whiteness and giants

June 24, 2014 § 44 Comments

Rodger believed his proximity to whiteness (and wealth) ought to have guaranteed him elevated status and whatever objects of his desire (in this case, white women).

Rodger’s words feel viscerally familiar to me; I, and many other women, have known men like Rodger. I’ll go further and say that as a southeast Asian woman of color growing up in the Bay Area, I’ve known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of color, like Rodger. Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness. Men who routinely degraded the poorer or darker-skinned Asian women and other women of color in their communities.

Reading Elaine Castillo on race, economies of desire, proximity to whiteness / aspirations to whiteness, and recognising some of these effects in Malaysia. I wish I had the words. I don’t have it, I think, I’m stumbling and fumbling and unsure, but I want to put this down and lay it out. Although Elaine is specifically talking about growing up Filipino in the States, living in Malaysia and having met and known Asian men in Canada I too have known Asian men, mixed Asian men, and other men of colour like Rodger. “Men who openly worshipped white women and whose self-worth existed in direct correlation to their own proximity to whiteness.” On the flipside, I have also known women who openly worshipped white men and women, openly desired to be white women. I don’t say this to make some flat equivalence and to erase the work of gender. I say this because whiteness is always there in post-colonial Malaysia, even when it’s not there.

To see the world refracted through American conceptions of race would be a reductive, flawed thing—but I’m also not sure what is to be done, or how to think through, the invisible whiteness that structures economies of desire in “post”-colonial Southeast Asian nations. The way in which aspiring to a life of American whiteness, where apparently everything is better, where even democracy is “cleaner”, structures the political and social investments of the middle and upper classes in Malaysia; the people who have the say, the people whose fucking votes matter. That it’s so banal, so normal, this Americanisation of the world—even in parts of the world that just saw the British leave.

Out goes the white man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them.

A part of this circling around what I’m most ashamed to say: that I grew up thinking white men were better, that I believed somehow that the misogyny I saw around me in Malaysia did not inhabit the pure white bodies of American men I assumed, in my dreams, to be better. Pop culture and society taught me how to desire, but I also took matters into my own hands and thought that if I tried to be white—

Against this, my father, properly bourgeois but with a small kernel of rebelliousness in him, I think, that knew of no other way of manifesting itself except through excess drinking, used to always say to me and my sisters: 1) “America is the worst”; and, 2) “Don’t trust white men”. Not in those words, exactly, but those were the words he meant to convey. The folly of youth is convincing yourself that everything your parents teach you must be unlearned.

Not everything, as it turns out.

I was reading the first book in the KL Noir series, KL Noir: Red, and one of the stories is by Marc de Faoite; his brief author bio says he was born in Ireland but has lived in other countries and now resides in Langkawi. His story is written from a first-person point-of-view of an Indian migrant worker, which—I mean, okay. He has also authored a collection of short stories titled “Tropical Madness” (coz the tropics be MAD, yougaiz). And the blurb for that book says he “sensitively deals with some of the realities of modern Malaysia” and that he “gives voice to a mix of marginalized and overlooked sectors of Malaysia’s population, including immigrants, transsexuals, fishermen, ethnic minorities and sex slaves”. So like this white guy inhabits all marginalised identities in his fiction and gives voice to their something. I am fucking astounded, give him all the awards.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. (And also being unfair, not having read his collection of stories yet.) Back to his story in KL Noir: his character surveys the people at the restaurant he works at and this is what he sees #IndianMigrantWorkerGazeviaWhiteMaleGaze:

KL Noir

In light of everything recently, thinking about that piece by Elaine, about proximity to whiteness and economies of desire in Southeast Asia, and I can’t seem to “let go” of those “giant-sized, short-haired Tamil women”. Can you imagine them? They are not big or large; they are “giant-sized”, practically inhuman. In contrast, a very safe description of Muslim women (because anything more and you’re in trouble?), and alongside these giant-sized Tamil women, young Chinese women with their “skinny bare white legs”.

I’m trying to let go but I can’t quite.

