Whose Debt?:
Globalisation and Whitefacing in Asia

Patricia Goon and Allison Craven

  1. This paper examines the popularisation of skin-whitening practices amongst 'non-white' cultures that has occurred in recent years, with relation to historical and colonial contexts. In the paper, we refer to the practice of skin whitening as a discourse of recognition and of 'repayment' of an historically-imposed value of 'whiteness'—both 'by' the subaltern, and in debt to, the subaltern. With regard to this, we also explore the growing popularity of the 'Eurasian' model and representative as one symptom of a postcolonial structure of commoditisation and consumerism which is still influenced by a colonial past. In making our arguments, we incorporate readings of the skin-whitening phenomenon through references to advertising and product literature, to debates about skin-whitening practices, and to constructions of 'Eurasians' in some cultural discourses.
  2. This paper, then, is about race and gender and concerns the performance of 'whiteness' among 'non-white' races. In particular, we explore the performance of 'whiteness' by young women in Southeast Asia, who are encouraged to whiten their faces with cosmetics to become 'paler'. The question of whether this is to signify beauty, whiteness, racial difference or some combination of these markers is not clear from the advertising literature. As racialised spectacles of reduced colour, however, the textual 'face'—and message—that these women present to a rapidly hegemonising global economic-cultural sphere, is significant. The object of this paper is to speculate on the meanings of the contemporary use of skin-whitening cosmetics by Asian women, with particular reference to Malaysia. We reflect on some histories of the practice in various cultural settings and speculate that, in postcolonial Asia, the practice is linked to the commoditisation of the image of the 'Eurasian', whereby changing skin colour possibly fulfils a role in the maintenance of literal and symbolic debt structures. However, we argue that skin-whitening also subverts the debt structures and complicates the question of who and what is owed to whom. While this paper is not an analysis of third-world debt, or of the political economy of the transnational cosmetics industry, we attempt at least to elaborate the meanings of image and gaze within metaphoric economies of debt, currency and expense. Lipsitz coins the phrase the 'possessive investment in "whiteness"'[1] to describe how European Americans have used whiteness to create and secure economic advantages, while 'white power secures its dominance by seeming not to be anything in particular'.[2] Lipsitz' phrase initiates a metaphor in which 'whiteness' is currency that exists invisibly, in not seeming to be colour at all, while forcing on 'racialised' groups, competition for white approval—an expense or cost literalised in the purchase of skin-whitening products.
  3. While this paper inevitably forms part of a literature on the deconstruction of whiteness, and feminist critique of orientalisation/dehumanisation of non-white femininity, our discussion of skin-whitening in non-western societies is more to be taken up in rethinking postcolonial subjectivities. Skin-whitening literatures in Asia call up images of hybrid offspring of colonial empires, but the same texts equally efface histories and critiques of subordinate subalternity. Cosmetic application or 'makeup' is usually seen to enhance the applier's 'natural beauty', and is recognised as a superficial and removable layer of effect. In the case of skin-whitening, the practice has potentially lasting and occasionally irreversible physical consequences—except if new cosmetics are applied to modify the whitened face. While middle and working class female targets of skin-whitening cosmetics are positioned as consumers of personal grooming products, the mixed race Eurasian is projected as a glamorous subject of global media, a performative subject who can claim both 'white' as well as 'coloured' investments. In the case of the 'Eurasian', the subject is not a 'fabricated' or 'cosmetic' production but some version of an 'authentic' genetic outcome of globalisation, migration, and the 'melting pot'.
  4. This essay is an attempt to sketch some responses to the mediation of the 'whitened Asian', the subjects of skin whitener advertisements, contrasted with the discursive regimes of the 'Eurasian'. The complex intersections of race, class and gender are considered with reference to Rey Chow's analysis of the postcolonial 'native'.[3] We look at some pre-colonial history of the whitened Asian face, and some contemporary discourses of the 'Eurasian', and attempt to define the influences on it. We wish to argue that the whitened face of Asia is a face of debt which faces both ways: a form of repayment to —but also demanded from—a colonial system that has extracted itself politically from the scene of colonial invasion, but has retained control and racial superiority through consumerism and popular culture. The modern whitened face, therefore, is a meeting place/space of colonial conscription and reference. But it is also a space where the original colonial value—'whiteness'—is being appropriated as a demand for a debt to be repaid to the subaltern by colonial history.
  5. 'Whiteness' amongst coloured races has become a commodity, a market product. Global-economic trends and one-world markets in the age of the Internet and mass-media have given worldwide coverage to a notion of value originally derived from colonial and class effects, merging the two and setting up new resonances which do not return simplistically to either context. Transnational and transcultural commodifications are producing hybrid notions of 'colour', 'paleness' and 'whiteness' which are fusing economic, neo-colonial and class-based hierarchies of value. Therefore, in discourses of skin-whitening, we argue, 'whiteness' and 'paleness' signify both distinction between, and collusion with, the historical myths of paleness associated with feminine discourses of beauty, and 'whiteness' as an imperialist, racialised value of superiority.

