Friday, July 13, 2007

L'Oreal, you're not worth it

L'Oreal has been recently found guilty of racial discrimination in a promotional campaign for their new Fructus Style line of women's shampoo. Hmm, what kind of style? According to a fax bearing the details of recruitment, it appears to be BBR-style. Or "bleu, blanc, rouge," representing the colours of the French flag, as used by the far right and among L'Oreal employers as a code for white French people. This means that women of colour, including women of mixed race, were not desired among the possible applicants for the job position of product demonstrator, and rather explicitly, because they weren't "French enough."

Article: "Because you're worth it," only if you're white.

According to Samuel Thomas of the SOS Racisme, a French campaign group victorious in holding L'Oreal accountable for its blatant racism, discrimination based on race was committed on the belief that it would be in the financial interest of the corporation. Because clearly, women of colour don't wash their hair with shampoo. We just grow it by the millimeter and wax it off the instant it gets too dirty, I suppose, and spend our money on other things, like wax.

To play the devil's advocate for a moment-- and you'll see me doing it a lot, as there's nothing more satisfying than watching racist logic march a precious brand into a twitching PR nightmare-- I'd say that the promotion may have been planned to succeed through the marketing of exclusivity. The case made it into the news, but how exactly is it anything new?

Corporations spend millions of dollars to pack heavily Photoshopped images of thin white female bodies into glossy magazines and post them on billboards overlooking congested freeways. It seems like hiring an all-white marketing team of living bodies would merely represent the next logical step. Heck, even a step back, since they're actual people, flaws and all. Why, those "overreacting" race activists must aspire to nothing more than to become professional eyeroll recipients.

The faces of advertising are so white, so normalized, to the point that putting too many women of colour on the billboards may convey a marketing message something similar to what Dove was trying to pull with its campaign for Real Beauty: We're revolutionary. We represent a challenge to established norms by including women in our ads that do not conform to rigid beauty standards. In this battle for consumer attention in the white supremist patriarchal context, a woman can be a signifier of revolution by simply being of colour. And by this, I mean a woman of colour presented in a way that does not heavily rely on racial stereotyping, an ad that doesn't dwell on her otherness or some other "ethnic theme."

Obviously L'Oreal doesn't want to go that way. It's going the opposite way with its own message. This campaign, left to run its mouth on its consumer base, would have reinforced rigid standards of beauty that not only include age and body size, as the fax demonstrates, but ethnicity as well. In the most concise terms, strengthening a brand involves targeting a group and making its members feel special. You have to protect your promotional investment by obsessively eliminating any superfluous element that may dilute your message in the game of focused and deliberate exclusion. And L'Oreal was definitely deliberate.

Christine Cassan, a former employee at Districom, a communications firm acting for Garnier, told the court her clients demanded white hostesses. She said that when she had gone ahead and presented candidates "of colour" a superior in her own company had said she had "had enough of Christine and her Arabs".

One woman working in the recruitment firm involved said foreign-sounding names or photos showing a candidate was of Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian or other African origin would ensure candidates were eliminated. Another said: "I once had a good woman candidate but she was non-white. I had to ask someone to pretend that our list was full. It was hard."

It seems that if women of colour are to ever be courted by a L'Oreal promotion, it would be with a subtly different tone. After all, who among their new recruits for the Fructus Style line would need something like this?

Here we see by the product description who they're really targeting in the selling of this tongue-twister of a snake oil potion. In one breath, you can associate "white" with "perfect" in the context of altering skin colour for aesthetic purposes with the frantic urgency of anything performed with triple action. It sounds splendidly unhealthy and neurotic at the same time.

Following years of research on Asian skin, L'Oreal Skincare Laboratories invent a new advanced triple action technology that acts at each step of the skin darkening process, for a perfect whitening efficiency. New Melanin-block acts to regulate the production of melanin, the main source of skin darkening and brown spots. Powerful whitening ingredient, its efficiency has been proven scientifically: up to 53% melanin production.