Further on in the story, another worker is talking about having seen two Malay guys check out a pair of Chinese girls in shorts—to which another guy asks, “So they weren’t Indian?” Because hafuckingha. There’s so much going on here, and talking to any Malaysian-Indian women will reveal this: Malaysian-Indian men desire Chinese women because they’re [thin / sexy / less hairy / and most important, fair-skinned]. Growing up, this was the “joke” I knew that structured beliefs about desire. (In college, a Chinese guy put his arm next to mine merely to observe, “Wow you’re so much darker and hairier than me”. But every Indian girl I know has this story to tell in some version.) I grew up realising that Tamil women were not sexy, not desiring or desirable, that in the hierarchies of desire wanting a Tamil woman comes pretty low on the list, unless you have a freakish fetish for dark women or hairy women; that Tamil women who want to get the man must perform the labour that is required to look like the other women who are closer to the ideal version of a woman. Chinese women are a step closer to exquisite white womanhood, perhaps. One upper-caste Malayalee guy I know is still waiting for his dream blonde with “Aryan features”; in the meantime, Chinese girls and “fair-skinned Malay girls” who don’t wear the tudung are nice to look at and why would he even look in the direction of a hirsute dark-skinned giant like hello he has latte-coloured skin and a well-defined nose and he is entitled to so much more than that I mean??? How dare you suggest he settle for less?

We haven’t yet entered into the economies of desire within Indians themselves (Malaysians of Tamil, Malayalee, Telugu backgrounds collectively refer to themselves as “Indians” in Malaysia, so it’s not a term designating nationality but ethnicity, and I think this is confusing to ourselves and everyone else), but caste and class play a huge role in this. How do I sort out this mess? Hannah Black writes that, “Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy” and I agree, obviously, but I don’t agree, less obviously, because I know white supremacy but how to begin to sketch out its effects in places like Southeast Asia? Or maybe the question is wrong, and belatedly, I’m coming to realise that the question that has to be kept in mind, alongside how white do Asians want to be, is how we don’t want to be black. And keeping in mind that much of Tamil bourgeois mores are caste and colour based, wherein the untouchable castes perform the labour that no “civilised” person would do:

tweet

There is one other story in KL Noir where an Indian female person makes an appearance and she’s a little girl in Brian Gomez’s “Mud”. The girl is described as “looking ugly as ever” (i.e. like all other Indian girls) by the self-hating, Chinese-women-in-sexy-clothes-desiring Indian rich guy. The guy is an ass; in fact, he’s a criminal in the grotesque sense that only the rich can be. We’re not meant to identify with him because he’s not sympathetic. However, here it is: in a collection of stories about KL life, Indian women and girls are neither desiring nor desired, they are “giant-sized”, in passing, and “ugly as ever”, in passing. It’s no surprise that he is visiting a Tamil community that’s impoverished; the colour of the girl’s skin, to this man, is the ugliness of the laboring classes and their symbolic proximity to blackness.

What Amalia Clarice Mora says here is a fairly common observation throughout Malaysia, so common as to be banal. Our beauty queens and our “brand ambassadors”, our faces that sell and our very favourite people, are as close to “Eurasian” looking as possible, “Pan Asian” or what have you, Asian because exotic but not too Asian, not excessively Asian, because that would not be “universally” desirable: “The mixed people are so beautiful sentiment, which often really means white-ish looking people with an ethnic twist are so beautiful or ethnic people with white features are so beautiful.” If you talk about white supremacy in Malaysia people will, on the whole, look at you funny because What does that have to do with us? but still they want you to be lighter, lighter, lighter, and beautiful in a way that you can never be, further from a kind of blackness that is always hypervisible, and closer to a kind of whiteness that no one thinks they want.

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§ 44 Responses to whiteness and giants

  • sharanya says:

    grief is real, grief is correct. this made me cry a bit. sorry for spamming with incoherence//thank you, immensely, for writing this.

  • javednizami says:

    Hay, racism is been part and parcel of society how much ever we eradicate it.
    But we have people who are good. Beyond colour creed cast sex..
    What matters is the heart.
    A pure heart filled with love can change everything. More no matter what colour you are when dead it’s all the same.

  • spiritequality says:

    ” I wish I had the words. I don’t have it, I think…” you said. I think you DO have it. Keep writing. Keep shining.

  • spiritequality says:

    I particularly liked these two sentence, which sum up the idea of the intersection between Eurocentrism and patriarchy in the world of publishing succintly: “So like this white guy inhabits all marginalised identities in his fiction and gives voice to their something. I am fucking astounded, give him all the awards.”

  • Nida S. says:

    Coming from Pakistan, I can only begin to comment on our love-affair with white skin and the overall submission to ‘white-supremacy’. You depicted these thoughts with a lot of heart. Well done!

