Blacksweet: Grappling with skin color in Indonesia

“You are blacksweet!” a teacher says, smiling at me.

Fulbright ETA Nina Bhattacharya gazes at wall art depicting Mohandas Ghandi at an Indian restaurant in Yogyakarta, Central Java. Being a non-white American in Indonesia can be a lonely experience that forces an occupation of dual identities — one of race and one of nationality. (Dustin Volz/Indonesiaful)

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.

***

“Miss Nina” poses for a photo with some of her high-school students after class. Many Indonesians associate whiteness with beauty and see dark skin as undesirable, ugly and even shameful. (Nina Bhattacharya/Indonesiaful)

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. 

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23 thoughts on “Blacksweet: Grappling with skin color in Indonesia

  1. Some perspective from a “hitam manis” in Malaysia:

    “Beautiful because of my darker skin? Or beautiful, despite my darker skin?”
    – I always took it as the latter. People tend to use that phrase around me as a way to console me that it’s not all bad to be dark.

    “She is 20 or 21 and already believing dark is not beautiful.”
    – I got bullied from the age of 10 for being dark. So 20 or 21 is not a very young age really.

  2. Quite interesting post which it really shows the complexities of human psychology and understanding of various cultures within our world and how misguided our brains can become when we begin to grade and conclude that there is a superior race , when in fact nothing can be further from the truth.

  3. Thank you for this important insight Nina. My friend Charley Sullivan pointed me toward your blog and I am sharing it with my fellow seminarians at the Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley. As a black American, so much of what you’re saying here resonates. Also as a former Cruise Director for Holland America Line where 80 percent of the crew was Indonesian, I have seen this set of social priorities play out in the life of the workers at sea. In my own blog, I write mostly about issues related to the LGBTQI community but I touch on some of these same issues because the question of cultural “otherization” overlaps everywhere and has so much to do with self image and how we present ourselves in the world. Thank you for your observations and good luck with your continued work!

  4. A very thought provoking article and to a certain extent disturbing. All over the world dark people have tried to become fair and the consequences have been disastrous. What is more worrying for me is the fact that to prove you are an american you need to be fair. I do not know whether this pushes people like you to some sort of identity crisis. Nina keep me posted on this one.

  5. Great post! So interesting that some of the people in Indonesia think all Americans look like I do, blond and blue-eyed.

    You are beautiful!

  6. I have actually heard multiple female students of mine refer to themselves as hitam manis in Maluku (Eastern Indonesia). It is true, Eastern Indonesians tend to be significantly darker than Western Indonesians (Javanese, Sundanese, Sumatran, Balinese, etc…) While I sometimes feel that they use this phrase in a way that is similar to “Black is Beautiful” in America, I often ask myself why my female students feel the need to assert this sentiment. It is definitely influenced by the extremely fair-skinned women portrayed in Indonesian media and sinetrons (soap operas), usually produced in Jakarta and thus oftentimes not even applicable to Eastern Indonesians. I am very happy to see that you have written an article on this phenomenon. Good job Nina!

  7. I was an ETA in Medan last year, and this post is incredibly true to my experience as an Indian-American in Indonesia. You summed it all up much better than I ever could. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Hey it was nice to find your article. I’m also an American living and teaching in Indonesia of African descent and since day 1 my alias has been ‘hitam manis.’ I found it, however, endearing. In a culture hell bent on bleaching any traces of brown, they were still able to see beauty in me. The word hitam, black, only seems offensive if you associate it with being ugly, or other, or lesser. In America, we often take names with negative connotations, like ‘Cracker’ or ‘Nigger’ and within our communities change it to become a form of brotherhood. Growing up in the Bronx, if you were called ‘My Nigga’ you became part of a community of the like-minded, who experienced the same and had pride in their differences. You could be Black, Dominican, Indian, Puerto Rican and be called ‘My Nigga’ and that meant that you were seen. You were more than your flesh. You were a brother. I guess I was happy to discover the outlet of ‘hitam manis.’ I find myself a representative of the darker complexioned world wide. My Indonesian female students ran up to me last class and confessed that when they grow up they want to be just like me. They said, Smart, confident and beautiful. I may be more brown than black, but I am definitely sweet! lol. I think hitam manis will do!

  9. hey nina, nice to read this post! i was an eta in 2008-2009 in semarang, central java. living there as a south asian woman was also stirred by the colorism – not it’s existence, since it persists in a lot of the postcolonial world, but in how overt folks are about it. i did a workshop with my students and others around the city called “cantik/manis – ideas about beauty and skin color.” would love to connect and talk more about this!

  10. thank you Nina Bhattacharya for your explanation about hitam manis, it is very informative for me as an Indonesian woman who happen to have blacksweet skin. Now I able to explain to my foreigner friend what does it means when I said I’m not beautiful but blacksweet ^^. Please allow me to reblog yours and I will credit to you (make citation). thank you!

