Friday, January 27, 2017

Are Thais racist because they prefer pale skin?

A somewhat lesser known (in the west) phenomenon that's quite prevalent in many parts of eastern Asia is that lighter/paler skin is often considered more beautiful and desirable than darker skin. In some countries, like Thailand, this is so prevalent that a skin-whitening industry has formed there, selling all kinds of lotions and pills to whiten one's skin.

The ads of these companies may often appear to be incredibly "racist" to the modern politically correct sensibilities of westerners (even to some who aren't regressive leftist social justice warriors.) Some ads may even feature a relatively pale-skinned person in "blackface". Some such ads have caused quite a lot of controversy in the west.

But is this racism, or caused by racism?

No. What most people forget, or don't know, is that in the Victorian and pre-Victorian eras, mostly in Europe, a tanned complexion was often taken as a sign that you were a poor peasant, while a pale skin was taken as a sign that you were a rich aristocrat. That's because peasants worked mostly outside, in the fields and farms, and thus got tanned, while aristocrats spent most of their time inside. In fact, a pale skin was considered aesthetically more pleasing than a tanned skin. (The archetypal Victorian era aristocratic woman being outside carrying a parasol is exactly because of this. They didn't want to get tanned when outside.)

This had little to nothing to do with race, and everything to do with aesthetic cultural norms, and the (admittedly quite elitist) notions by rich aristocrats of peasants being undesirable. A tanned skin was deemed ugly because it was strongly associated with poor people, who worked in dirty jobs in the fields and with cattle. There was likely a strong association of a tanned skin with dirtiness. A pale skin was considered beautiful, and a sign of nobility, riches and cleanliness.

Given how much influence Victorian England has had on east Asia, it does not surprise me in the least that these same cultural notions are prevalent there even today. It has absolutely nothing to do with race, and everything to do with aesthetic norms.

No comments:

Post a Comment