    • gangtokay says:

      The love for white (fairer) skin is up and about in India too. And people aren’t even subtle about it you know. Adverts for fairer skin, fairer underarms, fairer labia and what have you. The matrimonial section of any national daily (or weekly) is filled with requests of “fair skinned, convent educated girl”.

  • Jean says:

    Well, I propose we just get more Asian women and men cycling competitively ..and they will get darker, no matter how much sun block they use..but they will become stronger and have greater endurance on the bike. ‘Cause I’m tired of seeing primarily white cycling competitors at the international level.

    Ok, ..I hope you see where I am going with this..

  • Hello. I was not aware that the Asian diaspora spoke about White supremacy. I only hear this from the Black American community. It seems so obvious how powerful the concept of ‘whiteness’ has had an affect on people from he outside the western world.

    Unfortunately people of the world are not coming together to combat this concept. We just fight the ‘supremacy’ separately in our respective social groups. And that’s how the ‘giants’ win.

    Thanks for your moderation.

    • Subashini says:

      It’s a concept and theorisation that originated in Black scholarship, I believe. I don’t think Asians or Southeast Asians are willing to look at it as something that has active material effects in our present lives even though a good portion of this region was colonised by Western European powers (or America, as is the case with Philippines). Thanks for your comment.

  • You might consider revisiting this sentence for clarity: “I say this because whiteness is always there in post-colonial in Malaysia, even when it’s not there.” Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  • Adamkolo says:

    Reblogged this on adamkolo's Blog and commented:
    Great

  • Funnily enough, in some other parts of the world people want to get tanned. Fellow Malaysian here, so I know what you are talking about. Stereotypes will never be fair, so we just gotta make the best of where we are and who we really are. I like to think that as we come of age as individuals and as a nation, we are gradually learning to see ourselves as equals to whatever else the past and society condition us to ‘worship’. Also, Miss Universe Malaysia 2014 Sabrina Benett is a dark-skinned beauty ;)

  • “…The way in which aspiring to a life of American whiteness, where apparently everything is better, where even democracy is “cleaner”, structures the political and social investments of the middle and upper classes in Malaysia; the people who have the say, the people whose fucking votes matter. That it’s so banal, so normal, this Americanisation of the world—even in parts of the world that just saw the British leave….”

    People usually aspire to have what they do not have, and to be what they are not. Often these aspirations are not possible or preferable and often they do not even exist! (The Disney princess … the James Bond style ‘compassionate AND psychopathic’ man etc).

    What most people desire is happiness, freedom, wealth, popularity/ desirability, comfort, security and good health. That is pretty universal. If they associate those things with white western women (or men) then perhaps they are too easily swayed by Hollywood, Friends, Sex in the City, Western advertising (et al)…. all of which are make believe, not real life. That’s not so much oppression, as naivety.

    In the west millions of women desire to be impossibly thin photoshopped versions of themselves because THAT’S what they currently associate with happiness, freedom, wealth, popularity/ desirability, comfort, security and good health. Does than mean impossible photoshopped women are oppressing western women? Or are western women also just naively confusing make believe with real life?

    “..Out goes the white man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them….”

    Is it really acceptable in the 21st century to group all white men together (from the lowest paid road sweeper to the head of a multinational corporation) and judge them collectively as a group?

    Does the following sentence sound distasteful (offensive) to you? “… Out goes the black man and in comes another; where would [we / the world] be without them…” If so, why is OK to say make the exact same remark about white men?

    It seems ‘white men’ are the only group left in the world that we can make slurs against in public (even on TV) and not be accused of hate speech…. How does that fit into the notion of ‘white male privilege’?

    FWIW white men (if we really must group them all together) were instrumental in ending the slave trade – a trade which was already rampant in Africa for centuries before the white men ever arrived. Slaves bought and shipped to the New World were far better treated than slaves being shipped to any other nation. Only about 10% (I forget the exact figure) of slaves shipped to the Americas ended up in the USA. Yet we rarely hear about all those slaves being shipped to non-white countries.

    Slaves being shipped East were routinely castrated without anaesthetic (men), raped and left to die (women) and put to death as soon as their productivity dropped. That is WHY black slaves did not survive to eventually become a large population of free men and women in the east – like they did in the US. Only in the US were slaves allowed to live as families, and eventually granted freedom.

    The history books love to depict ‘whites’ as the savages and barbarians of history, while glossing over the savagery and barbarism of every other race throughout history. Everybody has behaved as savages throughout history, not just whites.

