When Patsey was lashed, some in the audience giggled
Amron Hamdi ; A communication and media specialist living and working in Jakarta
JAKARTA POST, 22 Maret 2014
One heart-wrenching scene in the Academy Award-winning film 12 Years a Slave is the stripping and whipping of Patsey, a slave girl on a Louisiana plantation. I recently saw the film in a Jakarta cinema, and during this brutal scene two men sitting next to me were giggling. As an Indonesian man, I knew their reaction must have had something to do with the exposure of Patsey’s bare, black female body.
After the movie, I kept thinking how women and men from places like Papua, who are also dark-skinned with curly hair, continue to be ridiculed. Lastri, a classmate in my junior high school who had tight curls and dark skin, was often teased for her appearance.
Most of the bullies would call her kribo (curly) or Blackie, which was even more hurtful since it is usually a name given to a black dog. Lastri would often laugh along, but I knew that was a defense mechanism. Some might say their jeers were just kids being kids. But like many expressions of racial discrimination, what they did to Lastri was also a learned experience — something that had been passed down.
It needs to stop.
As Indonesians are born with various body shapes, facial features, hair types and skin color, we should be expected to fully embrace and celebrate our diversity in physical appearance. Apparently not! Lastri was among the “unlucky” ones not born with fair skin and straight hair — the embraced and well-celebrated features of beauty in Indonesia.
Although there are many Indonesian women who feel blessed for their dark skin, everywhere they face images of young women with light, almost white, skin, who are considered more desirable by society.
There are so many whitening creams, soaps and lotions sold in the market and shamelessly advertised with the promise to make women fairer and supposedly more beautiful. To this date, there have not been significant complaints, warnings or bans on whitening products and commercials that clearly discriminate against people of dark complexion from supposedly “enlightened” agencies like the Food and Drugs Monitoring Agency (BPOM), the Indonesia Broadcasting Commission (KPI) or the Indonesia Consumer Foundation (LPKI).
I can only imagine what a Papuan woman would feel when she watches television commercials portraying a group of fair looking young women with straight hair. One ad has a girl with a fake tan trying to avoid the sun and carrying an umbrella to protect her skin.
She is never noticed by her male friends, but after a few weeks using a lightening product that makes her skin “fair and lovely”, she becomes happier and is suddenly the center of attention. It’s a lame advertising concept and disgusting indoctrination.
Would the Papuan watcher turn off her set? She would probably just let it be. She might think it is a battle she should not fight because she is just a minority, one of fewer than 3 million Papuans out of 240 million Indonesians who seem to be OK with what the products and commercials dictate.
Meanwhile, the media displays poor ethics when it criticizes the government for having exploited Papua’s rich natural resources, marginalized its people, failed to develop Papua’s economy and so forth, while their reports are sponsored by skin whitening products that clearly marginalize and hurt Papuan women and men even further.
When I was a child in the early 1990s, state-run TVRI had news anchors, whom I believed were Papuan, that presented the network’s late night news. I would also laugh when my brother mimicked the Papuan anchors presenting the news. We joked about their “weird” accent, or just made fun of their big Afro hairstyles. Now I realize that TVRI might have been trying to represent Indonesian diversity through its news anchors.
At that time, TVRI was not allowed to run commercials; also back then, skin lightening products were not as popular and as aggressively marketed as they are today. Life might have been much more peaceful for our Papuan anchors, and people in general, because their skin color was not as “embarrassing” as it is suggested to be today.
From the Indonesian media today, I only see Papuan women once in a while, for instance in reports on a celebrity going on an “exotic” vacation to remote Papua, or in coverage of another shooting incident near the Freeport mine.
I no longer see them as news anchors, let alone as actresses in films, as models for dairy products, as chefs in cooking shows or as doctors on a health show. Where have they all gone? Are they really missing? Or have they all straightened their hair and lightened their skin so that we can no longer tell who they really are?
TVRI’s choice of news anchors during the Soeharto era in the 1990s might have been fulfilling a “diversity quota” for Papuans, like the often-criticized policy of affirmative action in America.
But if Indonesian media showed more Papuan women and their side of stories to the Indonesian public — not merely exploiting them for “exotic travel” features or political gains — then the two guys sitting next to me in the theater might have had different reactions to a horrific display of violence.
They would not get comedic enjoyment out of Patsey’s punishment because they would better understand her and the root of her discrimination. They would have shown more sympathy as any human should when witnessing another human being treated so terribly simply because of the color of her skin. ●