Beauty and Race in Indonesia

I would like to preface this post by saying this is my very limited perspective.  From the perspective of a white, female, middle-class American.  This is my blog, it contains my thoughts and attitudes about things.  I am sure other people have other ideas and perspectives when it comes to such a complex topic.  That being said… here is what I think.

In a previous post I talked about conferences I’ve been involved with so far.  Another conference I participated in was one organized by my friend, Iris, at her university in Malang, on the island of Java.  She organized a Cross Cultural Communication Conference (C4).  Holly and I co-led a discussion/presentation about cultural perceptions of beauty.

This is discussion/topic has been the theme of many conversations I’ve had here in Indonesia with other foreigners.  It is a touchy subject, and I think being white in Indonesia has really made me think about ideas of beauty and how they intersect with race.

Upon coming to Indonesia, there were a lot of things that shocked me, that I didn’t understand, or that I found strange—maybe funny, maybe not.  One thing I got a lot when I started working was, “Miss you’re so beautiful!”  Now, who is going to complain about being told their beautiful all the time?  Not me!  But seriously, it does take you aback.  How are you supposed to answer that?  I always tell them that they are too (Because usually they are girls).  Now, my parents have been telling me I’m beautiful since I was little, so I do have some confidence in that department (unlike many girls in our beauty-obsessed culture).  BUT, the girls telling me how beautiful I am here, also usually have a remark about my lovely white skin, or my long nose.  YES, that’s right, telling me I have a long nose is a compliment here!  They say, “Miss, your nose is so long!”  But with their smiling faces, I know that they like the long nose look.  I try to tell them, in the United States, if someone told me my nose was long I would be ashamed or embarrassed!  It is not a good thing necessarily.  However, they like my long nose here, and again, who am I to complain?

But I’m going to complain, because not only my experiences, but through the experiences of other fellows, ETAs, and friends teaching in Indonesia, I have found that unfortunately the idea of whiter = more beautiful is so entrenched in Indonesian society (as well as other Asian countries).  This is not a news flash. This is not a new thought.  This has been researched, examined, and of course, taken advantage of by beauty products and ad campaigns.  It is almost impossible to find soap or lotion that doesn’t contain some whitening agents.

Lightening skin cream

Lightening skin cream

I have a few friends here in Palembang who teach for an English language school.  They’re three British girls, two are of Indian/African descent, and one is of Irish.  So clearly, the white one gets the most attention (which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your mood).  They all teach kids—from elementary to out of high school aged.  They told me a story over dinner one night about these flashcards they use to teach adjectives of description, where they’re teaching vocabulary: straight, wavy, or curly hair.  The flashcard has women of different color on it, and before one of my friends can even ask her students about the hair, they shout out, “she is pretty!” (pointing to the white girl), “She’s so ugly!” (pointing to the black girl.)  Of course, my friend tried to talk to them about it, asking them why, but it is just thought of as fact here.  White =beautiful.  Black = Ugly.  This didn’t just happen in one class, it happened in several.

The flashcard that students described.

The flashcard that students described.

Another story.  An ETA (English teaching Assistant) on the island of Lombok, had a similar situation teaching her high schoolers using large photographs sent by the U.S. Embassy portraying our multicultural country.  She was using the photographs to elicit conversation and language.  This is what she wrote in her blog:

“In a few pictures, to celebrate the diversity of America and all that jazz, there are black and white kids playing together, listening to a teacher read a story, or performing in a band. When I ask the students to describe these scenes, they point to the white girl and say, “She is white. She is beautiful. She has sexy lips,” and so on. Note: I did NOT teach them the word sexy and have tried to discourage its’ use in the past. Then, they point to the black girl. “She is negro. She is ugly. She is like Papua people.” In my last class today, the boys snickered, pointed at the black girl and said something in Sasak which Marisa sharply rebuked them for. It was obviously not a compliment.”

photo america photo america 2Here is a link to this ETA’s original blog:

Being an American (or British person) of color cannot be easy here.  My friends have to defend their “Americanness” when people say, no, you’re not American.  I was traveling with one of my friends here, who is Korean-American, when she was told (not asked) that she was Chinese.  No matter how many times she corrected the man, saying, No, “saya dari Amerika”, he kept insisting she was Chinese.  Now, granted, this guy was just a complete idiot, but there are so many people who cannot fathom that Americans aren’t all white blond or brunettes.  EVEN WHEN OUR PRESIDENT IS A MAN OF COLOR, it still seems to be an immense leap for some people to realize that not all Americans look like Taylor Swift.

I have heard from several other ETAs, some African-American, one Indian-American, about their host schools contacting Fulbright to request a white American for the next year.   Even though they had excellent relationships with their schools, and their students loved them, they couldn’t get over what a “real” American was supposed to look like.

One major discussion I have heard and had is whether or not this country is racist.  (I would like to ask which country isn’t racist.)  But I believe that yes, there is a great amount of racism at work here in Indonesia.  White (or light) skin is seen as more desirable, more beautiful.  The people of Papua (the furthest Eastern part of Indonesia), are much darker than other Indonesians and are very often the butt of jokes.  If you even say the word “Papua” there is a chorus of giggles and laughs.  Even when I taught describing places, and I gave my students examples of places they can describe: Jakarta, Bali, Papua… there are inevitable giggles when you say the word “Papua”.

Indonesia prides itself on being a tolerant, multicultural country.  In many ways it is, but there is still so much to improve.

All that being said, I am hesitant to portray myself as the ‘more educated Westerner’ who wants to teach Indonesia how to not be racist.  It does not require saying how racist the United States’ past is, and how racism still pervades our institutions and society.  No, it is not overt “She is ugly because she is black”, racism.  It is the racism that sees children of color in worse schools, in poorer neighborhoods, and African-American men being grossly over-represented in the country’s criminal justice system.  I know my country is not any better than others.  There is a lot of work to do across the world, but slowly and surely, things can and do change.


About Deirdre Hand

"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted." Bill Bryson
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4 Responses to Beauty and Race in Indonesia

  1. Kate Bu says:

    Great post, Deirdre!!

  2. Molly Cox says:

    Hey – I need to come to Indonesia – finally a place that appreciates my long narrow nose. KIDDING. Very interesting blog . Now you need to write about how a picture you look went viral.

  3. samaraal says:

    Excellent post! And yes, i have played that scenario in my mind over and over again and I am sure i will face it too very soon!!!

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