By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
“You just need to be white to win.” That’s the tagline, in English translation, for a TV ad pushing Snowz, a skin whitening cream from Seoul Secrets Thailand, a cosmetics firm, since withdrawn after the Seoul Secrets (no doubt accidental on purpose) uproar and moral panic. Here’s the ad; I don’t think you need more than the visuals:
(Skin whitening products are stacked up in drugstores all over Asia; they’re a $2 billion industry). What’s interesting to me — and this is going to be one of those superficial posts where, magpie-like, I collect and display a number of bright, shiny objects — is that the initial framing, which made its way from the Twitter all the way to the English-language media worldwide, is that the Seoul Secrets ad was racist. On the Twitter:
— Nick Day (@NickDay13) January 8, 2016
“Ewwwwwww,” [copy that] was the reaction of 28-year-old Jutamas Tritaruyanon, one of many to post their disapproval on Facebook.
“This ad is so obviously and another attempt to brainwash Thai women,” Jutamas, a Bangkok-based office worker, told AP. “They’re saying that being dark is ugly. It’s a narrow-minded and disgusting attitude.”
A new Thai beauty ad claiming white skin is the key to success has unleashed a storm of criticism in Thailand, especially online, where people complain the ad perpetuates damaging, ideas.
And out into the aggregators. Catch News:
Watch the ad here. Seoul Secret has been removing the videos from all platforms. This ad too might be removed soon.
And Carbonated TV:
An advertisement for a new Thai beauty product made appallingly claims that having white skin would lead to success and increased confidence.
And finally out into the “apology” from Seoul Secrets Thailand’s Facebook page:
Regarding the controversial clip of Snows Gluta starring Cris Horwang, Seoul Secret, as the rightful owner of the video clip, would like to apologize for the mistake, and claim full responsibility for this incident. Our company did not have any intent to convey discriminatory or messages.
What we intended to convey was that self-improvement in terms of personality, appearance, skills, and professionality [sic] is crucial.
(I put the word “apology” in ironic quotes because the strategy of generating controversy to get one’s product before the public is a very old one. We’ll get to “self-improvement” later.)
But is the Seoul Secrets ad racist? Well, it’s certainly classist, where “class” is taken as economic class. As the story propagated, and cooler heads reviewed the ad, we find in the Times:
In Thai culture, dark skin is associated with farmers, a lower-status group of people who have been darkened by the sun. White skin signifies a higher class and beauty standard.
And further, in the National Post:
Darker skin is often associated with rural lower-class Thais, and the country has an enormous industry in skin-whitening products and cosmetic clinics to help customers emulate the porcelain complexions of the Bangkok elite.
In fact, in the West, we see the same class logic, with the colors inverted; the British working class, for example, lived in cramped dwelling and worked indoors, and so were pale; Coco Chanel is said to have made tanning fashionable when she disembarked, sunburnt, at Cannes, after a yachting tour of the Mediterranean. Even today, in the days of the package tour and the Florida vacation, a tan is a sign of leisure, a class marker. There’s a reason Mitt Romney denied a claim that he used spray tan. And so we might see dark skin as the mark of a lower order, but it’s the nature of the orders that’s at issue.
But is the Seoul Secrets ad racist? Well, it’s certainly sexist. I don’t monitor the media flow of cosmetic ads, so I can’t that it’s more than ordinarily sexist, for a cosmetics ad, but sexist it is. To begin with, purchasing, maintaining, and using one’s stock of skin whiteners is a tax on women’s time, as it is not for men, in the same way that the average American man owns 12 pairs of shows (really? 12?) and the average woman 27. More subtly, here’s how the Seoul Secrets, through their actress, encourages women to view their bodies. From the script:
“Do you know something? Before I got to where I am right now, the competition was very high,” actress Sirin Horwang says, based on the translation. “It’s not easy to stay here for a long time. And once I stop taking care of myself, everything I have dedicated, [and] , will be gone.”
Yikes! An investment, by definition, can be bought and sold. It’s hard for me to imagine men (with the possible exception of entertainers like professional athletes) being encouraged to regard their bodies as commodities.
