By the way: If white is might, stop watching your TV!

Reading this piece for Int'l Women's Day, Jogja 2009
Performing this piece for Int’l Women’s Day, Jogja 2009

The Jakarta Post   |  Sun, 03/08/2009 8:54 AM  |  Headlines

The ad grabbed my attention in a way almost none ever do here. The TV commercial told a fascinating story. It opened with a young boy and girl, both handsome, both in high school uniforms, but clearly poor, living in a slum area that could have been anywhere in Indonesia.

The teens were in love, but still shy and respectful about it. As they walked home from school, they were horrified to see their slum dwellings being torn down by a bulldozer. A sign read, “This land is being reclaimed by its rightful owners.” The horror of the impoverished masses falling prey yet again to the cold heartlessness of the elite was highlighted by scenes of panicked residents trying to salvage what they could of their belongings.

New scene: the woman, now grown up and still lovely, is a primary school teacher in a slum area. The school is badly in need of rehabilitation and the young students are shabby but eager learners. The teacher is obviously good at what she does, proven by the highly motivated, bright children in her care. Then the horror strikes again. A huge, shiny Mercedes drives up to the school and a wealthy developer steps out and slaps a sign on the school wall.

Tergusur! This land is being reclaimed! You have four days to evacuate the premises before the bulldozers come.

The pretty young teacher steps out to confront the developer and they instantly recognize one another as the young lovers from the past. They look into each other’s eyes and we can see young love rekindled. Suddenly another woman steps out of the car to “protect” her man. She has the look of a pompous bitch as she steps between the young lovers, glaring as she pushes the teacher away.

As I watched transfixed to this ad, wondering what the message was going to be, my mind wandered to all the possibilities. Was it for a foundation dedicated to supporting the poor downtrodden masses? Was it for some political party promising to provide land for those who have never known such security?

No, it was Ponds. The message: if the teacher had only used Ponds and had whiter, clearer skin, she could have won the rich guy and saved herself, her school, and the poor masses.

I screamed. I shouted, I cursed at the shocking stupidity of it. I would have kicked and beaten the TV if only it could have accomplished something. How can something so disgusting, so racist, so shallow and insulting to women, to poverty, to Indonesia’s rich heritage, be allowed to air on TV?

What do these horrible ads teach Indonesians about the world we live in? IF we understand these ads to be representative of what the people of this country need – or better yet, what the economic elite demand that we need – then Indonesian women all require whiter skin, despite the fact that these products are poisonous; all Indonesians must prevent their chronic dandruff; and we  all must eat food that is bad for us. Between junk food, MSG, instant noodles, baby formula instead of breast is best, and magical drugs that can cure everything, I am banned from watching local TV. My husband cannot take my raging at the box, so he has unplugged it and banished it to the storage room.

Meanwhile, as I travel around Indonesia talking with ordinary women about their lives, I hear over and over how TV has had an impact on how people learn to be what this culture calls “women” as opposed to “men”. Very often I am the first londho [white person] these people have ever met who speaks fluent Indonesian. Talking to me is a real treat for them – like meeting a movie star or something. They admire my nose – despite it being broken three times. They admire my hair color, even though it’s the same red as that of a malnourished child. And of course they admire my skin color – white, the beautiful white of the Dutch that cruelly enslaved them for 350 years, the Japanese that brutalized them for three years, and the Western-based economy that rapes their environment and hires their young, naïve girls to work in factories at below minimum wage to maintain Western supremacy. Are memories so short, so tainted by propaganda, that white is always better?

I only know that what I say is never as important as what I look like. No matter how I plead and encourage women to respect themselves more, to protect their families by eating healthier foods, to prevent violence in their homes by supporting one another as women, the conversation will always return to sharing a bit of my nose with their child. I will never be accepted as simply a woman and not some fabulously wealthy, extraordinarily beautiful superstar – simply because my skin is whiter than theirs.

We are helpless against the mighty economic machine that rules the media and its role on the formation of identity. Its hegemony shapes us all. As a result, women will continue to be horribly oppressed by superficial symbols and I will never be accepted in my adopted country for who I really am.

— Laine Berman

One thought on “By the way: If white is might, stop watching your TV!

  1. Unbelievable ad! I’d be screaming at the TV, too, if I’d have seen it. As someone who adopted an Indonesian child many years ago, I remember the guardian of the child trying to sell me on him because his nose was “mancung”, which didn’t make any difference to me. Yes, the West rules–for now.


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