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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