ugly, you need to get white skin and even cosmetic surgery and be like us". This are not exclusive western notions as other societies with elites have it too. It discriminates against the common person.

The racial superiority behind these products reinforces profiling and discrimination by skin color. Immigration and police are prone to suspect dark- skinned people as being somehow more suspect than white-looking people. This leads to racial profiling that many traveling Asians experience at western airports and immigration counters.

The products succeed in the market place and are accepted by non-white people in the millions perhaps because of a colonial mentality that accepts western colonialists as superior whom they wished to imitate. This acceptance resulted in part from mind-conditioning and racists slogans such as "white is might and so white is right". Western colonial regimes left their mark on the cultures of the people they once ruled.

Today, globalization and the aggressive marketing of western products and brands encourage people of other cultures to adopt western fashion in clothes, looks and standards of beauty. Western superiority and the racism that comes from it has been growing in Asia since the 19th century. World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan have established the superiority of western military power. It has inculcated an inferiority complex in many Asians, a form of cultural submission to western mores and a desire to imitate them and be like them. But some nations have bravely resisted and fought back for their own national identity, freedom and dignity. Yet today the cosmetic industry has seemingly conquered where marching armies failed.

The Philippines is a case in point, society imitates western fashion and life style and millions aspire to be westernized and migrate to America, their former colonial master. As a result, many young people are losing their sense of identity. They are lacking in self confidence and esteem and aspiring to be what they are not. We need to teach them that beauty is in the spirit and personality of human being, it is not merely an external attribute and it does not depend on skin color, hair style or fashion. We are all born with equal human rights and dignity and we must oppose all forms of racial discrimination wherever we find it, especially when it's on the supermarket shelf.

Contact Fr. Shay Cullen at the Preda Center, Upper Kalaklan, Olongapo City, Philippines. e-mail: preda@info.com.ph Website: www.preda.org PREDA Information Office PREDA Foundation, Inc.

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