Results: After just one application, your skin is soft and supple, and feels comfortable all day long. Day after day, skin recovers its natural qualities: your skin is visibly fairer, more luminous, transparent and even toned. It is smoother and younger looking.

There's a funny disconnection between the way this product is presented and the L'Oreal slogan, Because you're worth it. Could you imagine someone slipping this into your hands at the shopping mall, polished to the teeth and exuding the same buddy-buddy-best-friend-check-out-my-Biore-strip glow hemorraging from most women's magazines in the West in hopes you'd fix your face for them "because you're worth it"?

Oh sure, says the devil's advocate again. I've had perfume and lotion samples pushed my way now and then. Perfumes and lotions both perform toward improving my physical feminine presence in some way, even if on a mostly illusionary and subjective basis.

But admittedly, what I did ignore right there was the fact they included my race in the manufactured siren's call for the whitening cream. They didn't say it outright though, that it was just for me. But just enough to get the point across that they experimented on people with the same skin as me. I guess I'm supposed to be convinced, then, that it works, and that it works for me as well as other members of my ethnic group. You know, unlike many other products created for Caucasian people: pink-based foundations that look garish on me, hair dye that doesn't penetrate, styling products too weak for thick hair, and so forth. To target a marginalized segment in a Western country where most products are positioned in that Euro-centric space, this communication form is very necessary, and it keeps people from thinking too much about it if it's subtle.

Post-colonial attitudes also complicate matters when coupled with the traditional East Asian elitist belief that paler skin is more beautiful than darker skin. The white supremist view that all people of East Asian descent want to become white can be countered with the stereotypical view that all Asians associate white skin with nobility and dark skin with labourers working under the scorching sun over generations.

They seem to disagree on one thing. But they agree on another. Opposing, yet cooperating. Accepting of the same sort-of truths, only framing them differently. The Asian Americans with their own individual opinions, those that have turned their backs on some traditional beliefs much in the same way some Western white people turned their backs on their some of their own-- don't exist in such a debate.

I'm not supposed to be offended when I come across implicit suggestions of self-hatred in conversations about Asian Americans getting dye jobs-- for whatever reason, whether it be really to express a personal style or for sheer experimental pleasure. When Asian Americans slather on the sunscreen to ward off skin cancer in our golden years, there's an extra box to tick on the list of motives that don't exist for white people doing the same thing. I'm supposed to instinctively just know why some Asian pop stars in Asia line up at plastic surgery clinics to enlarge their eyes and be able to provide self-humbling, indirectly flattering answers when asked by white people, the sort of response that goes directly against the grain of my personality.

So when retailers stock whitening creams at eye level, my eye level, I'm roundly expected to either take it or leave it. Love it or hate it. As long as I don't dwell on it, or even casually state my observations, against the quiet exchange of racism for dollars. I'm not meant to question why L'Oreal will target Asian women with its whitening cream and go to such scandalous lengths to whitewash a shampoo line, mere hair detergent, that all women of all colours can technically use.

Because, as we've all heard, there's a politicallyspunmanufacturedframedlimitingdehumanizing truth behind every stereotype, and it'd be awfully silly to dispute something so subjectively obvious. I would be self-selecting myself to become an object of suspicion, a trouble-maker belonging in neither camp speaking against a sacred consensus that has been formed between the fashion police of Western magazines and the disapproving frowns of my paper parasol-wielding ancestors.

So if I accept this and go back to the slogan, I believe it could work, just in a different manner. Only after buying the triple-action whitening blah-blah-blah product and becoming "perfect" would the consumer then be "worth it," whereas the Fructus Style line campaign, fronted by women that physically represent their target audience, communicates that consumers are worth it as they are. They should spend money on themselves and buy the product because it suits them. Not because they need the product in order to raise their worth on par with the brand. That's for the segment on the sales manager's chart labeled Other.

Now I come to the fun part, which is great, really, because this devil's advocate role in particular is starting to cramp my style. If L'Oreal really wants to hit it big with Generation Y, a third of which belong to ethnic groups other than Caucasian, they're really going to have to innovate on their old tired marketing pitches.

