Warning: Visibility May Vary, or, Being White in Indonesia

“Miss, you see the people taking photo of us?”

I look away from the dance performance I had been watching at a Malang teen event, and, sure enough, see the flash of a camera, its dark,cold lens pointed quite obviously at the corner in which I tried to hide myself.

“You did not notice?” he asks, disbelievingly.

I didn’t.  I smile at my student and explain to him, “This happens all the time to me.  I don’t really notice anymore.”  He nods. Having grown up in a university city on Java, I’m not the first foreigner he’s met.  He understands.

And then I realize what I just said.

It’s true that I attract attention almost wherever I go, an experience I have never had before.  Cell phones are whipped out and pictures are less-than-surreptitiously snagged of me as I drink coffee, try to go for a peaceful stroll, wait at a stop light.  Children are pushed in my direction, hoping to elicit a smile from me, which their wide, curious eyes and tiny grins never fail to do, even as I know these innocents are merely part of a larger game.  I am pulled into group pictures with strangers, sometimes—no, most of the time—without anyone asking if it is okay, leaving me overwhelmed and unable to do more than look in the general direction of the nearest lens, praying to every god that has ever populated this archipelago
that it will all be over soon.[1]

There is a reason why this happens.  It’s a reason I cannot necessarily help, but one I cannot afford to ignore.

It’s because I’m white.

There is a word for what I am here.  Bule.  It is an Indonesian word that essentially means “Caucasian foreigner.”  This word is shouted on the streets as I pass by on my motorbike, whispered as I enter cafes and restaurants.  This word can be a source of amusement, and it can be a source of endless frustration.  This word is thrown around by many ETAs—including myself—to tease tourists in Indonesia, in a vain attempt to extract ourselves from its hold.  This word is the reason I wear a handkerchief and sunglasses underneath my helmet visor, covering up every inch of skin that I can—I tell people I do this to protect my eyes and my lungs, but that is only half my motivation.  This word is the one I use whenever I mess up something inherently Indonesian, referring to myself as “the silly bule,” much to the amusement of the teachers at my school.  This word is the reason I keep my head down whenever I walk anywhere alone.

But this word is so much more than my bewilderment at my sudden celebrity status or my lack of comfort as my personal bubble is unceremoniously ruptured.  This word, and my position within it, is heavy with a history of colonization, a complicated reaction to Western influence, and the ever omnipresent white dominance that stretches across the globe.

It is easy to get caught up in the discomfort of being a bule, and to find myself complaining endlessly to friends over skype about the people who reach out to touch my skin while I am walking or riding my motorbike, or the boys who shout “Mister!” Every. Single. Time. I walk into one of the local convenience stores, no matter how many times I’ve told them that I am Miss. It’s easy to become bitter about the way people react to me, to long for the anonymity I used to have on the street, drawing attention only from those who already know me as an individual.  Being a bule can be wearing, even in Malang where I attract considerably less attention than I might in places less frequently visited by foreigners. Ignoring people is the simplest response.  Ignoring people helps me maintain sanity.

But ignoring people is passive, and that is something I cannot allow myself to be.

When people shout “Bule!” it is not merely because I am different, but because I am a different they have been socialized to admire, to be completely and utterly fascinated by.  Shouts of bule are often accompanied by a heavily-accented “Beautiful!” or “Gorgeous!” even when I am disheveled and sweaty and far from any description of that sort.  These shouts stem from the same place as my students’ hatred of their “black”[2] skin.  What is an annoyance and mild frustration for me is an internalized oppression hard at work.

It’s not only about skin color.  Nothing is ever that simple.  The fact that I am clearly a Western woman also has something to do with the way I am treated, but even that is inherently tied to the color of my skin.  ETAs of color often do not receive the same treatment as white ETAs.  Hitam manis, or “sweet black,” is a phrase often used to “compliment” foreigners and Indonesians alike, because simply “cantik” (beautiful) cannot apply to those with dark skin[3].  ETAs of color are sometimes treated as though they are “lesser” Americans.  Sometimes people do not believe they are American at all. So no, being called bule, the treatment I receive, and the oppression it stems from, is not just about skin color.  But skin color has a lot to do with it, and to say anything else is to undermine the significance it has.