    Place and Face: Geo-politics and Identity
  6. Advertisements for skin whitening products indicate that by and large the products are developed and promoted for use on the face (not the limbs or torso). The politics of 'face' is a layered one in many cultures. In western discourses, the face is uniquely both a most personal (like a fingerprint) and public (always on display) space of self-representation, and, hence, in feminine (and masculine) beauty regimes of commoditisation. Advertisements and TV commercials for skin-whitening products in Malaysia, for example, generally inscribe their texts with a 'from-ugly-duckling-to-swan' fairy-tale. For instance, 'Blossom Into a Fairer Beauty with Lifecella Whitening Mask' is a promise to transform the user 'into the fair beauty you were meant to be'.[4] The pleasure promised by the product, as indicated by the advertising discourse, is in the response of those who will see you—that is, in the return of a distinctly colonising, value-inscribed gaze. Whiteness is being sold as a new cosmetic product, an 'effect' you can buy and put on. It is a product which, on the one hand, seems to reduce the original value of whiteness (since everyone can now be 'white'), but on the other, reifies the dichotomy and hierarchy between 'white' and 'not-white', and 'white' and 'black/coloured'.
  7. The questions of how one should read the split, racialised subjects of these neo-colonial advertisements, and the subjective desires implied by the appeal of skin whitening products, are perplexing and equally critical at this historical juncture in imperialistic capitalism. The desire is also inflected by the locality politics of 'Asia', by territorial boundaries and ethnic identifications. Rob Wilson discusses the 'borderless interlinked economy' in which we come to terms with the 'postnational geopolitics and cultural implications of this new global/local interface, entrenchments of community and power into forms of place-bound identity'.[5] This is the phenomenon that Arjun Appadurai has called 'the global production of locality'.[6]
  8. As a beauty practice, skin-whitening cannot be approached as in Naomi Wolf's account of the 'beauty myth'.[7] That is, it cannot be simply understood in terms of 'the old feminine ideologies that still [have] power to control women'.[8] Representations of skin whitening are strategic and localised and sufficiently generalised to embrace the desires of Asian women and men—some advertising explicitly calls on desire for male approval, and endorses fair skin as something essential to femininity. The advertising specifically resurrects a regime of visible contrast and comparison based on the binaries of both patriarchal as well as colonial hierarchies. The advertisements project an imaginary set of propositions: 'Am I darker or fairer than this model?' 'Is my boyfriend staring at that woman who just happens to be paler than me?' 'It doesn't matter that my boss prefers my colleague—I'm lighter than her'. Worth and cultural capital becomes re-associated with a paleness which makes the subject stand out—in a class- and colonially-positive way—from the rest of the darker ethnic mass.
  9. The emergence of a 'paler' global entertainment industry in recent years would certainly have had its influence on the consumerism and marketing of the idea of 'international beauty', and even 'beauty' per se as the prominence of a number of celebrities would indicate—including Michael Jackson and his sisters, LaToya and Janet, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Russell Wong, John Lone, Hale Berry,[9] Lisa Bonet, Sabrina LeBeauf, Vin Diesel, Rae-Dawn Chong, Aaliyah and Craig David, to name only a few. In 1984 the American hit sitcom The Cosby Show presented a black upper-middle-class family of seven—with several actors in the cast displaying mixed-race heritage and whose appearances varied from pale to white. Yet these entertainers often stressed their ethnic heritage as much as their 'darker' counterparts in their public communication.
  10. National policies of multiculturalism and ethnic cultural movements have also had significant impact. As advertising increasingly markets across cultures and borders, the pressure grows to remove visibly 'authentic' or 'pure' caucasians from advertising campaigns and replace them with images of whiteness that cannot be seen as being white, at least within immediate visual identification. In this era of visual carnivalisation that is print and digital pop-culture, the fields of public, cultural and global marketing have commoditised a new and powerful gaze, and through it, an overtly specularised object of capital. The current Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board website[10] features an official 'welcome' image of four identically-pale women from the nation's main Indian, Malay, Chinese and Aboriginal communities—even though the paleness of the women is uncommon, even improbable, in actual contexts.
  11. At first, one might speculate, that the skin-whitening material calls to a perverse desire in young Asian women to, as it were, 'be' 'white', or equally, it might seem to be instructional, telling young women to 'be white'. In another sense if, as Spivak says, 'the subaltern cannot speak',[11] it might be speculated that the whitened Asian woman is some version of a 'queered' colonial subject, no longer easily accounted for in analyses of colonial hybridity or cultural mimicry. It might be argued that a 'subaltern' who appropriates whiteness is demonstrating that her condition of debt is also a statement of power, a personal space of re-configuration which at once yields to, and yet resists, the traditional colonial narrative.
  12. The subject of skin whitening is an image: she is the face of a virtual economy of beauty, and the currency of a global transaction within regional political spaces. The riddle she poses is the part she plays in the transaction; is she an item of exchange or surplus? As the impoverished child of third world colonialism, she is historically poor, so how does the whitened face acquire value in her eyes? A very specific form of multiracialism in Malaysia is institutionalised in Federal law and policy. For the Malaysian woman whose racial identity is prescribed by policy (for example, subjects are recognised as 'Malay', 'Chinese', 'Indian' or 'Other'), skin-whitening may be a form of 'tactical' resistance, as De Certeau might term it.[12] Skin-whitening could be argued to be a form of resistance taken up by the 'practical' or 'performing' body: that is, the body which attempts to appropriate a literacy and fluidity beyond its institutionalised identity.