You, L'Oreal, after after my money. Not that of my UV-deflecting umbrella-toting ancestors if they ever did tote a UV-deflecting umbrella.

You heard that. In the new on-demand advertising era, we're in control here. We're leaving the television in favour of the Internet and the comfort of our own surfing decisions. Your advertising sucks. Your marketing sucks. Heck, I've returned from traveling around the world forging my own adventures and experiences through a kaleidescope of economic and social change to recognize the same tired commercials and the same boring jingles gusting from the television downstairs, from over a year ago, when my parents, the older generation, turn it on just before they pop in a DVD. L'Oreal, you make me laugh. And if you've done your homework on marketing whatsoever, this shouldn't be new at all.

Your target audience is educated, more politically conscious than older generations, and not afraid to make our mark. We're not going to fall for your beauty tricks any longer. Remember Paula Begoun, webmistress of and author of Don't Go to the Cosmetic Counter Without Me? The beauty industry went ballistic when she first entered the scene a few years ago. You lost so much money.

It's only a matter of time before more women see through the illusions of the beauty industry and learn what scientifically works and doesn't work in skincare. And because there are so many dizzying products and types of products to choose from, the majority of your customers aren't going to be wielding that thick brick of a book when they go shopping. They're going to rely on word of mouth. And when a product is chosen, dubbed the Holy Grail product in beauty discussion circles since it's hard to find a good one in an ocean of crap, consumers tend to stick with it and go deaf to jingles trying to lure them away. They're boring. The product works. And there's no reason to fix it. There's no reason to listen. Especially if the message is offensive. Yes, we're not afraid to say we find that offensive. And if you're going to run around like a chicken without its head in a make-believe bubble where all Asian women are trying desperately hard to become like white women, your competition is going to eat you for breakfast.

It's time the public relations field questioned the kneejerk assumption that race activists nitpick at advertisements individually. Usually this only arises from debates in which the activists are forced to undergo the tedious process of educating people on their racism, and it backfires by making the educators seem myopic in association. The truth is, nobody stops at just the ads. PR covers everything from the company's hiring practices to the nature of its communications. Advertising is dead. PR matters. Deal with it. We've got the money, and as a generation that has witnessed the Boomers throw theirs around irresponsibility, we're quite willing to keep it.

That was fun.

P.S. Now part of the L'Oreal family:

The Body Shop
Ralph Lauren
Shu Uemura

And probably more, so heads up. It's a shame about the Body Shop. Way to destroy a formerly socially conscious brand by getting the dirty racist conglomerate mitts all over it.

One more thing. Take a peek into L'Oreal's racist past. Hat tip to Progressive Gold's blog and the entry Because You're Not Worth It.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

One's hobbies should not be under fire is by far my favourite forum for APIA issues. The participants have always impressed me with their media vigilance. The place thrives due to a conscientiousness towards staying on topic without sacrificing the intellectual meanderings that come with the occasional tangent. Threads are split, merged, and moved with a grace that doesn't obstruct the flow of conversation. I only get confused at times because it's big, or at least casts the illusion of being big, and sometimes I forget to check to see if someone's replied to what I said two weeks ago in a thread buried underneath all the bumping around that's happened since then. So I generally stick to a few threads for a while before moving on.

In a choice corner recently, there's been a turn in the discussion on whitewashing around the idea that one's choice of hobbies should not be racialized. Just so that it doesn't appear like I'm paraphrasing an independent individual and then later putting words into her mouth (this is actually me), I'm going to quote myself from the thread:

There will be activities every now and then that people of colour have been doing, then white hipsters will 'discover' it. Suddenly it's considered cool because it's all about them.

And I'll add: I think hobbies should be treated as completely race-neutral in conversations about whitewashing. Identifying Asians as being whitewashed based on their hobbies is not only unreliable and counterproductive to APIA interests, but it legitimizes appropriation and implies an acceptance of white leadership in the process of defining what's cool. It doesn't have to be that way. At all.

