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No, UBC, I won’t be white for you

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.

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  • Jasline

    Interesting article Cicely – could you touch more on how mandatory English fluency testing perpetuates racism? I had not considered this before.

    -Jasline

  • Jennifer She

    I think this is a really important topic and there is a lot of truth to it.

    The skin-lightening creams from Asia though – those aren’t really meant to “look White” where white means Caucasian. There’s tremendous pressure for women in Asia to have light skin, yes, but the way I’ve understood it as an Asian woman has nothing to do with looking Caucasian. It’s more to do with 1) classism – whiter skin means you’re wealthier because you didn’t have to work outdoors and do labour work, and 2) the perception of greater contrast = more feminine. There’s also a history of white facial makeup in theatre that has nothing to do with European influences.

    tl;dr – In Asia for the most part, white skin, double eyelids, and dyed hair do not stem from a desire to look White.

  • Sara

    Are you saying that an English speaking university shouldn’t test for English? It’s hard to agree with your points (some of which are certainly valid) when there are ridiculous statements like this.

  • Louis

    UBC doesn’t even own the store that sells the product you demonize. People should be allowed to buy whatever they want, and do with their skin whatever they want. How do you feel about the tanning products that can be found at pharmacies? Isn’t that the same concept?

    Asian cultures have a penchant for fair skin, while western cultures have an obsession with tanning. I think we should also respect those cultural differences. Nobody is forcing you to bleach your skin. I also think that the connections you draw from the presence of a skin bleaching product, whilst hold some degree of truth, are a huge stretch. Your particular point about supposed racist bathrooms goes just way to far, and the evidence is lousy. Don’t blame UBC for any of that. UBC’s agenda is to educate, not to act as a beacon for white supremacy. It’s preposterous to demonize a university in that way. Twenty percent of UBC’s students are international, and I know a good deal that came from Africa. Isn’t inviting once-segregated groups to learn hand-in-hand with everyone else in a world class-institution mitigating the many nasty effects of colonialism? I would argue that because of this, and much more, UBC is a massive agent for change and the disintegration of colonialist power structures.

    You also claim that UBC deliberately hires more white professors, but cite no official sources to back that. That is outright libel. Please show us the sources that lead you to make such belligerent accusations of racism.

    Also, your point criticizing UBC for enforcing English proficiency examinations is simply irrational. The language of instruction is English, and it’s perfectly acceptable to expect its students to have command over the language they will be taught in. What else can UBC do about it?

  • Anonymouse

    My understanding is that the reason many Asian people want to be lighter skinned is that darker skin is seen as an attribute of a laborer who works outdoors (ie, more tanned). Nothing at all to do with Caucasian people.

  • Lonnie Santrock

    This is called making a mountain out of a mole hill….no one is asking you to be white, how is this different from a Caucasian getting a tan or a fair complected person wearing make up or foundation? Furthermore, this has Nothing to do with UBC.

  • disqus_BHTk02XZF6

    Your argument makes very little sense. While racism may be an issue in western culture at large, especially in the USA, it is certainly diminishing, and there are much more pertinent issues facing our society. Moreover, suggesting that UBC is a racist institution is almost risible.

    That little shop you are talking about is independently run, and as you yourself said, that cream is popular in east Asian culture. If they didn’t have the cream, would the Chinese population complain that UBC only has products for the whites, and what a racist place? Indeed, either way, it is completely irrelevant because UBC has nothing to do with the management of that store.

    Furthermore, back when UBC was founded, Canada had become independent from the UK about 20 years before, and colored people were indeed opressed- not by the university, but by western culture. So of course the founding fathers of the school were white- they were the ones with money and power. In fact, even today the ethnic African population makes up 1% of Vancouver. Back in 1908, you would have been hard-pressed to even find an African person to found the school with. Of course any classical literature read in class will be by white authors because there simply were far fewer black authors writing before the 20th century.

    Your other accusations are ridiculous. The sinks are not even worth mentioning, other than to point out that you are desperately grasping for negative things to say about UBCs racism. The chairs are small because that way they are cheaper, they can fit more people in one classroom, and statistically most people will find them comfortable enough, regardless of race. UBC actually pays tribute to the First Nations quite a lot, building cultural art into their architecture, and even having a popular museum dedicated to aboriginal culture.

    Since Canada is a bilingual country that speaks English and French, and BC is truly predominantly English, it is abundantly clear why a foreign student has to speak at least rudimentary English. Almost every university in every country will have similar language proficiency testing. The fact that UBC has an ESL program and Aboriginal Studies show that it cares deeply about its diversity and First Nations roots.

    Ultimately, race is a human construct which most of us do not even care that much about. Vancouver is an incredibly diverse city which at this point in time absolutely cannot be blamed for being racist, and UBC is much the same. You are clearly very passionate and have the courage and eloquence to speak out strongly, so maybe you should focus on issues that really matter, like police brutality and racism in the states, the refugee situation in Syria, or maybe even the impending doom of our entire planet with climate change. At any rate, not UBC’s nonexistent racism.

  • Nicole

    To add another dimension to this very well~written piece:

    From an East Asian perspective, within that highly homogenous (racially speaking) culture, the beauty and value attached to lighter shades of skin stems from classicism rather than racism. Those with light skin were deemed to be well~to~do, and privilleged enough to avoid working under the might of the sun. Unfortunately, the preference for lighter skin is still very much prevalent in East Asian society. If you ever walk into a Body Shop targeted to an East Asian audience, you’ll find an entire wall of shelves under the heading ‘skin lightening’ or something to that effect.

    So the product (Cake Soap) can be analyzed in light of Western culture and the effects of colonialism, but I would argue that (if indeed it was from a Southeast Asian store) takes the product out of its cultural context, and attributes a significance to the product it doesn’t deserve.

    Another approach could be considering the influx of East Asian culture into Canadian society, and how that influx influences prevalent mainstream society. Perhaps, because there is such a preference for lighter skin tones in East Asian society and white skin in Canadian society, the two almost mutually affirm each other even though both preferences stem from very different histories.

  • Nisism Levy

    I know what you mean. As a white person i resent the availability of self tanning lotions that can be so easily bought. I don’t know if ubc carries these “my skin is too white and ugly” creams but it’s a disgrace that all drugstores carry them in this day and age.

    I salute you for keeping your black person’s skin and hair natural.

  • Exur

    In East – especially Southeast – Asia, pale skin is considered attractive because it shows that you’re rich enough not to be out working in the sunlight.

    This includes covering up during sweltering heat, using sunscreens with SPF levels you’d have to go out of your way to buy here, and carrying umbrellas during sunny days.

    It has nothing to do with wanting to be like white people.

  • hevangel

    I would suggest the author stop judging the world via her own racial colonial lens. Asian women think whiter equals prettier long before they encounter the Europeans.

    The logic is pretty simple. Poor people work in the field and hence have a tanned skin, rich people stay indoor so they have a paler skin. The taste of the rich defines the standard of beauty. That’s why Asians think whiter is better, it has nothing to do the skin color of the Caucasians.

  • Potato mad

    Hi,
    I just read the beginning and decided it’s pointless to read the whole thing. Here’s my thought:

    Asians women prefer lighter skin color because it represents “beauty” and higher socioeconomic status (this idea started back in the days where people relied on horse as their transportation, so it’s nothing new). I grew up in that culture, so is it my fault if I purse my culture standard?
    Welp here’s a thing: in Canada, no one force you to be lighter or darker. Here’s the product, you as a consumer has the right to make purchasing decision.
    If you don’t think the product is right for you, don’t buy it. Likewise for consuming food – if you don’t eat rabbit or animal organs, don’t call it cruel or disgusting if you see restaurants serving the food. Because, like you said, Vancouver is a multicultural city. We all come together with multual respect of what we do and what we like.
    So Darling, don’t be offenced if people selling some product to somebody.

    • Mikita

      Hello,
      I am sad that you did not read the rest of the piece. The example of the product was a way to transition into other deep issues regarding colonialism & racism embedded in the status quo in Vancouver/UBC.
      Racism often comes from a place of ignorance (not knowing how different policies affect different people for example) & that you didn’t read the whole piece because you did not agree with the beginning but STILL felt comfortable commenting is troublesome and problematic. Please read the full article before making a comment & educate yourself. Thanks. Bye.

  • Confused

    Okay I fail to see how enforcing mandatory English fluency testing is racist. English is the countries main language, is it such a shock to think that they would want people to speak it?

  • How do you explain tan salons?

  • disquscurt

    I’ve heard that skin-bleaching, and making oneself to look whiter, in some instances is mistakenly attributed to colonialism. India is presumed to have origins of skin-bleaching from colonialism, but i’ve heard dates back much further than that, as do many cases. Not to lessen any of the concerns of white beauty standards addressed here in the column, in various parts of southern Asia (although I don’t know much about the particular parts, so indeed this statement is vague and a little broad) the idea of skin bleaching or whitening possibly predates colonialism, but good very well be influenced in terms of prevalence or something, as a result of colonialism.

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  • Scruffy J Nerfherder

    I always find articles like this to be great comedy, and then I realize that it’s serious. And then I remember that these people are sometimes successful in changing policies and even drafting laws and making it so asian people who want some cake soap will have to take a bus to China Town instead of being able to purchase it locally.