I wish this was just a tasteless setup for a bad punchline but, no, nothing in this post is a joke.
So yesterday morning I’m walking across west 28th street in Manhattan when I see this poster in a store window advertising “Skin Whitenizer” (sold by R & R Cosmetics, LLC). It takes me probably five minutes to process my shock and then convince myself that it’s actually real.
After posting pictures of it on my Twitter feed and Facebook page, I decide to talk to somebody about it, preferably the storeowner. Here’s what happened…
“Is this fuckin’ serious?” I say, pulling the poster off of the door, addressing anyone within earshot. I had planned to be more diplomatic, measured, and thoughtful but that’s what came out.
“Sir, please…calm down,” an older South Asian gentleman whispers, rushing up to me.
“Are you the owner?” I ask.
“Uh…no. He’s not here,” he responds, as his and everyone else’s eyes plunge to the floor.
“When’s he coming back?” I prod.
“Later,” he tells me, “please, sir. Probably not today. Let me take you over to the other side of the store. They’re the ones who sell it. It’s not me.”
I find this hilarious, heartbreaking, absurd, pathetic. He’s doing what we all do – passing the buck: I don’t sell this. They do. I’m not the boss. He is. And he’s “not here”…maybe never again. It’s not my store; I’m just selling it. Too many times in my life, I have been that guy…which probably makes me all the more repulsed by the moment.
He briskly leads me to the other side of the store. Everyone’s head is down, like they just missed the game-winning field goal or got caught stashing an Ace up their sleeve in poker. I glance around and gasp. There are probably close to four hundred bottles of the Skin Whitenizer next to the checkout area, along with another smaller poster advertising the skin bleach, taped directly to the register. It’s clear that it’s a hot seller. I’m not claustrophobic but get a sudden feeling like I might drown in all of these bottles, as if they’re swallowing me up like quicksand.
“This is disgusting,” I say, tearing the poster off of the register and holding it up for the man and woman behind the counter. “This is the reason people hate themselves, people kill themselves, people kill each other. You’re contributing to people dying…how does that feel?”
I know this is harsh and maybe even melodramatic, but I’m pissed. I want to rip up every poster and empty every bottle and cry and scream and punch the CEO of R & R Cosmetics in the face…multiple times. I want to destroy and fight and humiliate every person in power who has ever made a black girl think she is “too dark” or made me ashamed of my father’s slightly accented English or made it cool for people of color to wear blue contact lenses.
“Sir, please,” the man behind the counter says, “I’m just…please.”
“Do you understand how sick this is? This is like some Third Reich shit. Like, I feel like we’re in a Nazi lab right now. You’re gutsy, man. Seriously, you’re putting your life at risk with shit like this up in your window. I mean you can’t have something like this up and be surprised if one day some dude comes in and just punches you in the face. Can you? I don’t know…what do you think? New York? New York Fuckin’ City? Like, seriously?”
At this point my train is coming off the tracks. I can see everyone about to call the police or TSA or whoever you’re supposed to call in New York when you “see something” and actually decide to “say something.” I notice it mostly when I talk about the “some dude” maybe coming in and punching this guy in the face and I slam my fist against the poster for emphasis. It quickly becomes clear that everyone assumes I’m talking about myself…only shortly after the words come out of my mouth do I decide that I’m actually not. Then, I think, “This is a bit too far, Carlos. Now you’re sounding crazy. No, you’re acting like they’re a few screws loose.” –
so I decide to reel it in.
“Listen, man, I’m just trying to make sense of this,” I say. “What’s your name, brother?”
He tells me his name. I ask him where he’s from and he says India. The woman behind the counter is from the Dominican Republic. The older gentleman who I first encountered is from Bangladesh. A woman who’s waiting to pay, with both of her beautiful daughters next to her, is from Guinea.
“You’re from India, brother – you know what I’m saying though, right?” I’m trying to find common ground with this dude. “Who is ‘most beautiful’ in India? Who does everyone want to look like?”
“European,” he says, without batting an eye, shrugs, then shakes his head.
“Y en la República Dominica, how does everyone want to look?” I’m barking orders now, rapid-fire, pointing and taking command of the room. Towering over a five foot two Dominican woman about to sell skin bleach to a young mother from West Africa.
“American,” she says, and it’s understood that she’s not talking about a person with skin any darker than mine.
“And Bangladesh?” I look at the older gentleman.
“No, I know, it’s not right. It’s unfair,” and he looks genuinely crushed by this sudden moment of clarity or defeat or acceptance.
“But where is it made?! Who makes that thing? Tell me that!”
the mother from Guinea cuts me off, a rage in her eyes, index finger stabbing at the poster dangling from my right hand.
“Right here,” I say, mouthing out the big type, “ it says ‘Made in U.S.A.’”
And there it is.
Suddenly I feel a lot taller than everyone else. As I soak in the moment, I realize that I am in fact about half a foot taller than every person in this store. Right next to the fashion district. In this tight-knit neighborhood, crowded meeting place for so many newly-arrived West African immigrants trying to sell their wares, hustling hard, to survive in America after winning a lottery (more precious than any I will ever know) to get into this country –
made for people who look like me.
I see the two daughters of the mother from Guinea staring at me, a bit bewildered by the entire exchange. Both fear and admiration in their curious young eyes, watching me, the light-skinned fool in the room hold court –
with my green eyes from my WASP mother, my light skin, and my shade under six foot build, having just berated and shamed and belittled every person within thirty feet of me. You happy now, Carlos?
“I’m sorry, sir,” the man behind the counter says, “I’ll tell the owner what you said. It’s just that people buy this stuff. I don’t think it’s right, but they do. They can’t live without it. We might not have a store if it wasn’t for this.”
They can’t live without it.
And I think of the first self-made black millionaire in America, Madame C.J. Walker, who amassed her fortune by selling hair straighteners and skin bleach to black women. And my friend who saw stacks of Pink Nipple Cream in pharmacies in Thailand last year. And my student from Pakistan who was told she would never find a husband if she didn’t use the Fair and White soap her grandmother gave her on her eleventh birthday. And my three exes and current partner with brown eyes, who laughed sardonically when I told them, for the first time, that their eyes were breathtaking. And every person on Facebook (after I posted the picture of the Skin Whitenizer) who referenced white people getting tans and how it was “like the same thing”
(except that white people are the dominant group and the history of getting tans is rooted in signifying wealth and leisure, of exotic vacations and all that has to do with elevated socioeconomics and status and power).
And I want to scream and cry and fight the world today.
I don’t care what your race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, ability, nationality, language, identity, or story is…we need to make the world a safer place for each other. We need to make sure that when we see things like Skin Whitenizer in a store window that we say something – every single time. Because it is a terrorist threat. More real than any other about which we’ve been warned. It is in fact more than a threat. It as an act of the most horrific aggression, a weapon that terrorizes us all, but most harshly targets those who are disenfranchised and oppressed, convincing us the greatest lie ever told:
You are not enough.