  11. Pingback: I’m blacksweet, how about you? ^_^ | SanguineStory

  12. I’m indonesian girl, 17 years old. sorry, i’m not agree with you and i want to straight this.
    First, i know you are feeling uncomfortable because at the first sight we don’t recognize you as american. But this is not racist, nor because your skin tone. I believe most people in the world differentiating people in the ‘first sight’ with physical appearance, and each race have it’s own stereotypical. There’s a lot of “Bule” too who came to indonesia and have tanned skin , but at first sight we still recognized them as european despite of their dark skin, because they still have caucasian’s face features. I have a switzerland friend at my class, she had tanned skin, but she still got eye of attention because her face looks different from the others (she don’t have asian features). We don’t recognize you with skin color, its just you don’t looked caucasian, and mostly american is caucasian, and remember this; ‘at the first sight we guess someone nationallity with their stereotypical appearances’, it’s just at the first sight, though. But If they already know who you are, i’m sure they still treat you as foreigner.
    I, myself, as long as i knew 100% indonesian. But people at first sight still mistaken me as chinese because of my slanted eyes and my yellow skin. And they don’t really like chinese because… (I can’t explain why because it’s too long) I don’t really care about that! Why should I care? Therefore i’m 100% Indonesian.
    My advice, just don’t feel uncomfortable in Indonesia because of your dark skin. Not only indonesia, but almost asians include japanese, korean, and chinese even indian–your race, prefer lighter skin, and european before 1960s still prefer pale skin too. They considered it as noble skin because nobles didn’t work outside so they skin remained pale.
    But nowadays european prefers tanning. It’s just because, human never satisfied with what they had. That’s natural.
    Sorry for my bad grammars, i hope you understand what i’ve said^^ no hard feelings.

  13. Hi Nina

    Interesting article! I lived with my family in West Africa for nearly 4 years. We come from Australia where it is considered rude to mention people’s race, but over there it was very different. Every time you go into a village a swarm of kids surrounds you calling ‘ O Bruni! O Bruni!’ Literally meaning ‘the white one! The White one!’. Even adults would do it. But it’s not meant as an insult.

    At first it used to annoy me, but that’s only because I come from a PC background and we are all a bit uptight about race and skin colour!

    Like Indonesians Africans are also fascinated with lightening their skin tone; while whites are desperately tanning in the baking sun and growing dread locks they are applying skin bleach and hair tongs!

    Lastly, I worked with expat Indonesians there and the Africans considered them to be Brunis. Orang Indonesia menjadi Bule!

    Salam

    James

  14. I am from Surabaya, the big city near Krian where you were placed. There is a famous song from the 70s titled just that “Hitam Manis”, popularized by Ernie Johan or Emilia Contessa. You can find different versions on YouTube. The tune is quite catchy. The song celebrates being dark skin, as the singer longs for her dark skinned, good-looking lover.

  15. Another aspect of the term is that hitam manis very often is used with a sexual connotation, especially when talking about women. There is stereotype that darker women/Eastern Indonesian women are more sexual/exotic.

  16. Pingback: Indonesia Blog 28: Warning: Visibility May Vary, or, Being White in Indonesia | allfortheloveofwandering

  17. hello..

    Im Indonesian and im very sorry about these experiences, i have dark skin myself and often mistaken as west papua, i have dark skin and curly hair ..
    i also experiencing the kids laughing and pointing at me, trust me its just them..
    i was born and grow up there, and i never really have friends especially at school back then because of this.

    its just the lack of educations , i just hope you will find nicer people and trust me there are A LOT.
    and you might face the obvious, but to WORK in indonesia even for whites its not easy.
    my family also call me hitam manis and for me its more like its just nicer way to tell you that you are nice but not as nice if i would be white .. but like the other person say i say it like american can “black is beautiful”
    as i moved to another country i realize its doesnt matter , though im still in asia and never have any asian boyfriends before (i do one but keep asking me to get whiter and skinner and longer my hair)
    im marrying a white guy and im suprise of what indonesian can do out of jealousy of foreign people,..

    im gone to a cute kid who look white to a girl who look american africans, i dont mind as im actuallly always meet nice black people and would love to meeting more thats why i ended up reading this and im suprise and i feel like i need to apologize, nobody should be threaten like that ..

    next time email me!i can recommend some places and friends 🙂

    -Nona

  18. Hi Nina, I’m a bataknese indonesian. And i’m agree with your writings.
    Indonesian peoples are so crazy about fair skin, many girls won’t go out if it’s too sunny.
    They don’t realize that they’re beautiful just the way they are.
    Do you ever visits North Sumatera? They call People of Indian decent with dark complexion with racial slur name “Keling”.

    I now this so politically incorrect, but Indonesian peoples didn’t understand that demeaning other people based on their physical features are racist.
    It’s a long way to change peoples mind.

  19. It’s funny how I was browsing about how to decide my skin tone color but I ended up in your blog 🙂

    I’m so glad I live in a family where they don’t mind about skin color, hair, etc–or anything about appearance, in short. I’m growing up with that kind of thought and, even though I know many Indonesians are ‘brainwashed’ with ‘fairer skin color is better’ thought, I still find it weird when my female friends are complaining about ‘how black their skin color is’.

    I’m wearing hijab, so i think it’s normal if I have fairer skin color in the place I covered. But it’s sad to see how they are always complaining about their ‘darker appearance’ every time they see me without hijab. I think every girl is beautiful in her own way.

    By the way, I’m majoring in English literature. If you said to me you are an Indian – American, don’t worry, there would be some people like me who would understand it right away 😉

  20. I agree. Indonesians identify a lot with skin color. I am a native Indonesian with a mixed Chinese heritage, and amongst my Chinese family, I’m like the only person with a dark skin. I spent my puberty fighting to find my worth of my skin color and I’ve had discriminations all my life growing up with dark skin, but as I grew older I began to embrace my skin tone and found people who would not discriminate me based on my skin tone. I know of a Latina friend who also felt similar discrimination by Indonesians because of their darker skins than their caucasian friends. It’s probably been a while, but this thing still happens in the country, and I’m sorry you experienced this in my country. But I thank you for sharing this post about your experience here. I completely understand the puzzle of the distinction between blacksweet and beautiful. Totally.

  21. Pingback: Alumni Spotlight: Nina Bhattacharya | Indonesiaful.com

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