By no way is referring to hobbies as 'race-neutral' meant to deny a hobby its origins, especially if said origins came from a marginalized group that struggled through and continues to struggle through attacks on their culture through forced assimilation or genocide. That would be disrespectful, and there's no need to help along the destructive effects of cultural appropriation. Instead I'm pointing out the logical folly in the branding of fellow Asian Americans with the label "whitewashed" on the basis of a hobby that wasn't even all that white to begin with but one that had been appropriated. And even if the hobby was all that white to begin with, one's participation does not denote one's political alignment.

At the same time, I acknowledge that there will always be exceptions. After all, wouldn't Amy Tan consider creative writing her hobby? But as far as most physical activities go, I can hardly see the cause for excitement.

I also realize that some people may measure whitewashedness based on not what an Asian-American does but what he or she doesn't do. They may scrutinize the absence of certain hobbies, hobbies normally associated with recent Asian immigrants. Then it's no longer about how white you are but how you're anything but fresh-off-the-boat. Not being a recent Asian immigrant myself, I wouldn't know how to call something like that other than simply Really Fucking Annoying. That outlook ignores the existence of recent Asian immigrants that cannot or never wanted to adopt the sports of choice favoured among other 'model minorities.'


You Are An ENTP

The Visionary

You are charming, outgoing, friendly. You make a good first impression.
You possess good negotiating skills and can convince anyone of anything.
Happy to be the center of attention, you love to tell stories and show off.
You're very clever, but not disciplined enough to do well in structured environments.

In love, you see everything as a grand adventure. You enjoy taking risks for love.
And if things don't work out, you're usually not too much worse for the wear!

You would make a great entrepreneur, marketing executive, or actor.

At work, you need a lot of freedom to pursue your own path and vision.
How you see yourself: Analytical, creative, and peaceful

When other people don't get you, they see you as: Detached, wishy-washy, and superficial

The Myers Briggs personality indicator isn't for everyone. People seem to like it or hate it. Some view it as scientific. Others view it with the same suspicion they have toward astrological horoscopes because their results were wholly inaccurate, or they're one of those people who're lost through the cracks between each category. It's interesting. The dislike toward being put into a box seems almost universal. So why aren't we universally unboxed?

As someone who hasn't yet decided on a set career path, I see Myers Briggs testing as a tentative guide. Here are some of the things I noticed. The following is something that caught my eye as I surfed my way on the topic to an indicator on an American university's homepage:

All Thinking-type women swim upstream in society, and this can be especially problematic for ENTP women. When the ENTP's objectivity presents itself in an enthusiastic, witty, competitive, argumentative woman, she is not likely to endear herself to most men. The ENTP female frequently has a struggle with the traditional female "scripts" that call for a given behavior at a given time. It is the nature of all ENTPs to test the limits of any system or person, especially traditional ones.

Thanks for the warning.

What I noticed in the taking of Myers Briggs test is that I've scored both INTP and ENTP on different quizzes. Then I realized the significance of it. It depends largely on how the questions are posed. While an individual is in full control whether they are iNtuitive or Sensory, Thinking or Feeling, and Perceiving or Judging, he or she loses some degree of agency when it comes to interpersonal relationships, or how Introverted versus Extroverted is decided. The quiz, depending on how it phrases the questions, can decide that for you. There is a significant difference between your level of outgoingness and the ways in which other people react to you in a social situation.

For instance, I can answer a solid No to Are you shy? and definite Yes to Have people ever told you that you were shy?

I may be disinterested in smalltalk, or occupied at the moment, but I am definitely not shy. To decide you know the inner workings of someone you actually barely know, among all other alternatives, really requires a person to be quite presumptuous. And it obviously suggests too much emphasis on superficial appearances. This shouldn't be taken into account in a quiz, and in the real world, it shouldn't be the reason why you weren't promoted to a leadership position due to your race and sex. I am certainly not cautious and fearful simply because my genetic code of a southern Chinese ancestry decided my height was quite alright, thank you, at five-foot-oh.

