“You Just Need to Be White to Win”

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translation, for a TV ad pushing Snowz, a skin whitening cream from Seoul Secrets Thailand, a cosmetics firm, since withdrawn after the Seoul Secrets (no doubt accidental on purpose) uproar and moral panic.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:


“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 racist 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, racist ideas.

And out into the aggregators. Catch News:

Watch the racist 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 racist 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 racist 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] the whiteness I have invested in, 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 identity categories 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 multiple dimensions of identity? 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.[1]

“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.


[1] 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.


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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Uahsenaa

    In East Asia, it’s worth noting that lighter skin is also quite often coded as “foreign” (the literal word often used, though in practice, something more like Euro-American), which, in this case, is considered a positive quality.

    I like Crenshaw’s work a lot, but in most countries/regional block, they have their own racial discourse that doesn’t always map well onto the American one. For instance, in Latin America, its racial miscegenation that is most highly valued and widely touted, so called mestizaje (or criollismo), a legacy of the sistema de castas from the colonial period of New Spain. In that discourse, Castillan + Indigenous is seen as the primary racial identity of Mexicans, Brazilians, Argentinians, etc. while also still excluding blacks or those mixed race individuals perceived as at least partially black. Even there, though, the mixing moves you up the racial hierarchy.

    Japan and Korea, the two Asian countries I’m most familiar with, are somewhat odd in this regard, because, even as light, “foreign” features are valorized, there is also a strong public discourse that denies any racial miscegenation and strongly asserts racial homogeneity, if not purity. In China there are strong distinctions made between people from the North and South, which coincide with historical distinctions between Northern and Southern kingdoms. Add to that how the modern CCP uses the multi-ethnic character of the “Chinese” people as justification for holding onto its imperial acquisitions, Tibet for instance, and you have a veritable quagmire of racial discourse.

    tl;dr – Crenshaw’s work, while brilliant, has to be seen in an Anglo-American context.

    1. Lord Koos

      Yes, in my experience, every east Asian country holds pale skin to be a standard of beauty… there are plenty of whitening creams and regimens in China, Japan, Singapore, etc etc. Whenever you see models in Asian advertising they are invariably light-skinned.

    2. jgordon

      Well–just to clarify your point–I immediately caught on to this because I’m friends with many Chinese and Japanese people (I speak Japanese and am learning Chinese) and I have to say, it’s absolutely not the case that these Asian women want to look white because they want to look more Caucasian. Their culture just views paler-skinned women as beautiful, while tanned skin is “ugly”. That’s been true since way before Chinese/various Asian people even knew Europeans existed.

      These differing cultural standards are often remarked upon in China (where I’m most familiar with) actually. There’s a bit of cultural lore there that says that foreigners usually only go after ugly people (ie darker skinned, non-ideal facial features, heavier, etc).

      1. Uahsenaa

        Actually, no. I can speak from experience in the Japanese arena (China I’m less familiar with), because I have studied Japanese media extensively in my academic career.

        Anecdotal evidence from contemporary women is just not good enough here, because there’s an entire media environment that has sold them an idea of what ideal J-beauty is supposed to be. In the postwar period, you see a distinct shift in how women in particular are depicted. Women’s and girls’ magazine show a marked propensity for using foreign, generally Caucasian, models, who are paired side-by-side with lighter skinned, generally biracial Japanese models. In girls’ magazines in particular from the 50s and 60s, you see almost no Japanese or even vaguely Japanese looking girls at all, and it’s very clear that these more exotic figures are being held up as a model (in both senses of that word) not just some cute girl to be admired. This remains true even today, for the J fashion industry prefers foreign models over their Japanese counterparts. There’s even an entire racket of trafficking (well, very close to trafficking) young women in Russia just to supply the industry’s needs.

        Linking to your own work is a no-no, but I can provide you with one to my own writings on this topic, if you’d like.

          1. Uahsenaa

            I included a link below, now out of moderation (thanks). This is just the tip of the iceberg. What is most striking, to my mind, is the comparison between popular media from the prewar, when wearing western style clothes was definitely seen as exotic and out of the norm, a sign of the so-called moga or “modern girl” who was a constant subject of fascination and ridicule.

