In ‘This is How You Lose Her’, a book of connected-ish short stories, Junot Diaz makes the point of his protagonist being from the Caribbean and of the African diaspora. Throughout the book (colourful and complex tales of migration, masculinity and of sucio womanisers extraordinaire), we come unexpectedly on references to women who are douglas and coco panyols and Laxmi who is ‘technically from Guyana’.
A brainiac writer/academic of Dominican Republic origin, Diaz’s work rouses thought about privilege and gender and ethnic ‘othering’. The book is full of talk, the author capturing with brio how people can act and speak in the language of prejudices when with friends, in families and communities (in private spheres).
Like so many books about the Caribbean and like so many discussions we have about ourselves, the book keeps describing women in tones- mulatto, negra, blanquita, morena.
I am not sure if that literary preoccupation with skin colour is peculiar to the Caribbean, but what appears to be the case is that the dread of skin darkness, the preference for light, has some global resonance.
In the pharmacies and beauty salons in Bangkok, any number of products that promise ‘whitening’. Skins creams for whitening, face moisturizer for whitening, even deodorants promise the whitening of the underarms. I found a tamarind soap about which I was so excited for the sheer creativity of the idea. But that soap too, its magical chemical property was its whitening agent.
And the products work if you count ashy lime-like residue on the skin like so much gym shoe whitener pre Nike.
The language of whitening is used with calculation for the market. And it is this point that Junot Diaz makes in this video below: the triumph of the European aesthetic, which also applies to literature, has momentum because the world of peoples, across continents and ethnicities, embrace it with gusto.
And indeed defend it, as when we stubbornly claim that the majority of African descent women who go through their whole lives, straightening, weaving and wigging their hair are only expressing ‘fashion choice’.
This is what the political sociologists would call hegemony. Cultural influences that are so dominant and dominating as to be the ’natural’ order of things.
Here is the Junot Diaz exchange.