Comparing the other traits listed for INTP and ENTP, I can say I've consistently found those listed under ENTP to be more accurate. The people I encounter in my life have associated introverted traits with me more than they have extroverted traits. Sheer irony lies in the fact that such assumptions could only come from people that don't know me all that well. Extroverts are actually distinguished from introverts by having a wide network of acquaintances and only a handful of people they consider close. Introverts are said to have fewer friends but to enjoy tighter bonds with the few they do have. So it's not that surprising that there would be separate repeating instances of people mislabeling me. Consider how the stereotypes surrounding Asian women could come into play too.

Of course, this was something I've realized independently. Comparing the results only strengthened this conviction. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize that something is amiss when people mistake you for someone else all the time. It's like, What gives? If you've lost your pet Harajuku in Gwen Stefani's cloning laboratory, get off your ass and find her. She's not here.

Now, being an ENTP, I'm not surprised I'm naturally skilled at identifying racism in people's reactions to my physical presence and rebelling against that form of racism among others. Knowing this makes me concerned for people of colour who can't read subtle hints in everyday exchanges, or those driven to internalize the racism instead of seeing passive-aggressive slights as what they are and deflecting them away. I am especially concerned when the whitewashed "accepted" definition of racism often proves to be oversimplified and of little use to people of colour trying to defend themselves on a micro level.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Hyphenated Canadian, awake!

It's about time I made myself a political blog.

Sure, I had an ordinary blog. You know, one of those semi-Friends-locked chain of ramblings created with the intention of sharing every detail of my sophomore life, complete with grainy cam pictures of new clothes from Pacific Mall to less-than-mainstream explorations in the sci-fi/Anime RPG universe. But then my blog became political on its own anyway.

When I was a kid, my mother used to joke that if I swallowed watermelon seeds in my haste to quench my thirst, it wouldn't be long before shoots begin to worm out the crown of my head and sprout a pert organism or two. I suppose it's the same with politics for me. I don't thirst for politics. I thirst for life. I'd rather be out backpacking abroad or playing co-ed volleyball than catching the next episode of Oppression Olympics between an exasperated race relations educator and a clueless n00b on the Internet. But when I witness patterns of globe-trotting expats acting irresponsibly to marginalized populations, or when male setters on the co-ed team go out of their collective way to set the ball all the way to the back row because they think I'm too female and too Asian to jump a few feet in my rotated net-rubbing spiking position, I come back to my blog-- and what do my Mssy fits inevitably yield? Politics. It's unavoidable. I step out the door, touch the world, and before I know it, the zerglings have incubated and hatched.

That's part of the backstory, at least.

What also really made this happen were the comments made toward this post, A Disincentive to the Female Voice Online by Jenn @ Reappropriate, as well, of course, as the post itself that started them. Sometimes all you need is a rallying cry. We really do need more women of colour bloggers, and blogs focusing exclusively on women of colour politics. As a member of a marginalized group, my voice simply doesn't leave as big an impact on someone else's forum floating in the great white ocean of cyberspace. Heck, if you've clicked through the Rants and Raves section of Craigslist, I'm sure you'd know what I'm talking about. If you've read comments left by posers pretending to be people of colour, you'd know what I'm talking about. If you've ever participated on a forum for months under the same screen name and still felt like your words evaporated after you've typed them, you'd know what I'm talking about. And if you felt that your views and the views of other marginalized groups lacked weight and density for some inexplicable reason until you wrapped them in a separate political blog, you'd know what I'm talking about.

So yes, I'm acting on the catalyst. I'm here, I'm listening, and this sort of writing certainly isn't new to me. It's time to consolidate my politically-related thoughts into this medium when they were previously scattered across APIA forums and appearing sporadically in all-too-ordinary blogs mostly about wet laundry and tenacious sardine thieves.

Let the dust unsettle.