            Fast forward to the postwar era, and no one thinks anything of dressing Western clothes. It’s now the norm. Moreover, you should always look suspiciously at even Japanese claims of “traditional culture,” since what that tradition presumably is shifted wildly throughout the 20th century. Oguma Eiji has written rather brilliantly on this topic. Yes, pale skin was a commonplace of Japanese beauty throughout its history, but I don’t see many contemporary women blacking their teeth, painting their lips white, or rouging their eyes anymore. Contemporary beauty standards are pretty clearly western in origin.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    I’m glad you wrote this – its something that has really begun to annoy me – the way specifically American cultural racism/sexism tropes are being exported around the world by supposedly right-on people, who are actually displaying astonishing cultural insensitivity in doing so. As one very minor example, a number of articles in cinema trade papers are expressing puzzlement that the new Star Wars movie isn’t doing as well as expected outside the US and Europe. It didn’t seem to occur to them that choosing a range of new heroes seemingly according to politically correct guidelines rather than actual talent or appropriateness would, in fact, make the film suffer in countries which don’t have those particular hang-ups.

    But back to those Thai ads. Of course they are not racist in the sense that those twitter users think it means. The issue of ‘light’ and ‘dark’ skin means an entirely different thing in SE Asia as in other parts of the world. It is slightly about race – ‘light’ skin is associated with people of Chinese or Vietnamese background, while ‘dark’ skin represents more those from the south. For example, in Khymer Rouge days in Cambodia people with lighter skin were specifically sought out for particularly harsh treatment by the KR for precisely this reason (Luong Ung, writer of a memoir of those days ‘First they Killed my Father’ wrote how her mother made her sit in the sun to darken her skin to hide her part Chinese ethnicity). You see the same in Indonesia where during the slaughters after the Suharto fall, that lighter skin people (associated with Chinese merchants) were given as harsh treatment as leftists (the horrifying documentary, ‘The Act of Killing’ shows this in passing).

    There is also of course a class element – the upper classes in Thailand and other parts of have always valued pale skin (men as well as women, as a brief look at pics of SE Asian TV and movie celebs will show), is related to dark skin meaning you have worked in the fields. The horror Thai’s expressed at that advert – which is indeed offensive – is related to the contempt it shows for the generally poorer, darker skinned people of the north, rather than the more lighter skinned lowland Thai’s who have generally run the country.

    I had a Thai-American friend who made a great deal of money modelling in SE Asia. Her looks were very much in demand (and its not sexist, male mixed race models were equally in demand). Partially, it was her lighter skin that was considered attractive, but a great deal of it was the notion of being somewhat ambiguous in background – she could not be associated with a specific strata of society of background, so she had more appeal for advertisers. It reminded me of what George Bernard Shaw used to say about Irish and Scottish people having a big advantage in England – English people, as he said, couldn’t open their mouths without having another English person despise him for his accent. But Irish and Scots (and later, Aussies) could navigate Englands class system as the English couldn’t ‘place’ them. Much the same applies for racially ambiguous and lighter skinned models and actors in SE Asia (well, thats my theory).

    1. Synoia

      Three points: It is about Class.

      1. There is no such thing as bad PR. (for Example, Trump). The objective is to dominate the news cycle.

      2. A white complexion was also much beloved in the UK when an agricultural society. It meant you did not have to work outdoors, and thus had money and were of a better class.

      3. Today, when the poor work indoors, a suntan is considered more attractive, because one is from the leisure class.

      it did not take a thousand, redundant words, to express this.

      1. Brooklin Bridge

        Yes, good comment, but note that as Uahsenaa suggests, light skin, or relatively light skin, can also be a question of uniqueness/ novelty (as in Foreign) much the way a French accent has been popular in the US at particular periods.

    2. optimader

      I’m glad you wrote this – its something that has really begun to annoy me – the way specifically American cultural racism/sexism tropes are being exported around the world by supposedly right-on people, who are actually displaying astonishing cultural insensitivity in doing so.

      This is America’s fault?? All I can say is, damn those Canadians and Mexicans for exporting their racist predilections! Was the popularity of face and wig powder also the work of our American neighbors in Canadia and Mexico back in the day in European societies? ?

      Consider developing a personal Maslow’s Hierarchy of Annoyance or you may risk being found fixed and dilated under the bed in fetal position one day?