    Constructing Whiteness : History and Performativity
  13. Race, as Lipsitz says, is 'a cultural construct'.[13] The literature on constructing whiteness is growing, and the critique of whiteness is diverse in different empires. As Kuchta argues, the 'genealogy' of white studies, as coined, can be traced to the novels of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, or the cultural criticism of bell hooks, and Stuart Hall.[14] In analysing the meanings of whiteness in colonial economies, Richard Dyer argues that the construction of 'whiteness' is dependent upon belief in the mind/body split, and on Christian spiritual values that support imperialism.[15] Dyer's arguments highlight the contradiction inherent in post-Enlightenment thought between the 'universal' construction of humanity, and the de-humanising tendencies of colonialism. While the (white) body is a site of spiritual journey, the body is also denied, and non-white bodies are punished as excessive. For Irene Nexica, Birgit Rasmussen, Matt Wray, Kellie Stoddart, Pamela Perry, Eric Klinenberg, and Jillian Sandell, analyses of the 'forms and meanings of whiteness as a racial identity' necessarily include an examination of an 'historical and social structure of privilege'.[16] Lipsitz argues that historically the

      power of whiteness depended not only on white hegemony over separate racialized groups, but also on manipulating racial outsiders to fight against one another, to compete with each other for white approval, and to seek the rewards and privileges of whiteness for themselves at the expense—literally—of other racialized populations',[17]

    including, in the United States of America, Mexicans, Asians, and African Americans.
  14. In various cultures, paleness and smoothness of face and hands remain signs of aristocracy and wealth. In ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman societies, mercury and lead compounds were used to whiten the face of high-class women. In India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, paler skins remain social markers of aristocratic heritage and class allegiance. 'A Question of Colour' in The Muslim News notes the 'modern' skin-whitening fixation sweeping Egypt, observing that:

