The heartless darkness: Where Watsons left us

JUNE 15 — A former colleague, now ensconced in the Selangor government, shared on Facebook his disdain for the apparent over-reaction to the blackface furore thanks to Watsons’ short-lived Raya ad.

I read it, reread it and remained slighted. He was crass, though I doubt he realised that.

Firstly, I am entirely sure he would not be flippant about the matter if he was of the race that was being denigrated. He’d obviously be ready for a large show of force outside the Watsons’ HQ after Friday prayers.

Second, I can bet, he wouldn’t dare tell any of the loud allegedly Islamist groups like PAS to chill, even though they over-react and over-reach every week over the most ridiculous developments. He won’t because they’d shish kebab him on the lawns of the Selangor government building.

And why is that?

Politics is a matter of influence, he’d never upset those seen as influential irrespective of how they behave. Those powerful to act.

That does not apply to Indians I sense from his articulation.

If there was an instance the words abuse and convenient gel in a sentence, it would be when referring to Indians in Malaysia.

I speak candidly, and that’s important. When it is about this. It needs talking about.

The convenience of mistreating the Indian is built on there being no parliamentary or state seat where the ethnic Indian is majority. Raised in a culture rampant on racial oversimplification and short on moral propriety in tempering power, the minority status calls for abuse rather than cause for concern or sensitivity.

It’s useful to begin with a seeming moderate trying to abrogate the weight of the ad. For he is one of many. Those not over the moon over Watsons’ contribution to the holiday cheer, but can’t see at the same time how it harms people.

That I am over-reacting.

Our responsibility as citizens

It’s just a fairy tale, no?

It is. But folklore does not become true by dint of it being old.

Folklore in all cultures are born in times of homogenous societies, when everyone looked alike with only shades separating them. Which is why when Columbus and his pasty men landed in the Caribbean five hundred years ago, they would have appeared to the natives as a combination of scary, weird and doppelgangers to the demons their cultures spoke about.

In these stories, it is natural “the other” is used as the extreme, but when those who became neighbours appear physically like “the other” then society needs to be circumspect. 

It is not a matter of disrespecting cultural content but rather recognising the shortcomings of these tales even if the ultimate moral resonates.

Modern cultures had to update their folklore to accommodate their multicultural realities amid a larger globalised planet.

I’m not sure Western society is enamoured as much by Cinderella’s emphasis of evil in stepmothers, when fluid family structures there have produced record number of stepmums.

Dark was easy to comprehend as evil when there were no dark people. But equally out of social injustice, societies grapple with the need to reduce the suggestion that fairer shades are better than darker shades even when discussing Caucasians.  

There is no sanitised path to dealing with folklore and fairy tales today, but to do a quick brushoff without factoring the complexities is irresponsible. No less so in an advertising company’s creative process.

This need to calibrate grows urgent in Malaysia when reports about the callous manner policemen chat about Indian detainees emerged in the case of S. Balamurugan. Disquieting to know men with guns who can end someone like me in a jail cell laugh off a dying man on a cold floor. 

It is clear, through our crafted arrested development festering organically in a puddle of listlessness, the green light flashes when it comes to dehumanising Indians in our country.

Coloured ad

The ad is 15 minutes long, and if context is required then here it is when the glittering beauty Harum Senandung speaks to the ruler, in all her glory:

“I’m not black, in fact I am flawless.”

So, a casual question, I am flawed for being dark?

Draws me back to when I was seven years old. A toothpaste company’s representatives arrived at the school to find talent (what they call people who act in advertisements). Assiduously, they went about their task.

First, they asked the Chinese and Malay boys to remain, and asked the Indian boys to leave the classroom. That was my first lesson in how talent is unearthed. Or how I was told I had no talent.

I hope teachers protect their students today — all of their students.

Keep it on

Watsons pulled the ad out in record time.

I’d like it to remain available. I don’t want to enforce political correctness.

The company had no hesitation to can it because they sell cans of beauty products and aspirins, not social cohesion and advancement.

The rule is not to alienate and most definitely not to be the cause of controversy.

Watsons is a business and their execs are probably in their offices wishing some other company does a faux pas to divert the attention elsewhere.

It’s opportune to let all companies flaunt their products bent on ending the curse of blackness through whiteners. It offers the opportunity for those opposed to speak up about why that sucks.

And while doing so, attaching the suck title to the company and product. Let consumers decide if they care it hurts others and if they feel better with whiteners.

This window for Malaysians of Indian descent to speak about their experiences being dark can sprout other discussions about hopes, dreams and disappointments related to the community.

The fasting month is period of self-reflection, I’d like to submit this as one to be added to the list.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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