      A question for Mylessthanprimebeef:
      For how many Centuries has a pale complexion been visual queue for class distinction in China and many other Asian countries?
      My guess is as long as there has been outdoor physical labor?


      IMO, if anything a modern proliferation of this fashion inclination is more a surrogate for disposable income rather than “American cultural racism”. NEWSFLASH: ……..Cosmetic/Fashion marketers will sell into any market by any means possible that produce results…….

      1.) By logical extension, are black owners of cosmetic companies that sell hair straightening/coloring chemicals and skin lightening cosmetics Racists?
      2.) Am I a racist for thinking that is a logical extension??

      1. PlutoniumKun

        This is America’s fault?? All I can say is, damn those Canadians and Mexicans for exporting their racist predilections! Was the popularity of face and wig powder also the work of our American neighbors in Canadia and Mexico back in the day in European societies? ?

        If you read Lamberts’ article, you would see that all the quotes claiming the ad are racist are from American source (AP, CNN, etc). So yes, it is Americas fault. Thats my point. Something that is specific to SE Asia/Thai, has been reinterpreted through an American lens as ‘racism’, when it is nothing of the sort (at least not in the sense meant). It is offensive, but it is offensive for reasons that are quite specific to Thai and other SE Asian societies. This shows an arrogant cultural insensitivity which seems to me to be all the worst as it is from people who are purporting to be outraged on behalf of the victims of racism.

        1. Optimader

          First of sll, Lambert wrote an opinion piece about what what others wrote.

          Second your logic has a gap unless “America” is responsible for any behaviour in any other countries/societies that “American sources” deem newsworthy to write about? Is that your reasoning?

          More to the point, is it correct to describe the behavior/product/advertising as racist or is it an imprecise use of the word?

          Seems to me to be a case of marketing class distinction rather than race distinction which is not a new development in Asia.

  3. Chris Geary

    As a POC, quite clearly racist. I’m not sure whether your dismissals hold up. You’d more readily accept the ad as classist/sexist but not racist? So we’re noting Western attitudes towards tans, but ignoring cross cultural attitudes towards “black” people vs “white”. Ok.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      It has absolutely nothing to do with cultural attitudes towards ‘black’ people vs ‘white’. The advert is Thai, and it has hit a sore nerve within Thailand because it hits on the issue of lighter skinned Asian people looking down on darker skinned Asian people. It has absolutely zero to do with caucasians or africans.

  4. craazyman

    she looks pretty hot to me with or without the skin cream

    tthat settles it for me. next topic please.

    Lambert this is jumping the shark.

    I have an amazingly thoughtful essay to submit as a link. it was written in 1991 evidently, about the U.S, civil war, history, narrative, identity and mythmaking.

    it’s a far more fruitful topic for discussion than this nonsense. ill trry to submit it in a reply to this comment

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Really? You’re for a model of parties that are siloes of one-dimensional people? How odd.

      Or, to quote from your source:

      There is also the view from the homefront, by, among many others: mothers and wives of the soldiers, civilians caught up in the whirlwind of war, masters and slaves, journalists, politicians, a Northern businessman (George Templeton Strong), the wife of a Confederate cabinet member (Mary Chesnut), a famous nurse (Clara Barton), and a black freedman who became a prominent advocate of abolition and Negro rights (Frederick Douglass).

      So, one level of abstraction up….

      1. craazyman

        I don’t mean your writing above. so apologies if it seemed that way and I guess it did, unintentionally.

        it’s just not worth it, to waste your connsiderable skill and thought on this. it’s a rabbit hole for mental rabbits

        I mean the vapid and shallow analysis that usually follows this broad topic around like a train of boxcars full of drooling clowns. I guess there is a thoughtful way of vetting it, but that is likely beyond the ability of almost anyone who I see attempt it (not including you, although you do go off the rails sometimes on the race issue”)

        have you got that Maine Civil War Cavalry officer’s uniform yet? I’ve seen a few places on the web that sell clothes like that. They’re a lot more attractive in terms of sartorial style than the junk for sale at Barney’s for thousands of dollars! it’s amazing.