      The whitening of Eqypt has become a lucrative industry. Television commercials bombard viewers with a baffling array of skin-lightening creams and hair-straightening contraptions, creams and shampoos to effect the 'white look'[18]

  15. Yet skin-whitening is certainly an historical phenomenon, closely tied to the acquisition of cultural and colonial capital. Amongst African cultures, for example, skin-lightening has a strongly colonial history: US-produced products such as 'Black-No-More' and 'Shure-White' used to be available, and the skin-lightener 'Success' remains on sale.[19] The early 1990s reggae hit Dem a Bleach, by Nardo Ranks, was one of numerous songs denouncing the practice of skin-lightening in Kenya, Jamaica and Nigeria.[20] In India, the preoccupation with pale skin is equally high. An article in The Tribune calls it an 'obsession', noting that:

      If you were to believe the extravagant declarations made in matrimonial advertisements in newspapers, you would expect Indians to be of only gora, 'white', 'extremely fair' complexion, with stray incidence of 'wheatish colour'.[21]

    According to a report put out by the Thai Farmers Research Centre, whitening products represented Thailand's single biggest stake in skin-care product sales in 1998: that is, 49 percent of a market worth around Bt 880 million.[22]
  16. The craze for the modern skin-whitening creams is a relatively recent emergence of the last fifty years—a capitalist-consumerist wagon shared by international cosmetic giants from Japan, Europe, UK and America. At the cheaper end, creams such as Fair and Lovely and Godrej's Fair Glow and Fairever serve the market. Middle-range products include Avon's VIP Fairness, Samara's Fairness Cream and Oriflame's Natural Northern Light. At the high-end, big names such as Lancôme (Blanc Cristal and Blanc Expert ranges), Yve St Laurent (Blanc Absolu Serum), L'Oreal Plenitude (White Perfect range), Clinique (Active White line), Elizabeth Arden (Visible Whitening Pure Intensive) and Estee Lauder (White Light)—all cosmetic companies with noticeably white heritages—jostle for the coloured woman's attention.
  17. The kitsch allusions to shades of pale in the product names are also reminders of the variegated diversity of white cultures. And whiteness has been prized in white cultures in historical and fashion periods. Victorian angel women softened their appearance with powder and lavender; 'ladies' protect their 'lily-white' from the damaging sun, and the outdoors altogether. All manner of fashion accoutrements—gloves, parasols and scarves—have been cultivated to distance the sun's rays from female skin, and thereby distance the illusion of the labours of the female body. The 'fair' woman is one who is delicate and exiled from the public world of work and power, and celebrated in fairytale as 'the fairest in the land'. While refined women cultivate the fairness of their skin, the eroticised objects of soft-pornography are usually tanned. The passive, non-threatening femininity associated with whiteness exists in a binary relationship of difference to the 'oriental'—a paradigm vividly re-inscribed in the packaging of the products, typically in a 'white is right' techno-clinical discourse.
  18. For instance, L'Oreal's '24-hour' White Perfect ('Triple Whitening Spot Corrector with Melano-Block') range, claims the product is 'clinically proven', with '90% reduction of brown spots, 100% smoother skin, and 87% more luminous skin'.[23] The statistics are supported by an unnamed November 2001 'study under dermatological control conducted in Japan' in which thirty women took part. More directly, 'White Perfect Lotion gives optimal whitening efficiency with three complementary whitening actions': 'Prevent[ion]'—of 'darkening', 'Exfoliat[ion]' 'for a refined and smooth skin surface, essential in regaining a clear, transparent and fine complexion'; and 'Protect[ion]' from 'darkening and dullness'.[24] Unambiguously, the 'whiteness' 'enacted' by the product is associated with 'perfection', 'refinement', clarity and transparency, within a product that is presented as a technology of regulation of the 'skin pigmentation process to perfect the whitening efficiency'. This text denotes the superiority of whiteness, and the elimination of the unregulated, disordered, depleting meanings of colour. Perversely it represents a regime of 'protection' with the property to 'safeguard your skin from darkening and dullness ... [ and] persistent skin darkening', as if the bodily process of melanin migration is threatening to the subject.