    The Truth About Slavery: Past, Present and Future

    “….Our beauty queens and our “brand ambassadors”, our faces that sell and our very favourite people, are as close to “Eurasian” looking as possible, “Pan Asian” or what have you, Asian because exotic but not too Asian, not excessively Asian, because that would not be “universally” desirable…”

    Here is a revolutionary idea….. if these beauty pageants, entertainments shows, fashion magazines or products don’t appeal to you then don’t participate in them, or consume them and don’t aspire to emulate those standards.

    Start up your own beauty pageant, magazines, modelling agency or whatever…… and if the local population don’t make your business a roaring success then you will know that there is no white oppression after all, it’s just market forces at play …. in other words your average Asian consumer (rightly or wrongly) CHOOSES to aspire to some kind of western/ universal/ or pan Asian ideal.

    Nobody is forcing any of this onto you or anybody else.

    In the west nobody is forcing western women to obsess over stick thin models who’s features, size, weight and bone structure ALSO do not reflect the general population…. they barely even reflect the human species!

    Presenting the unobtainable, or the rare, as an ideal to aspire to is a UNIVERSAL trend, and not white oppression. When most ordinary people were poor and starving the beauty ideal was the voluptuous, curvy woman and these (frankly rather over fed) women adorned every oil painting being produced. Now that most people (at least in the west) are struggling with obesity due to refined sugar and fatty foods the ideal is now to have a stick thin figure instead.

    By all means criticise the idiocy of obsessing over shallow, narcissistic consumer trends. Feel free to judge those women (or men) who go under the knife to alter their looks, or even their ethnicity for personal or even business reasons…. but PLEASE can we drop the racist/ sexist insinuation of ‘white male oppression’?

    It is – apart from anything else – totally demeaning to Asians (or any other non-white group) to suggest they are somehow less capable of making consumer/ lifestyle choices than white people/ westerners.

    By all means point out the huge dysfunction in western consumer/ corporate culture and use that as an argument to NOT follow in their footsteps….. but lease don’t promote some kind of ‘white oppression’ threat narrative. It’s offensive, toxic and it achieves nothing positive whatsoever.

    • You say “white men were instrumental in ending the slave trade” (presumptively referring to the transatlantic slave trade, but unclear as to which country) as if black activists and white women weren’t just as essential to ending the slave trade in every country where transatlantic slavery took place.

      Also, when the writer says “white men”, she is clearly referring to white men using their positions of power and privilege for ill. Clearly she is not referring to anti-racist white men or (per your example) street sweepers (admittedly, I have never seen a white male street sweeper in my city, but perhaps where you are, this occurs).

      • Subashini says:

        Yes, I’m talking about the structure of white supremacy and patriarchy and how it’s enacted by individuals. This seems pretty basic to me, so I’m not interested in having a conversation with Spinning for Difficulty who shows up here to give me a white supremacist history lesson and goes for the #notallwhitemen, to boot. Thank you for your civil response to them and also for your earlier comments, it is very kind of you.

    • ddavis1024 says:

      You’re basically proposing that Latinos, Asians, and Africans (I would say Native Americans, but so few are left from the genocide committed by white males that it may be difficult to verify) are ALL just coincidentally imagining or making up this common phenomenon that is well-documented in every society that has been under white control. For what? Ever ask yourself what incentive there would be for people of color to just make this up? We’re just all conspiring against white people because we love to be victims, right? I just love me some oppression so that I can bitch about white people all day! lol
      I also love how you felt the need to justify the trans-atlantic slave trade, even though its absolutely off topic here, so that’s quite telling in itself.
      “It seems ‘white men’ are the only group left in the world that we can make slurs against in public (even on TV) and not be accused of hate speech…. How does that fit into the notion of ‘white male privilege’?”
      I’ll tell you exactly how it fits. Discrimination against whites results in nothing more than hurt feelings. Meanwhile, because of the power dynamics of white domination, racism against minorities often results in long-lasting effects that actually matter, just to give an easily verifiable, objective example, black men receiving 20% longer jail sentences than white men for the same exact crimes in the U.S., or black males being four times as likely to be arrested as white males for the same exact non-violent drug possession. Being incarcerated affects everything, including your ability to get a job to care for your family, losing your right to vote for people to represent you, basically takes you back to Jim Crow law status. What power do minorities have to oppress whites in a way that has this same kind of impact on your family, future, and quality of life to where you think we should be interested in hearing your poor white boo-hoo’s? I should have stopped reading after you mentioned something about history books being unfairly written against white males, despite the fact that history books are mostly written from white victor perspectives. You should really read a book or two and get caught up with what everyone else already knows.

