Fair and dubious

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I love coming to Bangladesh. After going through the long lines at the airport and the chaos at the luggage claim, I feel a sense of attachment that only a country you grew up in can provide.

It is an irrational attachment. My education, my life, my work, is elsewhere. While I ponder the nature of modern displacement, the colours of being a Diaspora, I go past billboards of Tamim Iqbal hawking “Fair and Lovely” for men, photo-shopped beauties selling skin creams that make you look fairer, amidst a plume of smoke and car-horns.

Something tragically offensive about this experience.

I walk into a culture that values education, wealth, influence and the COLOUR of your skin. We all talk about the first three but the last one is understood, softly spoken, casually ignored when criticised, but exists in every single realm of society.

Unfortunately, this is nothing unique, as all South Asian cultures tend to their racism like a secret garden on their roof. One of the major causes of the ‘71 massacres in the then East Pakistan was the issue with the colour of Bengalis. But that topic is rarely discussed in polite company.

All this is to say that we Bengalis value what colour your skin is much more than we would like to admit. The sheer existence of ‘Fair and Lovely’ as a viable ‘beauty’ product suggests that there is a large commercial scope to make money of this sort of colour-preference which borders on accepted racism and a flawed sense of beauty. An acceptance that further augments the socio-economic disparity that prevails. You don’t have to go to the Dutch club or the German to experience that. It is readily available in the form of self-hating attributes that may very well be a product of a few hundred years of colonialism coupled with comfort of religious dogma.

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I love coming back to America. I do enjoy the summers here and the winters as well even when I am gritting my teeth and swearing in all the other non-native tongues I have mustered over the years. But this is home for now, so I have grown to love it. That being said, America has its fair share of race related problems which makes me love it a little less on days (even if the weather is optimum 25 Celsius). But unlike the South Asian cultures that are overtly polite at their own peril at times, the Americans are far more expressive in their discontent. If the South Asians tend to their racism like a secret garden on their roofs, the Americans (the racist ones) tend to their racism with a 5.1 surround sound system. That difference in modus operandi was never more evident when Nina Davuluri was presented with the Miss America crown.

The reaction was of initial shock in the form of “why didn’t the girl with a tattoo and who likes killing animals in her pastime, win?”. And then it took an uglier turn toward outright racist vitriol. Anyone who has access to the Internet can google them, so I don’t have to further elaborate on the racist vitriol.

After the racist vitriol came the defence of this young lady. Social media lit up along with media outlets with encouragement espousing the virtues of America’s changing face, its diversity and how this sort of racism is outdated and frowned upon. Everyone from my Caucasian American friends to my African American friends through the means of traditional media outlets, social media teed off on a blistering (and warranted) attack on current state of racism that exists in America while the South Asian community suggested that Nina has made them proud.

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I did not get caught up in the Nina defence. Mostly because I am lazy and I can’t be bothered with the world when I am already drowning in work and occasional self-serving articles on news outlets.

But my laziness and/or apathy concerning the Miss America pageant were an isolated event even in a fully connected, interactive world. As the media appreciation for this young lady and Miss America pageant reached a fever pitch, it started drowning out the debate on debt ceiling, chemical weapons and other issues that actually affect me in more meaningful ways than Miss America pageant.

My laziness lost out in the midst of all this “cultural appreciation”.

My apathy turned to hostility toward this “Institution of Applause”. “An Institution of Applause” that is used to counter a problem that cannot be remedied with self-congratulatory tweets, show of support in the form of Facebook likes and gleeful Indian American woman. The problem with American racism goes much deeper than that. We all know that. It does not take a Florida man to hunt down a Black unarmed teenager to remind us how large the problem is and how deep it goes. But we forget because triviality is a much better mistress than contemplation.

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Here is the major problem I have applauding Miss America. It further validates the institution that is Miss America pageant. This institution has permeated our collective psyche to such an extent that we find no problem watching grown human beings parading around in costumes and accessories, espousing their worth as a human being yet acting, mimicking a sellable product. This phenomenon is universal. But this needs to come to a close; this needs to stop.

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Were the racist slurs against Nina offensive? Sure. But more importantly the whole dog and pony show that is Miss America (or for that matter any beauty pageant like Miss World, Miss Universe) is offensive. It is offensive to our future. If you are raising a child and she is given enough evidence that she is somehow more likely to be liked and celebrated for her perfect skin, shinny teeth, then you can’t blame her if she wants to be a commodity when being a human being is much less celebrated, much less appreciated. Being pretty should not be a goal but a consequence of who you are and however disjointed my rant sounds right now, this should not be ignored in a world that is already suffering from disconnect with the highest level of technological connectivity since its inception.

The argument here is not that someone should not have the right to ‘compete’ in Miss America like pageants. The argument here is that it should be dealt with the irrelevance that it deserves. So much so that in a market based world, such a product becomes too irreverent and too niche so it dies out…like Microsoft Zune or Nickelback.

If we are unable to address these issues with the levity and gravity they deserve then we will be pushing off news about gassed children in Syria to accommodate news about Katy Perry’s wardrobe.

I know we have reached that sort of point of absurdity but we need to stop and redraw that line. The line between important and not so important is blurry now. And we are to blame.

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As a culture we Bengalis feel a need to come across as inoffensive. We are rarely confrontational when it does not involve another Bengalis. And we need our cool in a world that has all its cards stacked up against us. So progress on any level is much warranted, much needed and at times quite painful as they come at the expense of tradition.

But some traditions need to go.

“Fair skin equates to beauty” needs to stop. I would have no problem if this assessment was an organic product and grew out of some sort of biological evolutionary process (“if your skin is white, you are immune to snakebites” type of advantage). But this specific idea goes back to Indo-Arians. It goes back to colonialism and suffocation. It goes back to a subjugated population accepting norms that only hindered their progress while the supposedly superior light skinned people, benefited from it. There’s nothing organic about racism. It is a construct. And the more we give money, space, TV time to “Fair and Lovely” and other fairness products, accept racist remarks like “ei meye ta ektu kalo kintu shundor” under the pretence of civility and/or respect for tradition, the more we are going to become retrogressive. And for us that is not an option as we are neither rich, nor isolated to be comfortable with our current status not only as Bengalis but also as human beings.

Source: Bd news24

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