The New Sunday Times (March 6) should be commended for highlighting “Our obsession with fair skin” in its editorial. This is an obsession that should be exposed in the interest of human dignity and self-esteem.

Apart from the health hazards that some skin-whitening formulas pose, the craze for fair skin has sociological and psychological implications that impact adversely upon integration and social cohesion. It is a craze that appears to be gathering momentum in Malaysia and many other societies partly because of high-pitch consumerism driven by perverted notions of individual worth and value. The idea of skin-whitening has even become a popular commercial tagline associated with products marketed through a variety of outlets.

Needless to say, it is an attitude that privileges the fair–skinned as against the dark-skinned within the family and in different social settings. Beauty, good looks and even talent and ability are erroneously associated with the former. The preference for the fair-skinned conditions relationships, influences marriage, and in extreme instances, shapes judgements about work and performance.

Because of these perceptions of the fair-skinned, the dark-skinned especially among women sometimes suffer from feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem. Their true worth and value as human beings may never be recognized or rewarded. The content of their character — to paraphrase Martin Luther King — is often subordinated to the color of their skin.

It is significant that bias and prejudice linked to skin color have persisted in many cultures and communities since time immemorial. Very few societies have sought to consciously fight such attitudes. White colonial rule in various parts of Asia and Africa convinced large segments of the colonized that the fair-skinned were superior and deserved to be put on a pedestal. Some of these attitudes have remained to this day.

How does one overcome this huge burden associated with color?  That spiritual-moral belief that is the very kernel of faith — that all human beings are descended from the same source, that God is our Creator, that we are one family — is a powerful basis for repudiating color prejudice. While there are bound to be examples from different spiritual-moral philosophies, I shall provide a few instances from Islam to show how vehemently it opposes racist attitudes rooted in color. The Prophet Muhammad once admonished severely his dear companion, Umar Ibn Khattab, for a racist remark he had made about a Black slave. It was that Black slave, Bilal, that the Prophet chose to proclaim the call for prayer, thus immortalizing his name in history. And in his farewell address, the Prophet declared solemnly that the White man is not superior to the Black man or vice versa. God Consciousness reflected in good deeds — rather than color consciousness — is what distinguishes one human being from another.

Our spiritual-moral philosophies should be harnessed to the hilt to educate society on why our obsession with fair skin is wrong. Knowledge from the social sciences, especially since the Second World War, which shows conclusively that skin color is not a determinant of human behavior or human accomplishments should be widely disseminated. A deeper understanding of beauty which is not shaped by consumer capitalism should be developed through the media and the education system.

At the same time, the media should not be allowed to promote the fair skin syndrome. Advertisements which glorify skin color should not be telecast or broadcast or printed. Some of these advertisements which appear in the Malaysian media today would be banned outright in countries which truly value women and respect their dignity.

Once we prohibit advertisements promoting whitening formulas and the like or take steps to curb the current obsession with fair skin, we must ensure that there is strict and effective enforcement of the law. Violators should be punished appropriately.  However, we must also be aware that changes to deeply entrenched attitudes cannot be brought about through prohibition and punishment alone.

The real answer lies in evolving a culture through education, experience and example that genuinely respects each and every human being as a human being — regardless of the color of her skin.

Image source: www.pravasiherald.com

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