But is the Seoul Secrets ad racist? Well, definitions of race vary (the Urban Dictionary has a fun one). However, if the ad were racist, presumably the race of the actress whose skin gradually changes color would be evident; and all I can say is that it’s not evident to me; of what race is a woman with literally black (and not brown, but — let me take a moment to get out my Browser’s eyedropper — #434144-hued) skin, and Asian features? Then again, I’m not going to be buying skin whitening cream anytime soon, even when it’s possible for me to be out in the sun; mine is not the male gaze that matters here. And there are plenty of Asian, and Thai ads that are overtly racist; so perhaps in the ad’s intended context, racist it is. (Several sources characterize the ad as “blackface,” and I hardly think the ad is intended as a tribute, as the Baltimore cop who performed in blackface claimed to be doing in honor of Al Jolson.)
So I’m not sure that “Is the Seoul Secrets ad racist?” is the right question; after all, it’s clearly classist, and clearly sexist, as well. (At this point, I should also note the bitter irony that the ad may well deliver on its brand promise; after all, racism is prevalent in reality, and if a whiter skin, no matter how achieved, enables one to “pass,” then so be it; no doubt that’s what Seoul Secrets means by “self improvement.”)
What would be useful, it seems to me, in so many situations where questions like this arise, is an approach that permits many more “both/and”s, without demanding so many “either/or”s (and in a campaign season, at least as electoral politics as currently practiced, there’s a lot of, er, black and white thinking).
It may be that Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of “intersectionality” is such an approach. In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” (Stanford Law Review 43 (6):1241-99 (1991) Crenshaw writes (and I realize I’m juggling with power tools here):
The embrace of identity politics, however, has been in tension with dominant conceptions of social justice. Race, gender, and other are most often treated in mainstream liberal discourse as vestiges of bias or domination–that is, as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude or marginalize those who are different. According to this understanding, our liberatory objective should be to empty such categories of any social significance. Yet implicit in certain strands of feminist and racial liberation movements, for example, is the view that the social power in delineating difference need not be the power of domination; it can instead be the source of political empowerment and social reconstruction.
The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite–that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences. In the context of violence against women, this elision of difference is problematic, fundamentally because the violence that many women experience is often shaped by other dimensions of their identities, such as race and class. Moreover, ignoring differences within groups frequently contributes to tension among groups, another problem of identity politics that frustrates efforts to politicize violence against women. Feminist efforts to politicize experiences of women and antiracist efforts to politicize experiences of people of color’ have frequently proceeded as though the issues and experiences they each detail occur on mutually exclusive terrains. Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices. And so, when the practices expound identity as “woman” or “person of color” as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.
If, as this analysis asserts, history and context determine the utility of identity politics, how, then, do we understand identity politics today, especially in light of our recognition of ? More specifically, what does it mean to argue that gendered identities have been obscured in antiracist discourses, just as race identities have been obscured in feminist discourses? Does that mean we cannot talk about identity? Or instead, that any discourse about identity has to acknowledge how our identities are constructed through the intersection of multiple dimensions? A beginning response to these questions requires that we first recognize that the organized identity groups in which we find ourselves are in fact coalitions, or at least potential coalitions waiting to be formed.
(Note that what one might call “vulgar identity politics” as practiced by the political class and both legacy parties and distinct from Crenshaw, does not permit “multiple dimensions of identity,” at least in public discourse; I don’t know how campaigns typically query their databases.) Being of a technical bent, I at once see “multiple dimensions of identity” as overlapping sets, like Venn diagrams, a “both/and” data structure of great utility; one wonders how, for example, one might use intersectionality to categorize Trump voters.
“You just need to be white to win” might be a winning, albeit subliminal message from Trump — The Winner di Tutti Winners — to Trump voters, but only along some dimensions of the “lives” of these “real people,” as Crenshaw would call them.
 It would also be interesting to examine how these multiple dimensions interact. From Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Economic scarcity alters the perception of race”:
When the economy declines, racial minorities are hit the hardest. Although existing explanations for this effect focus on institutional causes, recent psychological findings suggest that scarcity may also alter perceptions of race in ways that exacerbate discrimination. We tested the hypothesis that economic resource scarcity causes decision makers to perceive African Americans as “Blacker” and that this visual distortion elicits disparities in the allocation of resources. Studies 1 and 2 demonstrated that scarcity altered perceptions of race, lowering subjects’ psychophysical threshold for seeing a mixed-race face as “Black” as opposed to “White.” In studies 3 and 4, scarcity led subjects to visualize African American faces as darker and more “stereotypically Black,” compared with a control condition. When presented to naïve subjects, face representations produced under scarcity elicited smaller allocations than control-condition representations. Together, these findings introduce a novel perceptual account for the proliferation of racial disparities under economic scarcity.