    Local Payback? Asian Samples
  19. The literature on deconstructing whiteness, as our citations suggest, is largely about black-white histories. Perhaps the polarised racial heritage of the US cannot be entirely compared to other colonialisms. Particular localised questions in Asia have specific histories. In Southeast Asia, and particularly in Malaysia, the historic white colonial presence was predominantly British, and the desire for whiteness possibly contains an element of a residual cultural nostalgia for a time before the racial tensions of the post-war era. If, as Rey Chow argues, the orientalising discourses of European dominance position Asian or Far Eastern others as spectacles of the absolute otherness—'incomprehensible, terrifying, fascinating',[25] then perhaps the whitening of Asian skin is addressed to this fascinated terror; some form of atonement or repayment or erasure of visible difference.
  20. The intrigue is complicated by the reality that the inequities of global capitalism are not only between empires and colonies. Malaysian writer, Amir Muhammad, draws attention to a possible cultural connection between the appearance of skin-whitening products in Malaysia, and some negative responses to an influx of Bangladeshi guest workers into the country.[26] Reflecting on skin whitening and immigration, Amir concluded that the meanings ultimately were more to do with class than 'gender, religion or race'.[27] He argued that white skin had always been a marker of 'privilege'.[28] Indeed, in Asia, light skin has a heritage in the social caste systems that privilege fair Asians. Amir notes the contradictions of an anti-imperialist rhetoric in which whiteness remains highly valued. He suggests that while anti-Asian sentiment is condemned abroad, it is practised at home in the form of disdain for guest workers from neighbouring countries considered to be less developed than Malaysia itself.

    Whiter is better?
  21. One of the most curious tropes of the discourse of 'whitening' as detailed on the products is the manner in which whitening is represented as an active 'process' effected through 'lightening'. This slippage between lightening and whitening is iterated in several products. Gervenne UV White: Ceramide Facial Cleanser promotes 'Skin lightening with Arbutin and Vitamin E'. Wrought with contradiction, the packaging speaks of a 'mild facial cleanser that deep cleanses gently', while the key ingredient Arbutin is said to prevent melanin production and hence helps 'prevent spots, freckles and uneven skin tone'.[29] EverSoft White: Whitening Cleansing Scrub with Jojoba Beads is promoted as having the key actions of 'Exfoliating and Whitening'.[30] The sense in which the processes will remove a façade of colour is suggested by the producers of 'Eversoft White, [as] a natural way to whitening'. The advertising blurb describes how the jojoba beads 'remove darkened dead skin cells and ... speed up the regeneration of healthy cells'. They also 'lighten freckles and dark spots, and refine your skin to restore its natural whiteness'. Proprietors' details on the package indicate the product is 'formulated in Japan', 'made in China' for distributors in Singapore and Petaling Jaya (Malaysia).
  22. Advertising literature reproduces hierarchies of value based on the notion that 'whiteness' (reduction of colour and dark tones) is the object of desire. Texts tend to feature images of extremely pale Asian women, and brand products in pure-white packaging. Print advertisements such as 'Blanc Expert XW: Extra whitening power to visibly reduce brown spots',[31] and 'Natural Beauty with Nivea: How to have visibly fairer and naturally even skin, sooner',[32] are typical examples of Malaysian skin-whitening advertising literature. Overt binary oppositions set up within the texts include natural/unnatural, perfect/imperfect, fairer/darker, wanted/unwanted, white/brown, winners/non-winners, and the notion of 'true beauty' as opposed to a beauty which is 'less' true. Terms such as 'fair', 'perfect', 'natural', 'white', 'luminous', 'even' and 'beautiful' are employed in regular contrast against descriptions such as 'dark', 'dull', 'brown', 'blemished' and 'problem'. Natural Beauty with Nivea[33] begins with the phrase 'Little things that bring out your true beauty', and signs off with the sentence: 'A reassurance for those with problem, blemished or dark skin!'. Both L'Oreal's White Perfect range and Lifecella's Whitening Mask claim to inhibit actual melanin production in the skin. While the Lifecella product 'prevent[s] unsightly liver spots, freckles and dark discoloration from developing',[34] Lancôme's Blanc Expert XW range (like a good washing powder) provides 'extra whitening power to visibly reduce brown spots'.[35]
  23. The message promoted is contradictory: the texts advocate halting the natural production of melanin within the body in order to bring about what they call a 'natural' or 'true' beauty—in actuality an artificially-enhanced and genetically-unnatural whiteness. The beauty discourses at work within these texts refer to an understanding of 'beauty' strongly rationalised by Enlightenment naturalisations of splitting, colonial notions of white power, and class-based constitutions of paler-skinned aristocracy. The 'gaze' constructed through these texts is neither 'coloured' nor 'white': these texts market the production of a hybrid creature, a dream-doll with Asian features and Caucasian skin. The reader is invited to participate in a most ironic conflict of return—the reconstitution of colonialised values through the application of state-of-the-art scientific modification.