        1. alex morfesis

          Hay mahn…da lambertz doinz a gr8 job as the selector…bakyndadaze when eye bee dee jayin had me best nitez when it got mixed up good…one recent…one older…one new…another recent…and then sumtin slowah to gives peoples a chance to getz to know da one thay be dancin wit…and to let the barmaids make a few sales and pay some billz mit dem tipz man…lambert runz a great dancefloor mahn…he bee the perfect selector..

      1. craazyman

        I don’t see any nose rings, but that would freak me out a little.

        You have to be careful these days who you insult. You wouldn’t want to insult bulls, who I understand often wear nose rings. If they ever caught up with you they could put a hurtin’ on you. They weigh more than 2000 pounds.

      2. craazyman

        Actually, I just wasted my time watching the video.

        She’s hot either way, but she’s hotter without the white cream and red hair.

        1. craazyboy

          Maybe in Asia they think Irish women are exotic?

          The Philippines are big on the white face cream too. I read a Japanese newscaster got eye surgery so he looked more like a roundeye. People are weird everywhere. Then there are tats….

          1. craazyman

            I don’t know, they all look alike

            . bowahhahahahahhahahahaahah

            OK . . . well, so do all the Hollywood blonds.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Hmm. I don’t recall setting up expectations that you should be “shocked,” or not shocked. It’s a big Internet. Do feel free to seek your own happiness elsewhere.

      1. Inverness

        DanP66, your lack of curiosity and compassion is troubling. If you are not moved by people bleaching their skin to conform to some twisted form of global capitalism, I don’t know what could possibly work.

        1. craazyman

          nearly every culture in the history of the world has adopted cosmetics and varying forms of self-transformation. it’s not unique to “capitalism”

          1. Inverness

            In China, plastic surgery is a tool for people to look more presentable to employers.

            I taught at an American college where one of my Korean students got surgery to create an eyelid, as she put it. In her business field, she explained that western businessmen feel more comfortable around those who look more like them.

            Whether she was projecting that onto those westerners or not, clearly there is the sense that looking whiter would help her career. So, yes, transformation has always existed, and I do suspect capitalism plays a role in this.

          2. Lambert Strether Post author

            Few things are. That doesn’t mean capitalism doesn’t implement them distinctively, especially with respect to the larger systems of which they are a part.

            “Nearly every culture in the world has brewed beer.” And?

        2. optimader

          If you are not moved by people bleaching their skin to conform to some twisted form of global capitalism,
          Huh? Elaborate on what in the wide world of sports “global capitalism has to do with attempts at cosmetic differentiation?

          What do we blame the present fashion of tattooing on?

  5. dk

    Nice quote from Crenshaw.

    I peripherally participate in a culture that has a built-in class system: “martial arts” (horrible term). The class structure arises, inevitably, from skill level. However the behaviors at various levels differ markedly.

    There are counter-forces at work. At the initial levels, everyone aspires to rise; the way to do it is through practice, and by interaction with higher levels (exposure to more advanced technique). Practice might be considered lateral exploration, while interaction with greater/different skill might be considered vertical exploration. At more intermediate levels, there is a tendency to withhold/hide techniques, in order to inhibit encroachment from beginner levels. But past a certain point, withholding ceases, for two reasons: 1) one needs peers to practice with (lateral exploration), and 2) the material itself is opaque: intellectual knowledge of technique is not enough, the body has to be trained for successful result, and withholding interferes with practice. I’d go as far as to say that withholding is a marker of inferior skill.

    Class competition and isolation is self-defeating, outside of the extremely narrow definition of relative success. However, relative success is often seen as the only realistic goal for unskilled novices. Relative success assumes (and is wholly dependent on) a stable underlying social context. At this time, population pressures, resource scarcity and environments threats are increasingly destabilizing the underlying social context.

    1. Harry

      Don’t get it. Just seems true to me. Of course maybe that’s cos I is black.

      Is that the controversy? Capitalists admits that world is racist?

    2. jgordon

      It entirely depends on cultural perspective of the person looking at the advertisement. In Thailand for example this advert is widely viewed as classist rather than racist. I doubt that most Thai people would even understand why it was supposed to be racist unless you explained it to them. Then they’d laugh at you.

    3. Optimader

      What is racism?
      Is it by definition possible for someone to direct racism toward members of their own race?