I am called out to in the same way a movie star might be, though my name will never appear on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  All this, because of the color of my skin.

I have benefitted from white privilege my entire life.  This not the first time I have struggled to find a way to contend with the special treatment I receive simply because I am light-skinned; it is merely the first time this treatment has been so very open.  I know I should not benefit in this way, and I know it is my responsibility to fight this systematic oppression where I can, even as my very existence possibly makes me part of the problem.

Those are nice words. It’s easier said than done.  I spent much of my time as an undergraduate education student trying to figure out how I, as a white individual, could help combat the inequality that people of color face, especially my students.  Various professors were instrumental in helping me to develop ways in which to fight oppression even from the position of the oppressor.  I spent my senior year volunteering in the after-school program of an African American Community Center, learning from the fabulous women who worked there how to help little girls believe that black is beautiful, smiling every time a kindergarten student tried to pile braids atop my head and told me that I had the “wrong kind of hair.”  I still haven’t figured out exactly what my role must be, but I know it must be an active one.

In the classroom, and in conversations with students after class, I can attempt to play this role. Earlier this semester, during a lesson on expressing hopes and wishes, as I circled about the room, checking for grammatical errors and helping students as best I could as the “walking dictionary” my students think I am, I saw the same idea over and over again: “I wish I had not black skin,” “I wish I could be white,” “I wish I were beautiful white.”  Most of these statements came from my female students, who already feel the pressure to be beautiful first, and the amazing young women they are second; but some of them also come from my male students.

I ask my students, “Why do you wish you were white?  Don’t you know you are beautiful?”  They shake their heads and tell me they are not.  I tell them it again and again, until it becomes something like a mantra: “You are beautiful. You are beautiful.  Youarebeautiful.”

I tell them white people in Western cultures often wish they had tan skin like theirs, and go to tanning salons and use chemicals to make their skin darker, in the same way that many people in Southeast Asia use creams filled with chemicals to make their skin lighter.  I tell them some of my friends at home feel they are “too pale.”  I tell them that all of this is silly and that people ought to see how gorgeous they are in the skin they were born to.  “You are
beautiful. You are beautiful.  Youarebeautiful.”

I know standards of beauty are so much more complicated than this.  I probably shouldn’t even be telling them about how women in the U.S. also destroy their bodies in the hope that they will be pretty.  And it’s not as simple as the old saying, “All the curly-haired girls want strait, and all the girls with straight hair want curly.” Although many white people in Western cultures want to be tan, they would never want to be black.  There is such a thing as too pale, and such a thing as too dark, but it’s still more advantageous to be pale and no one ever seems to be able to reach that middle ground wherein beauty apparently exists…

Sometimes I am able to talk about the complexities of beauty with my students, after class or during meetings for a speech competition that always begin focused and structured, but usually derail into opportunities for students to practice conversational English (i.e. chatting).  We talk about how all over the world white people are considered more beautiful, and should not be.  We talk about how people in Indonesia should see themselves as beautiful members of the world community.  We talk about how, within Indonesia, lighter skinned Indonesians should not discriminate against darker-skinned Indonesians, and how all Indonesians should be seen as beautiful.   We talk about how Americans who are not light-skinned, blond-haired, and blue-eyed are still Americans.  These conversations warm my heart, and give me hope in humanity.  Nothing I have to say on these topics will ever be as important as what these students have to say, as what they believe.

But these are conversations with only a select number of students.  In the middle of English class, the mere hour and a half we have each week to somehow cover everything dictated by the National Curriculum… sometimes there just isn’t the time or language level (both on my students part and my own) for those long, in depth conversations.  I try, but even if I cannot completely complicate their world view as it relates to beauty, I hope I can at least leave them with the message they most need to hear in that moment: “You are beautiful. You are beautiful. Youarebeautiful.”

