On the Third Day of Ramadan my True Love Gave to Me… An Acute Sociological Observation.

     If the State Department realized the wealth of cultural information available from a few days’ television viewing, they could have saved a couple thousand dollars by setting up a Malaysian Hulu instead of having to deal with all this unnecessary travel, orientation, and host family business. 

      If you read the title (which I hope you did because I go through Frederich Nietzsche-style title agony every time I post) you might be expecting me to wax eloquent about something sociological; and further given the above paragraph you might expect that this “acute sociological observation” came from viewing television. However, I now find the above paragraph a bit misleading; my sociological epiphany came not from a standard television program, but rather from a series of cosmetic advertisements.

     So I noticed my first or second day with my host family that there were a lot of women’s cosmetic product advertisements on the television. In a few more days, with greater understanding of malay and the occasional english commercial I noticed something curious about the majority of these advertisements. They all were for creams that touted their power to increase “fairness”, and a few ads for companies that I assume have no taste for or knowledge of marketing euphemisms boasted of the cream’s “whitening” abilities. Well, at first I assumed that perhaps Malaysians have retained what was once the western cultural norm of tanness (I think I just made up a word) being undesirable. However, I now believe that this is not the case and instead there is a much deeper and more troubling causality at play.

     About a week or so into my “experience” here I began noticing the amazing similarities between Malaysia and the United States. With a few exceptions, these major cultural similarities seemed to some extent forced or adopted, not natural components of the Malaysian culture. I did not connect at first the observation of adopted culture to the whitening creams, but then today (well it was 1am but that counts) it hit me.

     Politics of the matter aside, the United States of America is an empire. There is no denying this, especially given U.S. Foreign policy since WWII. The literally stated goal of US deterrence policy in the Cold War was often to “fight fire with fire”. The USSR was probably the best demonstration of a modern imperial nation-state, and in many cases the US government felt that it was combating Soviet Imperialism (see Domino Theory). So in order to stave off the threat of an expanding communist sphere, we happened to create our own empire. Like just about any other concept, object, or otherwise, when the US adopts something it is changed such that it becomes uniquely “American”. As such, what was understood to be imperialism was taken and changed. Instead of adopting the rigid framework of empire that proved utterly incompatible with the twentieth century nation-state, we rebuilt the framework entirely thus ensuring our success(?) in the international game and securing(?) our long-term hegemony. What we created was a cultural empire that allowed the United States to have a de facto empire without all the busy-work of direct governmental administration. In fact, this cultural empire was not created by the government (although the government for better of worse was and is certainly complicit in its creation and maintenance) but by individual American corporations seeking profits overseas. What we as Americans are presented with today is a network of KFCs, McDonalds, and Starbucks that wield more international influence than the Pentagon or CIA could dream of. As a result, the more affected regions of the globe have undergone dramatic cultural transformation. Asia is probably the best example of this.

      This all brings me back to the skin whitening crams. As the “west” has corporately coaxed the “rest” to warm up to their cultures, there has evolved an intriguing desire (that I have observed here) to be more like the “west” (keep in mind that with the marginalization of europe excepting Britain in the geopolitical game that the US is effectively the “west”). Not only do Malaysians want to eat our food, wear our clothes, and live like us but they also want to be physically like us as expressed through the desire to be white. I don’t know how to treat this nugget of cultural understanding. It is sad that so many parts of the world are losing their cultural identities (which I believe has led to the rise of “islamic extremism”), but at the same time virtually nothing can be done to reverse the tide.

     In closing (finally!), I find it humorous that the United States has accomplished almost by accident what great European empires who fought tooth-and-nail failed to do:

Turn the world white.



Published in: on August 24, 2009 at 4:21 PM  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey Tyler, nice observations. My only comment has to do with something you said at the end – “…the United States has accomplished almost by accident what great European empires who fought tooth-and-nail failed to do: Turn the world white.”

    I don’t think there was any accident involved. It’s capitalism’s ultimate goal to turn everyone into a market consumer and, for the monopolists, the more uniform the market, the better. Hence, as the “free market” morphs into relatively few megainternationals, the natural evolution of capitalism emerges: uniformity of taste, look, consumption desires, and, ultimately, thought. Fortunately, there are still a few random free thinkers around. Keep it up.

    • 1. Who are you Bob?
      2. I agree that uniformity is the ultimate consequence of global capitalist development, and further that these corporations indeed do engender the conformity of tastes. However, I am simply saying that the desire to be white is a side effect of this that I don’t believe that any CEO specifically envisioned.

  2. Hi Tyler,

    While I agree with you the American Culture and Democrazy/Capitalism had invaded the world and is winning the globe over (by brain-wash or by force), the ‘whitening’ trend has nothing to do with it.

    You see, in ‘great’ Asian culture, fair skin for woman is considered a sexually desirable attribute. In Chinese, the saying is, literally, ‘a white skin covers up three ugly bodily features’. Ask you fellow Chinese female classmates then you’d understand. Whether this applies to male is not quite known because in Asian culture, cosmetic product for men isn’t as popular. However one thing for sure is Asian girls like White boys not because they are white but rather because of the body build (taller and stronger generally even in early age) and the ‘exotic’ complexion (vs the ‘flat’ Asian look).

    Enjoy your stay in Malaysia. Feel free to exchange your thoughts with your fellow classmates so your blog posts are not mere raw ideas of your own thought but rather findings from cultural exploration.

    • 1. I would really like to know who a poster is when they post a comment, “sam” isn’t sufficient
      2. Thank you for correcting my assumption, however I was not in school at the time I wrote this
      3. I never suggested that the girls liked me because I was white, just American.

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