      Racism is prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior. Modern variants are often based in social perceptions of biological differences between peoples. These can take the form of social actions, practices or beliefs, or political systems that consider different races to be ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on presumed shared inheritable traits, abilities, or qualities. It may also hold that members of different races should be treated differently.[1][2][3]

  6. GlobalMisanthrope

    Thanks. Very good. (The pooh-poohers sound very immature. Don’t know what to make of them.) This was my favorite bit:

    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.”)

    Just so. Good excerpt from Crenshaw, too. My wife adds: “As bell hooks would say, Patriarchy has no gender. We police each other, our daughters and ourselves vis-à-vis patriarchal power in order to be safe. It’s a lot like what we’ve been hearing it’s like to raise a black son.”

    This bit really jumped out at me:

    “And once I stop taking care of myself, everything I have dedicated, [and] the whiteness I have invested in, will be gone.”

    Conforming to arbitrary standards for feminine beauty = self care. Indeed. We all know what happens to women who “let themselves go.”

  7. neo-realist

    While traveling in China a few years ago, a friend and host, a White American male who teaches high school in Kunming, said that there is an enormous amount of racism in China whereby black people/dark skin are held in great contempt and are on the lowest rung of acceptance.

    And at work, I know a co-worker of Korean decent, who while she has not lightened her skin has dyed her hair blond.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      Whiteness is not just skin.

      it’s all the other facial features as well.

      In the meat-market economy, they trade at a premium.

      When such a person steps abroad, one’s accorded all the positive associations with the empire, most of the time.

      “You are my John Wayne.”

      “Mom, you got yourself an imperial son-in-law.”

      Even if such a person is a progressive.

  8. Paul Tioxon

    What you see is what you get. If you look Black, then that’s how you are treated. For a sophisticated treatment of race and class, see the movie THE HUMAN STAIN. Based on the Phillip Roth novel. You can put on a Rolex with a Hugo Boss suit and look rich, but if you are Black, that human stain just does NOT come out and is there for all to see. What do you call a Black doctor with an MBA and a PhD? ……..

  9. bob


    Letting white people lecture everyone else on how it really works. It’s a framework! What don’t you understand?


    I’ve seen this nonsense rising. Local students at the uni were protesting. The core of the group were mostly foreign nationals objecting to their “jobs” as TA’s and GA’s where they were mistreated and overworked.

    Riding to the recuse were the intersectionality police, mostly very upper class NYC brats who were fighting for? they were there, navel gazing and theorizing, that’s about it.

    They were also the only ones left after the uni threatened the green cards of most of the original group.

    I’m not even gonna give air to their ultimate list of “demands” but any criticism of class was complete swept off stage, much to the delight of the uni.

    Now all they had left were a bunch of over privileged kids, making demands for…. no one exactly, that they could find.

    That college degree does pay off– for the college, again, and again, and again…

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      Any tool can be misused. I doubt very much that Crenshaw would endorse sweeping economics off the stage.

      That’s why I introduced “vulgar identity politics.” Sounds like a prime case of it here…

  10. Jim

    This essay raises a crucial issue “How do we understand identity politics today.?”

    It nibbles at an answer when it suggests “…an approach that permits many more both/ands without demanding so many either/or’s.” But isn’t what we really are talking about a new design for our supposed national political community.

    It seems to be a fact that today most nations are culturally heterogeneous and as a consequence each nation-state finds it increasingly difficult to reflect any particular national values, traditions or customs

    The U.S. is caught in the paradox of having to embody concrete values derived from a founding particularistic perspective(the Protestant tradition) within the context of an increasingly self-conscious heterogeneity comprising a multitude of particularistic groups articulating different value orientations– with the end result being, on the national level–a stalemate within the existing political/institutional framework.

    The crucial political question becomes not how to arrive at a consensus without exclusion but how to design a political structure that enables contradictory aspirations to exist and guarantee order in the midst of conflict.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      “isn’t what we really are talking about a new design for our supposed national political community.”

      Ding ding ding ding ding. (Stylistically, I do tend to “nibble round the edges” on topics like this, because they’re so charged.)

      “to design a political structure that enables contradictory aspirations to exist and guarantee order in the midst of conflict”

      Maybe Federalist #10 needs an update…

  11. Jagger

    The crucial political question becomes not how to arrive at a consensus without exclusion but how to design a political structure that enables contradictory aspirations to exist and guarantee order in the midst of conflict.