Sometimes they listen. Later, as part of our review of the conditional form, my students help me to recreate the music video for Emma Blackery’s “Perfect,” a song that talks about the importance of loving yourself for who you are.  I ask each of them to write eight sentences: three practicing conditional, about things they wish they could change about themselves, and five as statements, “about what makes [them] AWESOME.”  This time, some of them write about their skin as a positive:  “I have black skin and I am beautiful.”  Usually, this is not the sentence they choose to include in the video, but it is there, in their notebooks.  I only hope it is in their hearts as well.

It’s harder to create change on the street.  Most of my students speak enough English that I can at least have surface-level conversations on the subject, but many of the people living around my school know little more than few words in English.  And often events that remind me of my bule status happen on my way to school, or on my way back to the dorm for a meeting with students.  My kids are first priority: I don’t have time to stop.

I want to.  I want to find a way to communicate to people as I whiz by on my motorbike that I am not more beautiful or in any way a better example of a human being because I am white.  But I don’t know how.  And so I often ignore that it is happening, because I find my inability to change the situation too frustrating, too disheartening.

But by ignoring it, by letting it happen sometimes without even noticing, I become an even greater part of the problem.  It’s true that I need to learn that I sometimes cannot say nor do anything in that moment to change people’s mindsets.  I cannot have an in-depth conversation with everyone I meet about the politics of beauty and skin color.  Indeed, to claim it is my job to do so implies an arrogance on my part that I cannot allow.  But I have to remain aware, so that my response to the situation is never one of mere acceptance.

Almost a month after my realization at the teen event, I still catch myself sometimes ignoring the shouts, the cameras, and the stares.  I still catch myself trying to wish away the color of my skin and my visibility.  But more and more, I find that, even if most of my more serious conversations remain at school, I am now more able to respond to the attention I receive, at least in little ways.  I’m not sure that these fleeting responses will create any real change, but I can try.

I’m a pasar (market), and as I bumper-car my way through the crowd I catch a little girl nearby staring at me, wide-eyed and fascinated. She pulls at her mother’s skirt, and points to me: “Orang putih.” (“White person.”)

Her mother looks at me, nods at her daughter, and continues bargaining.   The little girl turns toward me again and whispers, almost inaudibly, “Cantik.” (“Beautiful.”)

I look down at her, give her my biggest smile, and hope that someday, when she is a young woman in this world, she remembers what I tell her:  “Ma kasih, adik.  Kamu juga.” (“Thank you, little sister.  You are too.”)

[1] I do want to make it clear that this does not happen every time I leave my home, and sometimes people—especially school children—do approach me with the intent of practicing their English with a native speaker, not just of getting a photo with the white girl.  (They invariably ask for a photo as well, but these are photos in which I am okay with participating.)  I don’t spend all of my time in Indonesia fighting off photographs and unwanted attention.  Just more of it than I would like to.

[2] Any dark skin is described as hitam, or black, in Indonesian.  There seems to be no word for what Westerners might call “tan.” This is more than a lingual phenomenon, and expresses so much about what Indonesians think of skin color.

[3] Hitam manis and the treatment of foreigners and Indonesians with darker skin deserve far more attention than I have given it here.  I only have my own experience, and can in no way claim to fully understand what it is like to be a person of color living in Indonesia. Last year an ETA named Nina wrote an amazing piece entitled “Blacksweet: Grappling with Skin Color in Indonesia,” on standards of beauty in Indonesia and her experience.  I hope you will read it.


3 thoughts on “Warning: Visibility May Vary, or, Being White in Indonesia

  1. Pingback: Taking It All In, from a Different Angle: The Road to Becoming RC | All for the Love of Wandering

  2. Pingback: “F#$% you, Mister, I love you!”: My Experience with Street Harassment in Indonesia | All for the Love of Wandering

  3. Pingback: A Long, Complicated List of Love: 100 Things I Absolutely Adore and 100 Things that Endlessly Frustrate Me About Indonesia | All for the Love of Wandering

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