    Face-to-face with racial change: globalisation, commodity culture, and Eurasians
  24. If the balance of power between the looker and the looked at is deceptive in skin-whitening promotion, then, in another image market, the 'whitened Asian' is commoditised differently and is expressed with a passionate urgency about the 'state of the world'. In international journalism, the figure of the 'Eurasian' connotes not a choice to be whiter but a genetic destiny impelled by global forces of migration, war and the changes wrought by time and generations. History, and the past, is erased or overwritten by discourses of desire for 'a new breed'. In April 2001, a TimeAsia cover story hailed its audience with the seductive story of 'When East Meets West'—a feature on Eurasians.[36] The 'Eurasian' has a set of distinctions which mark hybridity and difference in several ways. Even in the TimeAsia story, the diverseness of Eurasian origin is implied editorially in the several contributors to the story; that is, the author, Hannah Beech, who is assisted by 'Simon Elegant/Kuala Lumpur, Robert Horn/Bangkok, Toko Sekiguchi/Tokyo and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta'—there is no single source.
  25. Subtitled 'Eurasian Invasion', the essay tells the story of the changing 'face' of Asia. 'Fetching young Eurasian actors like Maggie Q and Karen Mok crowd the screen, and through the wonders of global distribution (and video piracy) appear everywhere' (emphasis added).[37] The reference in parentheses to the infamous South East Asian practices of commercial intellectual property violation also implies questions of the authenticity of the Eurasian subject: the essay hints, in a sense, that subjectivity itself is pirated.
  26. In the article, Beech (and her collaborators) say that the 'Eurasian craze' is producing 'homogenized hybridism'. Precisely what this means is vague, except that the talking subjects position themselves within the hybrid discourse. In a strangely nostalgic allusion to the hippie 1960s, they say 'mixed-race citizens personify the ... melting pot'. The citizens are youths; the Eurasian is a young person, an indo kid; in that way authenticating the newness of the phenomenon although the idea of a melting pot stems from the baby-boomer era. In the article, the multi-racial past is remembered, the colonialised melting po(r)ts dating from the sixteenth century, such as Malaysia's Portugese Malacca, are figured as the main antecedents of contemporary Eurasians—and the American GIs in Vietnam are blamed for the stigma attached to mixed racialism in that country.
  27. As in the skin-whitener advertisements, the commoditisation of the Eurasian is focused on 'face'. A local film executive is quoted: 'It's a face that everyone can identify with and accept'. Another film executive says of Maggie Q: 'When you look at Maggie, you see the whole world in her face'. A Chinese-Dutch-American actor/producer says, '[S]omehow we've become the face that sells the new Asia'.[38] The faciality of racialisation is a sign of the extreme localisation of ethnic identity in discourses of globalisation. While the Eurasian characters in the story are 'real' products of mixed race parentage, the cosmetic skin whiteners promise artificial yet 'equal' value through the transformation of the non-mixed subject. In this context, the quality of Eurasian difference, is offered as a fully exchangeable, obtainable—and also relinquishable—commodity.
  28. Beech comments that Adam Smith would explain the shrinking of the world market as being driven by a search for 'a global marketing mien, a one-size-fits-all face that helps us sell Nokia cell phones and Palmolive shampoo across the world'. In this formulation, the confusing meanings of commodified Eurasians are made clear—the same face for phones or soap, with people and their bloodlines being consumed by the market for fast moving consumer goods as much as the goods themselves. Beech's observation that Asian fashion agencies 'can't stock enough mixed-blooded girls' (emphasis added)[39] underpins the literal commodification of such a subject.

