“You are blacksweet!” a teacher says, smiling at me.
There isn’t anything denigrating in her tone of voice, but I can’t help but feel confused. It isn’t the first time someone here has said that to me.
I look at my brown arms. “Apa artinya ‘blacksweet’? Kulit saya bukan warna hitam.” In rudimentary Indonesian, I ask for the meaning of the phrase, adding that my skin was not black.
The teacher frowns, as she struggles to find a definition for me. “Sweet, ya?” Another big smile, a touch on my arm.
“Terima kasih.” I thank her and smile back, still feeling a little puzzled. My smile doesn’t quite reach my eyes.
Blacksweet, I later found out, is a literal translation of “hitam manis,” which darker-skinned people from eastern Indonesia proudly call themselves. The delivery is non-threatening and usually intended as a compliment. The underlying implications, however, are a bit darker. Beautiful because of my darker skin? Or beautiful, despite my darker skin?
Indonesians idealize whiteness. It permeates every aspect of an Indonesian woman’s life, from clothing to beauty regimens. Before hopping onto their scooters, many of my female students pull on thick, winter gloves to fend off the sun’s rays. The female teachers delicately powder their faces with foundation two shades lighter. When I go to the drugstore, it is a challenge to find lotion that doesn’t proclaim its whitening properties. There are even whitening products for women’s vaginas. You can’t watch TV without seeing a minimum of five advertisements proclaiming this brand of whitening cream will help you keep your boyfriend. (But, really. It will.)
In the Asia-Pacific region, the skin-whitening business is currently valued at over $13 billion. Large companies have taken note: From January to October 2004, Unilever alone spent $14.6 million on television advertising in Indonesia for just one of its skin-whitening brands. The market is continuing to grow rapidly “because of a rising middle-class with increasing disposable income and centuries-old entrenched cultural impressions of beauty.” Dark complexions are traditionally associated with menial labor while fairness is associated with higher social standing and cultural refinement.
Whitewashing is also rampant in American media. Most of us can remember the controversy when Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air transformed from the fiery, dark-skinned Janet Hubert-Whitten to the more submissive, much fairer Daphne Maxwell Reid. More recently, discussions of skin color routinely pop up every time Beyonce joins a make-up campaign or actress Gabby Sidibe appears on a magazine cover. Americans debate whether or not the country is “post-racial,” but we’re far from immune to these continuing conversations of skin color and beauty.
My relationship with skin color is complicated in Indonesia. Having brown skin allows me to blend in more in crowds. Although I am often called “bule” – the catch-all word for foreigners – it is not yelled at me as I ride my bicycle through town. Most Indonesians love Indians, having been raised on a plethora of ‘90s Bollywood movies.
At the same time, I sometimes find myself wishing for a little of the unwanted attention my white Fulbright friends receive. Indonesians don’t clamor to take pictures with me or seek to practice their English – I’m hitam manis. Instead, my skin color means I have to fight for my claim to be American.
“Americans, I thought they all had blue eyes?”
“Is only your mother Indian?”
“What are the biggest differences between Indonesia and India?”
“But real Americans have white skin, right?”
“American? But your face is like an Indian?”
The innocuous question, “Dari mana?” (where are you from?) is one I sometimes dread in the taxi. It is difficult for many Indonesians to understand how I can simultaneously occupy two identities – “Indian” and “American.” It often requires describing my family’s immigration narrative and explaining that my parents had lived in the United States for over thirty years. That my entire life has existed in the United States.
Every time someone denies my claim to call myself an American, I have to remind myself that facilitating cross-cultural exchange is one of Fulbright’s goals. I try not to forget that my small interactions are contributing to a larger change in perspective and that these discussions about my skin color and heritage are integral in articulating America’s diversity to the rest of the world.
They just don’t know that their words sometimes hurt me.
I think of some of the other Indian-American girls from college. A friend once snatched my camera to study the photo I had just taken with a critical eye. “Ugh, delete that picture! I’m way too dark.” She is 20 or 21 and already believing dark is not beautiful.
My heart breaks when my female students tell me that they are not pretty because of their skin color. “Hitam manis, Miss. Too dark,” they say to me with a smile, over my protests. I think of my college friend. These girls are only fifteen, sixteen, and already internalizing that they are not worth it.
Low self-esteem and worship of Western beauty ideals seem to be the gifts of post-colonialism wherever you go in the world.
As an Indian-American, this fixation on whiteness is not new to my life. “Ki kalo!” I remember one of my aunts exclaiming upon greeting me last summer, after my internship in a rural Indian village. “How dark!” It was a statement of fact, but her tone was critical. I cringed.
One of my close Indonesian friends recently told me how relatives would always call her hitam manis, but her fairer-skinned cousins “beautiful.” It separates those with darker complexions into a completely different category. Even as a compliment, it marks people as “other.” Pretty, but not ideal.
My students should not have to live in a society where skin color dictates their social status or self-esteem. During the 1960s, “black is beautiful” became a mantra for many African Americans trying to dispel the notions that their natural features were inherently ugly or lesser. I sometimes think of teaching something similar to my students, but when every level of Indonesian society preaches that “fair is lovely,” the task seems daunting. But these conversations have to start somewhere, and maybe – just maybe – the classroom is a good place for them to begin.
About the author: Nina Bhattacharya is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Krian, East Java. Nina graduated from the University of Michigan in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in public policy focusing on public-health issues. Prior to her Fulbright grant, Nina studied Indonesian for three years with assistance from the Foreign Language and Area Studies program. In her free time, Nina enjoys drinking Nescafe, eating nasi pecel, and dancing Gangnam Style with her students.