For its Raya/Ramadan season 2017 campaign, Watsons Malaysia released a 15-minute video re-imagining an old Malaysian folklore. Set in an Arab scene, the video tells the story of a sheikh – a rich merchant – who, intrigued by a beautiful singing voice he hears from a distance, sets his people out in search of the owner of this voice, whom he presumed to be beautiful on the outside as well, for him to marry. What ensues is a montage of women from different races auditioning Top Talent-style, to become the rich man’s wife.
After going through tons of silly-acting women, finally, the magical voice is heard, but lo and behold, she turns out to be black (an actress in blackface). This poses a problem, as the video both implicitly and explicitly state that due to the darkness of her skin, she is, in fact, not beautiful.
You can watch the clip and read some people’s comments on it in this article.
So what was wrong with it? Everything.
From bad sound and film production to horrid acting and even worse script writing, this was truly a crappy piece of work in terms of technical creativity. They hired Malaysian celebrities to play some of the characters, perhaps an attempt at throwing glitter all over a very ugly mess.
But even putting that aside, there was no thought at all to the content. If this was a Malaysian folklore, why was it very Arab? Obviously this was supposed to be a comedy skit, but it wasn’t funny. Laughable in how horrible it was, but certainly unfunny. The characters acted silly to draw laughs, but it was more insulting than anything, to Indians, to the Chinese, to Arabs and especially to Africans.
Also, how is this supposed to be connected to Raya or Ramadan? Because sexism and racism in an Arab setting perfectly encapsulates the holy month…?
Clearly, majority of people, especially those working in companies like Watsons Malaysia who approve the production and distribution of campaigns like these, think that racism is acceptable.
Disgusting, But Common
When Watsons released this on their Facebook page, it was a relief to see that every single person who commented (and there were hundreds of comments) were outraged and disgusted. Except for that one comment by one of the actors who lauded it and thanked the producers for including her in the production.
Unfortunately for us Other Expats, we have actually met many people like that one actor who thought this video clip was okay – hilarious even – and likely will meet many more. It’s not uncommon to meet Malaysians who are unfamiliar with blackface and why it is offensive, for instance, or who think the height of humor and comedy is making fun of people based on their race and the color of their skin, especially the dark-skinned. Worse, according to these people, your value as a person and as a professional is directly proportionate to the darkness of your skin.
In fact, Watsons created this campaign to promote their skin whitening products, contributing to the still-existent belief that real beauty or talent means being white or light-skinned.
We can debate this all year long and nothing will change the fact that we non-white people are not considered good enough or beautiful enough or worthy enough because we are not white.
So what can we do instead?
Fixing the Problem
While we mostly can’t do much to fix this problem (stronger people than us have tried) and we can’t change people overnight, there are some steps we can take to avoid making problems like this even bigger, especially as Other Expats in Malaysia. Here are some that we have done.
1. CALL THEM OUT. The sad reality is that, yes, it’s 2017 and the age of information, but so many people are still so, so ignorant. Their excuse is that they’ve never been exposed to other cultures – but that’s what it is: just an excuse. Malaysia has three cultures and races, two of them are made up of dark-skinned people.
If you find yourself in an unfortunate situation where someone makes fun of another person (or even you!) because they are black or from a certain race or country, don’t encourage it by laughing – just straight up tell them that it’s not cool to do that. If necessary (and it often is), explain to them why.
2. FRIENDSHIP ISN’T PERMISSION. The above applies even with friends, maybe especially among friends. The dynamics of a budding friendship allows for some crass joking, which at times could be funny, but which could also easily cross over to deeply hurtful and insulting. As we know, “I’m not racist, my best friend is black” has never and never will be a true statement any way you look at it, so explain this to your friends.
It’s important that we don’t close communication lines, even if it’s uncomfortable. To give you an example, here are some real questions we’ve been asked by close friends more out of ignorance than malice or pure racism:
“Are you an athlete because you’re African?”
“Why aren’t you that interested in food? Is it because a lot of people in Africa can’t eat, and so you just have a natural aversion to food?”
“Why can’t I say the N word?”
As you can see with these examples, it’s so very easy to just react with rage at how stupid the questions are, and just walk away from these people. But because we spent some time to answer their questions, these friends have also shared their newfound knowledge to other (ignorant) people they know, and yay! Information-sharing! One less ignorant, offensive question asked.
3. BE AN EXAMPLE. We shouldn’t have to say it, but sometimes we do need reminding – don’t be racist, too! It’s tough not to react in kind when we’re the brunt of blatant racism, but we fight the good fight.
Have you had similar experiences during your stay in Malaysia? How did you deal with it? Share your stories with us.