    Skinning your-self: repaying debts
  29. The process of globalisation has become a cliché of discussion of intercultural and interracial politics. The regional-global continuum is a commonplace of the creole jargons of cultural studies and communications. Globalisation is by and large characterised as a process but not one with outcomes except in transition—eurasianism being a possible case in point. But perhaps the secret revealed by the Eurasian magazine star is an aesthetic defiance of commoditisation.
  30. Beneath the layers of image of urban Eurasian and the rehearsed assumptions of looker and looked-at, the critical subject is equally displaced into another time, another gaze, or what Chow has defined as the Western anthropologists' concern at 'seeing "natives" who have gone "civilized" or who ... have taken up the active task of shaping their own culture'.[40] The idea of the native is endemic to the production of postcolonial modernity, and it is dependent on an oedipal structure of thinking—'a structure of thinking that theorizes subjectivity as compensation for a presumed lack'.[41] For Chow, the conventions of critical resistances to these discourses would propose alternative ways of looking that would 'change the image', such as 'investigating the 'subjectivity' of the other-as-oppressed-victim'.[42] But the non-native that Chow elicits in her complex analysis can be understood only in very layered relationships to image and authenticity, and to the play and histories of gazes outward, onto and within the (defiled) image(s). Chow's native 'stares indifferently, mocking' the looker and their 'self-deception as the non-duped'.[43] Chow's argument is a powerful illumination of the way in which, as we suggest, 'whitefacing' might be a tactic of response to the neo-colonial apparatuses of the post-colonial era, in spite of the overt rhetoric of many of the products.
  31. As such, the practices and commodifications of skin-whitening come through as a discourse of paradox. In one sense, the capital and value associated with 'pale skin' are predicated on historical narratives of oppression and difference. In another sense, skin-whitening practices can also be read as attempts to subvert historical notions of desire and debt, by problematising colonial hierarchies of white/non-white commoditisations. The virtual body of the white-faced Asian woman portrays some of the debt of the third world—not profit but repayment, duty not-free. The white-faced Asian subject is a poacher of these narratives of desire, who reconfigures both past and present understandings. For the poacher, 'whiteness' at once references and destabilises colonial narratives. Whiteness, in this sense, is no longer the exclusive marker of the colonising culture or of the aristocrat—it is packaged in bottles and available at a price (in all senses), and may be bought, sold, rejected or adopted according to choice. In the age of global media and markets, the images of the whitened subaltern are colonial artefacts which claim, at least in part, to escape a previous mould. At the same time, these postcolonial subjects are commoditisations which cannot be dislocated from the violences they seek to re-negotiate. The subaltern might choose to resist their embodiment by historical discourse, but to do so, the subaltern needs—paradoxically—to return to these spaces. The whitened subaltern is a subject who seeks a body of promise, as it were, in the face of debt. And so perhaps the debt is not owed by the colonial subject to imperial power but actually the reverse: perhaps 'whiteness' is a due claimed against the imperialists, as the price of colonial allegiance.


    [1] G. Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998, see esp. Chap 1, pp. 1-23.

    [2] Richard Dyer cited in Lipsitz, p. 1.

    [3] Rey Chow, 'Where have all the natives gone?', in Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993, pp. 27-54.

    [4] 'LifecellaTM Whitening MaskTM', advertisement, in The Star, 6 May, 2002.

    [5] Rob Wilson, 'Goodbye paradise: global/localism in the American Pacific', in Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary, ed. Rob Wilson and Wimal Dissanayake, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 312-36. p. 313

    [6] Arjun Appadurai, cited in Wilson, 1996, p. 313.

    [7] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are used Against Women, London: Vintage, 1991.

    [8] Wolf, The Beauty Myth, p. 10.

    [9] See Julie Matthews, 'Deconstructing the visual: the diasporic hybridity of Asian and Eurasian female images,' in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, issue 8, October 2002, site accessed 17 July, 2003.

