Chicago’s East-West Rogers Park is home to Devon Avenue, a unique stretch of street dominated by Desi (generally anyone from the Indian subcontinent) shops, stores, places of worship, and restaurants. Indo-Pak culture, in all its vibrant and vivid brightness, shines here in a blend of Americana that gives the atmosphere a distinctiveness hard to match anywhere else in the city.
Devon Avenue is, like the rest of the world, riddled with the daily complexities of life, including those of identity and self-perception. A few weeks ago, a comrade and I went to Hyderabad House to have some of the vaunted and delectable Hyderabadi Chai. As we walked down the street, sipping chai and debating geopolitics, a picture in the window of a hair salon, that I had passed by numerous times without giving nary a thought, transfixed me.
Peering out at me was a woman covered in white face paint with the word “BLEACH”:
I was immediately disturbed by the image. It brought to the forefront of my mind the deleterious ramifications and symptoms of colonization that continue to afflict our communities. While the anti-colonial liberation struggles loosened overt political and economic control of the nations that form a part of our hyphenated existences (Pakistani-Americans of the world, unite!), the cultural process of decolonization is clearly not complete.
Let’s be real: bleaching is not just about “evening” the skin tone, it’s an attempt to transform and reconfigure one’s appearance in the hope of attaining society’s constructed ideal of beauty and class.
There are many stories from lands associated with “darkness,” where individuals have used “face lightening creams” only to result in a tragic misconfiguration: essentially, a self-inflicted acid attack.
For some, the answer lies in self-styled safer face creams like the popular South Asian brand “Fair and Lovely,”
These brands perpetuate the cultural trope of piyaari rung or “lovely color,” (i.e.. white skin) and therefore implies that dark skin is “unlovely” and the antithesis of beauty. Such products can be found in almost all of the grocery stores and mini markets on Devon Avenue. One salesclerk told me demand is pretty high among not only immigrants, but first generation Americans as well.
The surface level issue made so apparent by these products actually masks a deeper struggle at the heart of our hyphenated cultures. From elementary school to the madrassa, from the images we consume of American pop culture to those we receive from overseas via satellite, we have been continually conditioned to fetishize light skin.
Part of the answer rests in education. First we must acknowledge and spread love for the most natural and intuitive of truths: the beauty of God’s multifaceted creation. We must realize the importance of overcoming powerlessness, racism, and economic disparities without escaping behind masks that barely cover-up an internalized colonialism.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Chicago Monitor’s editorial policy.