Disclaimer: You might hate me for what I am saying in some bits of this new blogpost. And aware as I may be, I chose to give my opinion a voice on the issue that I thought was a little too late to discuss. Besides, the recent shooting incident involving an 84-year-old Caucasian man and an African American high schooler, Ralph Yarl, got me thinking that stereotype and racism are two topics that will never get old, not as long as the human race walks the Earth. So here we go..
I never thought that I was racist nor that I acknowledged how deep racism has instilled in me. I mean, I made amazing and meaningful friendships with coloured women across the globe! Yet, came the epiphany, where I was proven wrong and realised that I was just like everybody else, who subconsciously thought that one race is better than the others. To start with, I finally moved out of Kazakhstan and settled in Helsinki. A month after settling down, I managed to process all the changes from moving into a new country and therefore, have more courage to see things in different light. Along with this new found perspective, it dawned on me that I might perceive the concept of race with a bias view. I became aware of that notion when I was placing the December issue of British Vogue back into my magazine stack. Just as the magazines landed, the awareness hit! Like a thunderstorm in a dark autumn twilight, it was unpredictable, electrifying and yet, enlightening! Following suit, my memory jumped into a recent trip that I had in Amsterdam and within the speed of light, it raced up to the moment where I saw my virtual self picking up two different issues of Vogue magazine from Scheltema’s shelves. Mind you, I have always looked into the table of contents before adding a new piece into my reading collection. But at that time, I didn’t even bother to do so!
I remembered feeling a bit of guilt, though, thinking that I was spending money irresponsibly. Still, it never occurred to me that my impulsive purchase was to some extent, provoked by racism. The justification that I managed to pull out my brain was my longing to have a curated experience of reading the actual piece since in Kazakhstan, the printed version was not available. Truth to be told, it was when I saw Elizabeth Debicki and Lily Collins posing on the covers of my favourite magazine that I lost it. I was immersed in euphoria or maybe, in a sense of relief..
If you ask, what does that sense of relief mean?!Well, back in May 2022, I was in Paris for a month. I was there to work on my French. And, as the so-called city of fashion treated me nicely, I didn’t let myself miss the chance to bag some of favourite readings (read: Vogue magazine), even though I felt troubled when I was holding the magazine and looking at Naomi Campbell and a pair of French rising stars gracing the front pages. Deep down, my mind experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance, a situation where I was compelled by the brand’s name on one hand but did not like what the brand represents on the other hand. I managed to repel the thoughts telling myself that I’m just not used to seeing women with colour taking leading roles within the “White Establishment” (A warning that I missed!)
Back to the present, to my two-room apartment in the centre of Helsinki and the two magazines, I started to realise that it was not the case. As I looked closer at the actors’ faces, who are both white, I mused, “Really??”
Eventually I dared enough to admit that the enthusiasm, that sense of relief was caused by racism! My belief system was so fixed on a certain beauty standard to the point where this contention made me difficult to accept another presentation of beauty!
I felt ashamed! I felt like I betrayed my friends! Yet, that was the truth.. I could have hated myself for that but my ego saved me from taking all the blame. So, I resorted to the idea that I was groomed to be a racist by the very society I grew up in!
I grew up surrounded by the narratives that beauty has measures – the length of the limbs, the colour of the hair and the eyes, as well as the shade of the skin. As if the standard was not shallow enough, the measures were taken from a certain racial background. The media, who were supposed to be the gatekeeper, went on propagating this idea. Movies portray it in their female characters, songs whisper it through their lyrics while commercials promote it through the models that they chose to appear in. It was difficult to turn on TV without seeing a commercial of a white skin girl advertising a skin care product during my teenage years. Funny.. because Indonesia, the country I grew up in, was located along the equator! Lo and behold, I became a person who conforms to the particular beauty standard. If you think that the narratives didn’t groom me to become a racist, then what is it?
It is a common knowledge that before the age of inclusivity, models were predominantly white. Hugely successful series, let say, Seinfeld, Friends, Sex and the City or Dawson’s Creek, all have one in common. They have no leading character with coloured skin. If there is a character played by an actor with darker shade, the character serves merely as a prop to make the series funnier, geeker or stirring!
If that doesn’t convince you and if you are wondering what my point is? especially in relation to the recent incident?
I would say that our lives could not be separated from the narratives and the media that propagate them. Every day, we wake up consuming the lies. Theories in media studies suggest that we pick up our identities from what we see, read and listen. Imagine how dangerous it is to be constantly exposed with a view that favours a certain racial background?! As long as we keep hearing stories about African-American men being shot during a traffic stop by local police officers or about Asian women who could only fit in two shoes, the scientist or the prostitute, it is difficult to escape racism, my friend!
Thank God, we have been seeing more diversity in the ads nowadays. But, we are not there yet.. There is still a lot to be done. It was just a few months ago when I was one of those who were trapped in our own parochialism. Hadn’t I moved to Finland, I might hadn’t seen the flaw in my view and still happily splashed some cash on magazines that put white girls on their covers! New life renders me a new pair of glasses that brings more colours into my perceptions. Even though, sometimes, I am still nudged when I see a person with colour breaking the glass ceiling. As I said, the awareness may come like a thunderstorm, yet the awakening proceeds like a season. It takes days, weeks or even months.