Last week I was perusing the shops in our beautiful new $107 million, horizon-obliterating, architectural giant, also know as the AMS Student Nest. In one cute, somewhat bizarrely placed boutique, I discovered something very shocking: Cake Soap. Cake Soap is what I – with a penchant for Vybz Kartel and some Jamaican ancestry – would call skin bleaching cream.
Hidden among cute fruity perfumes and floral-patterned backpacks was a tube of cream that claimed it could lighten the colour of my skin by up to two shades. I was shocked. Here, in this institution that prides itself on multicultural diversity. Here, in this mosaic of a country. Here, in this big new building that is meant to make me feel special and included and valuable as a student, I find a product intended to literally burn away the skin I have only just come to love.
I told a friend about this discovery and she said, “But it’s so commonly used in many Asian cultures” which momentarily calmed my anger and frustration at the university. The shop appeared to be run by a woman of Southeast Asian heritage, and so surely it was okay for her to sell this product as a cultural practice? Can I assign my own values to others’ culturally-specific choices?
It wasn’t until a class a few days later when a conversation about the Canadian idea of “visible minorities” forced me to remind my peers (and myself) of my very visible blackness that I was again outraged by the presence of this product on campus.
Yes, many people use skin bleaching creams and perhaps my initial reaction seemed culturally insensitive, but in a settler state like Canada, it is only more obvious how all attempts to whiten, Westernise and anglicise Indigenous and people of colour are instances of oppressive and colonial violence.
For racialised people, including myself, existing on campus can be difficult. The architecture and ergonomics of the campus were built for white people (for example, try fitting a round African bottom on a thin wooden chair), the academic content and ways of knowing were inspired by and developed for white people, the halls are lined with old photos of “successful” white people and possibly even the bathroom sinks favour them. The erasure and silencing of communities of colour in Vancouver is not limited to Strathcona. In 1971, the Georgia Viaduct was completed, crashing like a steel and concrete fist through the vibrant black area of Vancouver; one of many gentrification projects that drove communities of colour out of Metro Vancouver and into the suburbs or further.
So when a white student sees a bottle of skin bleaching cream in the student union building, it can only reaffirm to them the steady and dependable message of racist white supremacy that UBC is founded upon. When a white student, without the resources and teaching to acknowledge their own white privilege, is faced with a product that confirms the superiority of whiteness, the racialised body is further demonised. When a white student learns that people of colour purposely change their features to appear more like them, I get comments like “Wow, you’re so pretty for a black girl” or “Don’t you wish you had normal hair?” or “I love getting darker, just in summer though!”.
Skin bleaching, hair relaxing, wearing straight and/or blonde weaves and wigs, wearing blue/green contact lenses, hair removal and facial surgery are personal choices founded upon internalised racism. It is valid to make these choices, to have autonomy over our own bodies, to express ourselves creatively, particularly in a society that objects to just that, but we must also be cognizant of the logics of oppression they are embedded within.
The desire (even if subconscious) to be fairer and whiter stems from the fact that global white supremacy posits whiteness as beautiful and darkness (big lips, afro hair, small eyes, hairy arms, black irises…) as ugly, lesser, and subhuman. Within communities of colour this also means that we perform lateral violence onto one another; we attempt to hold each other accountable to standards that have been imposed upon us. Through centuries of colonisation, slavery, genocide and violence, we have taken on the mandate of the oppressor and begun to self-police. We shame those who choose natural hair over weaves and those who don’t want eye enlargement surgery and those who are okay with just being brown.
This horizontally-wielded oppression is also very gendered. In an Indian commercial for vaginal lightening shower gel, the (cis) woman is seen to only be attractive to her male partner once she has a shiny white vagina. Again, the cultural specificity is evident but the ideals are rooted in both internalised and horizontal racism and sexism. While other genders also practise skin lightening, the pressure for women to conform to beauty standards is higher. Audrey Thompson says, “White privilege depends on the devaluation of non-whites” and this is clear in the way white beauty standards are globally upheld. Women of colour are devalued by white beauty standards (and therefore the privilege of white people to have their own faces and bodies reflected back at them on every screen and magazine page) to an extent that they are willing (or perhaps forced) to mutilate their own features in order to appear attractive to both a white audience and a male audience.
People of colour are taught that to be beautiful, smart, intelligent, creative is to be white. To be accepted, revered, acknowledged, protected is to be white. To be free… is to be white. And so the only solution? Become white.
By continually employing more white professors than those of colour, teaching abundantly more material by white authors, allowing racist, anti-Indigenous chants, providing less support to disciplines of study like the First Nations and Indigenous Studies department and the African Studies department, enforcing mandatory English fluency testing, failing to provide campus-wide teaching on respectful and inclusive language, and rarely acknowledging its colonial presence on unceded Coast Salish land… UBC perpetuates a culture of racism.
UBC teaches many things, but it fails to teach students of colour that we are valuable. It fails to undo colonial processes that marginalise and stigmatise blackness, brownness and indigeneity. Apparently, it also fails to be mindful of products sold in the heart of campus that perpetuate racism, white supremacy and Euro-centric beauty standards.