  • godtisx says:

    Very interesting read, most world cultures have become white identified without question in some way. Effects of colonialism in my opinion.

    Interesting to see this laid out from the Malaysian perspective.

    I mean, we all suspect this is going on when we see documentaries about skin lightening or gaze adjustment, but seeing a citizen of any country reflect upon the raging unreachable standards, is refreshing.

    *Followed.*

  • awax1217 says:

    I empathize. I am a Jew and therefore I must be rich, greedy with a huge nose for money. I will go for the bargains, wallow in my cheapness, and Jew you down to gain the advantage. I own all of the press and Hollywood is my capital city. I am pushy and abusive of all around me. I am a stereotype.

  • Harsha MP says:

    Nice post!! Interesting read.

  • jeremiah8777 says:

    All things that are, are with more spirit chased than enjoyed

  • Hi, I am Danyealah and I am a young African American writer/blogger/poet. I really loved reading this post. As a dark-skinned black woman, I have felt the sting of colorism time and time again. Your piece was eye-opening for me because it shed light on a community of people affected by racism and colorism. Thank you for writing this.

    • Subashini says:

      Hi Danyealah. Thanks for your comment. If there’s one thing I’ve heard over and over, it’s about how racism and colourism manifest in different societies in the same ways. There’s a tendency for people to then gloss this as “it’s always been this way”; but I’m grateful to people who constantly interrogate this notion.

  • kelsydemelo says:

    This is a great post, and really interesting to hear from a Malaysian perspective. Thanks for sharing!

  • amlakyaran says:

    very nice post… thanks

  • shmds says:

    May I know what book is that in the first picture.

  • mihipte says:

    I’m white, male, and American, and trying to understand this type of issue. It’s helpful to see it in an unfamiliar context, divorced from American politics and even from white people.

    Forget this, I need a whole blog post to respond. But thanks for the perspective.

  • Desire says:

    Living in South Africa makes us very aware of race issues…

  • qpillowcase says:

    This is perfect. I feel like you are able to say what people on tumblr want to say , but lack the emotion for it. This is a single post I believe in.

  • This post is so racist! How can you say these things? European people aren’t telling other people to be fairer skinned, if you have weird obsessions about being “white” how is that our fault? NO ONE is saying that fair skinned people are more beautiful or better, certainly nothing mainstream. Also there is no such thing as “white people” do you mean Europeans? or East asians? or Eskimos, or Turks? They all have pretty fair skin. I’m assuming you mean European peoples, we are not promoting any standard of beauty worldwide or forcing other people to look a certain way, that’s your choice, you’re free to make it. We are free to like what we like in our culture, and other people are free to have their OWN standards of beauty. We might make a lot of movies, sure, want more movies with dark-skinned people in them, MAKE THEM! If Malaysian men worship the way European girls look, how can we stop that? If they like the way we look, so what, I think asian girls are absolutely gorgeous, European girls aren’t angry with the fact that I like Asian girls. Your post is incredibly racist.

    • Subashini says:

      A cursory glance at my blog will show that we have a fundamental rift. I was pointing out white supremacy, that desire is in fact political; you seem to believe in reverse racism and perhaps Narnia. There is a vast amount of resources available on the internet to educate yourself on white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism, slavery–and its afterlives. I suggest you do some clicking about. Good luck! Having your ideology challenged will hurt like the devil.

  • Reblogged this on andrewdonkor601's Blog and commented:
    Love that,very inspiring

  • Reblogged this on thabiso nkoana and commented:
    as an african man living in south africa, watching other african men being “paraded” by the ever growing hordes of german visitors…suffice it to say, this strikes a chord.

  • malikajames says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. I am obviously not from the same ethnicity/nationality as you but I relate strongly to these issues of race: and I have myself struggled with my resentment towards those within my race who have this same desire of proximity to whiteness. And being half white I believe had amplified that experience for me. This really spoke to my frustrations and it’s good to be reminded that other races experience this, and we are not alone in our madness.

    • Subashini says:

      Thank you. Yes, it is crazy-making and I get the sense people often feel that talking about is unproductive because “it is just the way it is”, but if we can identify the structures that keep us locked in this madness, as you put it…there is something to be said for being able to define self-worth differently, as a group.

  • SouthernGal says:

    This was a powerful read!

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