Friday, September 24, 2010

Discussing Dusty Skins And Privilege (Part Two)

Jaded16 is a Radical Feminist from India. She writes a humour blog Oi With The Poodles Already’, attempting to make her world a little woman-friendly using healthy doses of irony and sarcasm to de-condition the Indian masses. It is at times like these when she loses all her sense of humour and starts looking for a rock big enough to live under.

A few days ago, I ran into an old friend. While I like running into people -- for there are always entertaining possibilities -- what I dislike with a Direct Vengeance Of The Force Of A Thousand Suns And Add All The Angry Stars Too™ is how quickly the conversation goes to bodies. Suddenly, you're not the person meeting your friend, you morph invisibly into the BodyRemarkCouncil while you try to squeeze out just the right insult without seeming to undermine the person, smile tersely while silently fixing the exact difference you imagine in the person. Questions like, "Have you lost a little weight?", "Your hair is as unruly as ever, isn't it?" are quite common. This week as soon as I heard, "You look better than before. Your skin tone is glowing. How did you lighten it?", my LadyBrain slammed itself shut as my acquaintance probed further to learn my 'secret'. I may or may not have told her I peeled a layer of my skin off to achieve the effect. She may or may not have walked away from me mumbling safety chants to herself. It's too soon in the post to digress anyway.

As I discussed earlier, I never really saw myself as 'brown' till the default human being -- White, heterosexual, male -- decided to spell it out for me. Sort of like that in that grotesque way you label a 'thing' in order to castigate and possess it; my 'brown' skin has become one of the most important signifier of my being. This is an especially ironic relationship as somehow online bodies aren't their physical manifestations -- even if your static status picture suddenly starts singing -- or in the most simple manner of speaking, they are 'left behind' on another plane. One where the virtual and the 'real' don't really meet. Isn't that the main argument anyone who is quick to dance to the "Look how far we've come" or "DID YOU KNOW YOU CAN JUST DROP YOUR IDENTITY AND MAKE A NEW ONE ONLINE and THIS TIME YOU CAN WEAR A SHINY DRESS IF YOU WANT" tunes of supposed progress? Of course, that is a possibility, that new identities are made online. There is no point on denying a certain freedom in making and re-imagining bodies. You can be White, Yellow, Brown, Chocolate or as many hues as you want. Understandably, many people prefer being White because that way, you don't get trolled as much. For instance, I can pretend to take on a 'Western' name, even model myself to be a member of the privileged class, that works out without a glitch. But unlike  in a Danielle Steel book, things cannot be compartmentalised that easily. Extremely safe and tested methods of the scientific variety of observation -- otherwise known as legally e-stalking people -- it is clear that your 'old' body inscribes itself on your new one. Whether you acknowledge it or not, shedding bodies isn't nearly as simple as it is made out to be. So how does one go about discussing privileges about bodies that are essentially invisible or at least are virtual? 

To borrow and modify from Spivak, it is only when we look at margins and cracks, will we possibly find traces of earlier bodies (in this case). A good example to is to look at the absences that are present in most lingerie ads that come on TV out here. Here is one revolting one :


At this point you're probably wondering if my pain meds have taken over my LadyBrain again, for you see nothing offensive in the ad. On close attention, you'll see the women are speaking in what is stereotyped  as the 'Indian accent'. This ad is specifically made for viewers in the subcontinent, by a team that is Indian too. So why are most models White? Especially when the product is for Indian women, who do not resemble the protagonist in skin tone. Turns out, after all these years, we associate that White women are all 'sluts' so then they can display their skin without 'shame' that is embroiled within every Indian uterus from birth. Here the absence of  an identifiable Indian body stands for marks it bears of guilt and shame. This isn't to say Indian actors have never gone nude or showed skin on film, or worn 'revealing' outfits; but rather given a choice we'd rather put a White body in a position of autonomy and agency than a hued body.

In virtual spaces too, the same kind of regulation takes place where people are more comfortable with reading and even accepting White bodies transgress socially, sexually etc than they are with dusty skins. The website 'Gaysi' which is a space for Indian (read dusty) LGTQI people to voice themselves and which has its headquarters in Mumbai, most of the DudeCouncil have problems with it (patriarchy is so predictable!) because apparently being Queer -- or whatever label you apply -- is like a Western myth. "Like jeans or Coca Cola, 'queer' people only exist over there. Out here, we men marry women" and so many hilarious explanations were lashed out. Again, we'd rather believe that only Western populations can be homosexual, transgendered etc. This is our way of 'Othering' the West as well as keeping our own people from (supposedly) transgressing.

On the other hand, dusty bodies are used specifically in Western spaces, where they are exotic and infinitely penetrable, possessable, too much like The Darjeeling Express isn't it? Though many people will happily point out Anouska Shankar and her 'acceptance' in the International sphere; more often than not people will talk about her 'beautiful' eyes, deep brown skin and so on instead of talking about her musical talents. Her presence marks the absence of the autonomy her body is allotted, however unwillingly. You will not see the same partial possession and obsession of skin when discussing Norah Jones (Shankar), perhaps because she passes off as White and by extension a body of her own right.

It's in these absences, ripples and tiny cracks do we see really how 'invisible' bodies relate to each other. Light skin or white skin is seen as a disseminator of progress and movement, where as dusty skins are territorial and therefore bound. The same pulse is channeled by so many 'Fairness cream' commercials, Bollywood movies that choose 'fair' actors over dark ones, families who seek daughter-in-laws that put out ads that demand a specific complexion from their bride-to-be. Much like my friend, they see light tones as the only desirable tone. And then you wonder why I can't take any more trolls discussing, fetishising and claiming my 'brown' body. Next time you hear someone screaming at the word Brown, you know where that came from.