    [10]Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Malaysia: Truly Asia, 2003, site accessed 17 July 2003.

    [11] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 'Can the subaltern speak?' in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. C. Nelson and L. Grossberg, Urbana: University of Illinois Press: 1988, pp. 271-313.

    [12] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, , Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1984.

    [13] Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, p. 2.

    [14] T. Kuchta, 'The dyer straits of whiteness', review of R. Dyer's, White, London and New York: Routledge, 1997, Indiana University website, 1998, accessed 17 July 2003.

    [15] Richard Dyer, White, London and New York: Routledge, 1997.

    [16] Irene J. Nexica, Birgit Rasmussen, Matt Wray, Kellie Stoddart, Pamela Perry, Eric Klinenberg, and Jillian Sandell, 'Conference report: the making and unmaking of whiteness', in Bad Subjects , vol. 33, Sept. 1997, site accessed 17 July 2003.

    [17] Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, p. 3.

    [18] 'A question of colour', in The Muslim News, no. 598, August 8 -14, 2002, site accessed 17 July 2003.

    [19] P. Ngunjiri, 'Search for 'white' skin darkens African women's lives', in Africana.com, July 9, 2001, site accessed 17 July 2003.

    [20] Ngunjiri, 'Search for 'white' skin darkens African women's lives'.

    [21] M. Singh, 'An unfair obsession', in The Tribune, Sunday Reading, February 14, 1999, site accessed 17 July 2003.

    [22] S. Brown, 'White is not always right', in Your Money section, Bangkok Post, March 12, 2001. Reprinted as 'Are skin whiteners safe?', in Health & Beauty, Bangkok Metropolitan, Thaifin.com, 2001, site accessed 17 July 2003.

    [23] 'L'Oreal Paris New! White Perfect Triple Whitening Spot Corrector with Melano-Block(tm)', Handbill, 2002, Innovation.

    [24] L'Oreal Plenitude White Perfect Multi-Action Whitening Moisturising Lotion SPF 15, Net 75 ml. Imported LOCM Sdn. Bhd, PJ.

    [25] Chow, 'Where have all the natives gone?' p. 33.

    [26] Amir Muhammad, 'A matter of class', in Generation, A. Muhammad, K. Raslan and S. Stothard, Kuala Lumpur: Hikayat Press, 1998, pp. 151-54.

    [27] Muhammad, 'A matter of class', p. 151.

    [28] Muhammad, 'A matter of class', p. 151.

    [29] Gervenne (tm). UV White Ceramide Facial Foam Cleanser. 75g. Formulation from Japan. Packed in Thailand for Gervas Corporation International Ltd, Imported Gervas Corp Sdn Bhd, Kuala Lumpur. N.D.

    [30] EverSoft (tm) White Whitening Cleansing Scrub with Jojoba Beads. 100g. Formulated in Japan. Made in China for Unza (M) Sdn. Bhd, Petaling Jaya; UNZA Co. Pte Ltd, Singapore.

    [31] 'Blanc Expert XW', advertisement, The Star, 28 June 2002, Section 2, p. 19.

    [32] 'Natural Beauty with Nivea', advertisement, The Star, 6 Sept, 2001, p. 24.

    [33] 'Natural Beauty with Nivea', advertisement, The Star, 6 Sept, 2001, p. 24.

    [34] 'Lifecella', advertisement.

    [35] 'Lancôme Paris Blanc Expert XW', advertisement, The Star, 28 June 2002, Section 2, p. 19.

    [36] Hannah Beech, 'Eurasian invasion', TimeAsia, vol. 157, no. 16, 23 April, 2001, site accessed 28 August 2001.

    [37] Beech, 'Eurasian invasion', np.

    [38] Beech, 'Eurasian invasion', np.

    [39] Beech, 'Eurasian invasion', np.

    [40] Chow, 'Where have all the natives gone?' p. 28.

    [41] Chow, 'Where have all the natives gone?' p. 31.

    [42] Chow, 'Where have all the natives gone?' p. 29.

    [43] Chow, 'Where have all the natives gone?' p. 54.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL: intersections.anu.edu.au/issue9/gooncraven.html.

HTML last modified: 10 April 2008 1108 by Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright