Yet, I misuse the word. The true definition of obsession "a persistent, disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling" connotes something more negative. Obsession is more than fascination. It is a compulsion to do or think about something because of some sort of delusion that you must, and the definition implies that it might get in the way of "living life".
So we are human - we get obsessed with things, often irrationally, because we have emotions - so what? The real question is: why do we get obsessed with things that are insignificant and that are counterproductive to society? In my opinion, personal obsessions often stem from social norms that delude us to think that certain lifestyles and ways of being are ideal. Media and mass marketing are often the culprits, encouraging people to achieve an image without thinking about whether it is actually achievable or right for them.
What I want to talk about here is an obsession that I've noticed ever since I set foot in Indonesia: the idea that the whiter your skin, the better you are. I first had this thought while perusing the aisles at Circle K (a 7 eleven-type store) for sunscreen and only found one option for sunscreen within a sea of skin whitening products. I was overwhelmed by these products; faces as white and smooth as sandalwood stared back at me from boxes that said "white beauty".
In Jogjakarta (the city where I live) there is even a salon called the "Michael Jackson Skin Whitening Center". Need I say more?
As a very pale American, Indonesians often compliment me because I am so white and therefore beautiful in this culture. My initial reactions were usually to feel surprised and then flattered. "Wow, someone thinks I'm beautiful!" In the US, I was used to being made fun of for being so white. In the summers, I envied my best friend because her skin turned a golden brown and I remained a pasty white or turned lobster red. The first time I went to the beach each summer, I blinded people as I walked along the shore. But now when people comment about how beautiful my white skin is I get frustrated because it says nothing about me as a person. I want to exclaim: What about my thoughts and the work that I do?! It scares me that skin color could be like suits in a deck of cards; white skin is like the trump suit, more powerful than our true values and motivations.
I know, I know: to say that being white in Indonesia is like trumping in a game of spades is exagerating, but there is some truth in that analogy. For example, I attended a hip hop concert in Yogyakarta (a city known for intellectuals and higher education). Three of the performers were of African descent and one was caucasion. At the end the MC, trying to get a rise out of the audience says:
"Hey people out there, which one do you think is the best?! I like the white one!"
The audience squeeled with laughter. Of course, I thought, she would pick the white one, without mention of how they actually performed. I laughed at the explicitlitness of what we would call rasicm in the US. As I imagined how an American audience would react to this comment, I pictured people gasping and angry people storming out of the auditorium. If this happened at a hip hop show in New York, local newpapers, communities and public figures would vociferously critisize the MC, and the organization that she works for. But in Indonesia, people laughed it off. I think it's precisely this attitude - that people simply think white is better - that allows rasicm to thrive in Indonesian society.
Even in Jakarta, an international city, this attitude prevails. I met an African American man from New York who lived in Jakarta for one month. I asked him how he liked Jakarta:
man: "I like it alright, but the city feels opressive to me"
me: "how so? Is it too religious, or are there too many rules?"
man: "Well to be honest, the whole desire to be white freaks me out. I see it everywhere and as a black man, I don't feel accepted. I had a woman tell me I was ugly and dirty because I'm too dark. At the mall accross the street, Ponds is promoting a new skin whitening cream, giving out free samples to the public. The people are loving it."
This obsession with being white is not based on logical reasoning or justification such as, for example, wanting to stay out of the sun to avoid skin cancer (otherwise there would be a larger sunblock selection in stores). The "beauty of whiteness" is ubiquitous in the media, in daily convesations and in my interactions with people. And although I don't have scientific proof that Indonesians believe "white is better", my experience living here is evidence enough for me.
My next question is whether the "idea that whiter is better" is counterproductive in Indonesia? My answer is: absolutely. This idea creates an environment for racism to grow and florish, which if it doesn't cause ethnic conflicts, certainly doesn't help resolve them. Perhaps income gaps in Indonesia persist between people of different skin "shades".
In America, I don't think that we've become a post-racial society like some people claim, but we certainly don't have as many explict messages in the media that tell us we should whiten our skin. In fact, I've never seen a skin whiteing cream in a store in America, and more often there are tanning oils that people use to get darker. Perhaps years of affirmative action and the promotion of diversity in education and the work-force is why there is less of a yearning to be white in America (I'm not denying that racism still exists in America). Looking at the progress America has made in terms of tolerance of diversity, I can't help but be optimistic that Indonesia will eventually develop a "blindness" towards skin color, despite how deeply embedded the idea of "white is better" is.
Here is a blog entry by a friend of mine about her personal experience in Indonesia. It's an example of how conscious Indonesians are of skin color : Don't Judge a Bule by her Color.
Does anyone have examples of this "desire to be white" in Indonesia? What about in America? Is America a post-racial society where people are "blind to skin color", or is that an overstatement? Please share your thoughts!