    Race divides, class unites.

      1. Jagger

        True, although policies that benefit a whole class regardless of race should unite rather than divide.

    1. Jim

      Marx argued that class distinctions are an ontological feature of reality.

      These socio-economic practices are supposedly sedimented in the collective conscousness of particular communities.

      Marx, especially in his later years, reconstructed the logic of capital as the essence of historical development.

      But isn’t it true that labor and production are also embedded in specific territorial and cultural contexts within which they receive their meaning?

      For as long as the modern US State could guarantee a steady growth (whether legitimate or fraudulent) and relatively high standards of living, real, or a more populist discontent with cultural homogenization could be contained.

      But it now appears that the center may no longer hold. It may be the case that, in the future, the centralized State will not be able to exist with real community based multicultualism.

      On the other hand the type of weak, bureaucratic multiculturalism which is presently predominant in the U.S. favors conformity and the development of a small but highly visible and vocal upwardly mobile segment of the public/private power apparatus which become pressure groups advocating a type of artificial particularity as career advancement strategies.

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        “small but highly visible and vocal upwardly mobile segment”

        Teach for America and [genuflects] “start ups” are cut from the same cloth, albeit by different ruling class factions with differing fashion sense.

      1. Jagger

        My line of thought is that a class based policy will divide horizontally separating lower from upper and middle classes regardless of race. A race based policy will divide vertically with entire groups of people separated regardless of class.

        A class based policy benefitting lower classes should provide the greater numbers required to counteract the power of upper classes. A race based policy relies for supoprt on the power/numbers of the particular race.

        And all of the above is a generality. Specifics can definitely alter the picture. And I assuming support is based purely on self interest. So definitely a generality but I believe a core of reality.

        (Second attempt to post)

        1. Jim

          How about the building of a more community-based political structure and a simultaneous call for a re-federalization of our national political structure.

          Then the reconstruction of a city like say, Ferguson, could be encapsulated in a political vision that is territorial-based rather than simply racial, ethnic or religious with the potentiality for a broader populist and de-centralist appeal across racial and class divisions.

  12. Massinissa

    This is a late comment, but I want to make it.

    Im a young man, under 20, and I ‘have’, if not 12, then almost that many pairs of shoes, but I have a simple reason.

    I have maybe 2 pairs of formal shoes, but I have many pairs of tennis shoes, because I get a new pair every year as the old ones wear out, and I don’t bother throwing the old ones away.

    The average man having 12 sets is not surprising if those 12 are collected over a period of between 10 and 30 years. Though obviously the average woman still buys 2.5 times as many shoes over whatever period of time, which is a damn lot of money, especially when you consider that the average woman also pays more for other beauty products, the rise of ‘metrosexual’ men buying male beauty products notwithstanding (at least right now)

  13. debitor serf

    racism is everywhere if you just look hard enough, even when it’s not really there.

    Saying that lighter skin is favored in Asian is racist is like saying that Hair treatments for bald people is rooted in bigotry against people without a head of hair. it’s all trying to cosmetically reverse genetics.

  14. V. Arnold

    Many Asians, including Thais, are very conscious of skin color. This is my experience. I’ll never forget, one of my senior students (female) asked me if I thought another student (also female) was beautiful. I said yes (she really was to my eye). And the questioner then said; “But she’s black”. I laughed and said, no, she wasn’t black (in fact far from it). I’ve lost track of how many times this came up over the course of my 12+ years here.
    Humans are prejudiced, that’s just a fact of life. Get over it and move on…

  15. NoniMausa

    Hmm. A stray thought hit me. In minority cultures, there are complaints of cultural appropriation if whites take up songs, clothes, and so on. Jazz and Blues stolen from the blacks, meditation and cults taken from the Far East, Indian headdresses, drums and sweat lodge ceremonies…

    But you don’t hear the whites complaining when the coloured folk try their best to live white lives and even bleach their skin. Why? My guess is because they know that despite the effort and whiteness, they will never successfully pass into the court of privilege. The whites can judge and take from them, but never the other way around.

    So the status boost, if it is achieved, is achieved within their own stratum, not between strata.

    Geez, that’s depressing.

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